ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) — New Mexico Attorney General Hector Balderas on Tuesday announced the creation of a new council dedicated to finding ways to include minority communities in decisions about access to natural resources and environment protections.
The Democrat said in an interview the state has abundant natural resources but that there have been missed opportunities to create prosperity for all residents and that communities of color have been typically been left out of the conversation.
Balderas said those communities rarely benefit from government policies and usually bear the brunt of negative effects on their health and safety.
Balderas cited forest-thinning regulations, saying Hispanic communities in northern New Mexico have been prevented from playing a bigger role in caring for the forests that their families have relied on for generations amid escalating threats of climate change and wildfires.
He also pointed to hunting and fishing rules that don't take into consideration communities' traditional ties to the land as well as the challenges of balancing oil and gas development with cultural and environmental preservation.
Balderas, who is midway through his second term as the state's top prosecutor, said he is not picking sides with rural residents or any political party.
“I want to be clear that I’m going to try to bring people on the left and the right together and depoliticize the process because I think both sides are fighting for turf and at the same time are alienating the real communities that have a real stake in these challenges,” Balderas told The Associated Press.
The Equity Advisory Council includes three Democratic state lawmakers and advocates who work on water, land and livestock issues. Balderas is open to adding more members, saying the goal is to have more diverse perspectives.
The council's first meeting is expected in the coming weeks. But no schedule has been set.
The agenda will be expansive because New Mexico has had a number of environmental justice cases in recent years — from discriminatory zoning policies in Albuquerque that have led to industrial pollution in minority neighborhoods to contamination of Native American lands from past uranium mining.
Council members will look for opportunities where they can make a difference, especially where conservation and economic empowerment intersect. Officials said the council's work will include reviewing existing state and federal policies and procedures and making recommendations to the attorney general's office.
“Within that framework, you can identify solutions that maybe haven’t been explored in the past because the conversation has been so focused on Republican versus Democrat or left versus right and at the same time excluding these communities of color from the dialog,” Balderas said.
He added: “We’re hoping to bring real leverage and accountability. Government sometimes doesn’t even know when it's indirectly discriminating or has an institutional bias over some of these uses of natural resources."
Paula Garcia, executive director of the New Mexico Acequia Association, is among the council members. She has worked for years to protect the traditional irrigation systems called acequias that have sustained crops and villages throughout New Mexico for centuries.
Social justice issues in rural communities have been shaped by New Mexico's history of land loss among indigenous and Hispanic populations as well as their diminished access to resources over time, Garcia said.
While progress has been made with federal land managers to maintain access to traditional irrigation structures on public lands, Garcia said a new challenge involves a policy change that cuts off eligibility to acequias for crop insurance.
She said the new council could be a vehicle for exploring the rationale behind that decision and advocating for reconsideration.
“That’s something that we don’t get often enough in government at all levels, which is to look at public policy on natural resources from an equity lens,” she said.