Proponents of the proposed potato-processing venture at Navajo Agricultural Products Industries (NAPI) are still waiting for the green light from the Navajo Nation Council.
Despite fears that R.D. Offut will tire of waiting—the letter of intent between this Fargo, North Dakota, corporation and the Navajo Nation was signed in l995—the $10 million appropriation, approved in 1998, has yet to launch the venture.
The appropriation has been reallocated in 1999 and 2000, and on February 26. the Council has once again reappropriated the $10 million to NAPI—to pay short-term debts and to initiate the 2001 crop season. The vote, 52 in favor, 11 opposed, and one abstention, approved a plan to allow NAPI to pay approximately $5.7 million in trade debt with the remaining $4.3 million for operating costs
In a press release issued by the Legislative Branch, Edward T. Begay, Speaker of the Navajo Nation Council, allowed that the NAPI situation was not only a NAPI problem, but also a Navajo Nation problem. He also indicated that additional funding for the Navajo Indian Irrigation Project (NIIP) depends on the success of NAPI.
“Senator Pete Domenici (R-N.M.) has stated that NAPI needs to be improved in order to see additional funds for NIIP. We have to make every effort to address his concerns and ensure the Navajo people have a viable enterprise “
And to be sure, NAPI’s track record has been less than desired. The 4-year-old venture has consistently closed each fiscal year in the red. Nonetheless, the agricultural project continues to produce employment opportunities, crops bearing the Navajo label, and to survive false allegations such as the recent report of “poisoned” potatoes being sold.
The rumor, fueled by the spot-treatment of pesticides used to control the vigorously invasive Canadian thistle, was proven false through testing conducted by the EPA. Nonetheless, none of the potatoes in question ever went to market. The treated fields remain idle for 18 months after application as the major side effect of the product used is a reduced crop.
There are more than just additional jobs and revenues for the Nation at stake. If the agricultural industry fails, at least 400 employees, mostly Navajo, will be left without jobs.
Perhaps more importantly, as pointed out by Begay, the Navajo Nation will lose a major claim to its water rights to the San Juan River and funding for NIIP
Because of attention to the potato processing plant, when one hears NAPI there is a tendency to think of potatoes. The agricultural project produces other foods such as pumpkins. During the last harvest season, 1,970 seasonal employees handpicked more than 20 million pounds of pumpkins, which were shipped to 35 states. Navajo would also miss this type of additional employment opportunity.
In an earlier press release from the Office of the President, Kelsey Begaye allowed the importance of the potato processing plant to the Navajo Nation, but stated that careful consideration was required before reallocating the $10 million appropriation as well as an additional $20 million for the processing plant itself. Begaye indicated that the Nation would need assurance that the plant would indeed show a profit.
There are other concerns. Winona LaDuke, who has been a Native American candidate for the vice presidency with the Green Party, has researched R.D Offut, which operates a potato processing plant on the White Earth Reservation. She is urging the Navajo Nation to approach the project with caution. Through the right blend of fertilizers and chemicals, she says that R.D.Offutt has been able to produce potatoes in less-than-admirable soil. But it is the effect of these chemicals on human and environmental health that concerns her. She points out problems including cancers, contaminated water, and deformed frogs, which she and others believe come as a result of the pesticides used in the potato fields. Results of research on the northwestern Minnesota potato venture can be found at firstname.lastname@example.org
Other considerations include whether to waive tribal sovereignty for the venture, exemption to NAPI from taxes when the surrounding chapters become certified under the Local Governance Act, and a waiver of charges to NAPI for its water usage.
In the most recent press release from the Legislative Branch, Delegate George Arthur who serves as chair of the NAPI Board of Directors, listed objectives that must be met in order for NAPI to operate efficiently and profitably.
These include operating as a business versus a government agency, being consistently profitable, being structured in such a way that risk is limited and debt does not accumulate, being flexible enough to accommodate changes in markets, technology and the needs of the Navajo people, and ensuring that membership of the Board of Directors consists of qualified individuals from the agribusiness, financial accounting and farm management sectors.
Other Council business on the 26th included the appropriation of $2.2 million from the unreserved, undesignated fund to address emergency matters arising from inclement weather. Each of the 110 chapters will receive $10,000 with the remaining amount divided proportionately according to the number of registered voters in each chapter This action brought the undesignated reserve balance from $3.6 million to $1.4 million.