Editor’s Note: Bernadette Demientieff is the Executive Director of the Gwich’in Steering Committee, which is dedicated to defending the coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. The views expressed here are solely the author’s. View more opinion articles on CNN.
The latest National Climate Assessment report, released earlier this month, makes it clear how dangerous climate change is for the people of Alaska. The report highlights impacts like record-high temperatures, reduced ice cover, and threats to wildlife.
Many of our Native communities already knew this, because we’re living that reality daily. Alaska is ground zero for climate change. My home state is warming twice as fast as the rest of the world. Already, hunters are at risk of falling through melting ice, and we have villages that are sinking into the ocean – our culture and way of life are literally being washed away. The Porcupine caribou herd migrates to the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge-Coastal Plain every year where they will give birth. Generations of my people, the Gwich’in, have sought to protect the Coastal Plain, so that all the animals that live and migrate to this area will have a safe place in our world. This area is known to the Gwich’in as “Iizhik Gwats’an Gwandaii Goodlit” (The Sacred Place Where Life Begins).
Unfortunately, instead of taking action to address this problem and to protect our communities, the Trump administration is rushing to make it even worse by opening up the coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge for drilling.
This place has been protected for generations. But toward the end of 2017, Congressional Republicans snuck a rider opening up the Arctic Refuge for drilling into the budget, and now the Trump administration is pushing to sell off the coastal plain to the oil and gas industry as fast as possible.
With climate change already threatening our communities, drilling in the Arctic Refuge is the last thing we need. If developed, the oil projected to be in the coastal plain would create the climate emissions equivalent to 898 coal plants or 776 million cars, adding to the problem of climate change when we should be moving in exactly the opposite direction.
Drilling in this sacred place would destroy my people’s food security and way of life. For centuries, the Porcupine caribou herd have followed the same migratory route and calved their young in the coastal plain. The Gwich’in people live a subsistence lifestyle, depending on the caribou for 80% of our diet. Already the caribou are falling ill to ticks due to warmer temperatures. Any more disruption of the herd could wipe them – and us – out. As our respected elder Jonathan Solomon would say: “What befalls the caribou; befalls the Gwich’in.”
Normally the process of studying the environmental impacts to make an informed decision about how to move forward would take years. But under President Trump and Interior Secretary Zinke, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) is hostile to our human rights and to the science itself on climate change. They hope to hold a lease sale in the coastal plain by 2019, and destructive seismic testing could begin soon. There is not enough ice or snow to prevent scarring of the land like that still visible from such testing in the 1980s and prevent degradation of permafrost – but that is not slowing them down.
The Gwich’in have lived in Alaska for thousands of years. Now climate change and the dangerous collaboration of the fossil-fuel industry and the Trump administration are threatening our food security, our traditions, our cultural heritage, and our very survival. All of these threats and the uncertainty that comes with them are hard to live with. I see how it is affecting my people – the stress, the worry, and the anger. We have outsiders coming into our homelands, making decisions about our future, and they are refusing to listen to us. The Bureau of Land Management has ignored our concerns, and hasn’t given us any indication that they respect our land, our animals, or our culture. All we are asking for is to keep our identity as Gwich’in.
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The Arctic Refuge is not just a piece of land with oil underneath. It’s the heart of my people and our food security. It’s our way of life, and our very survival depends on its protection. Our identity is not up for negotiation. This latest climate report makes it clearer than ever that we cannot sit idly by while our sacred land is sold to oil and gas companies. We must defend our home and fight back against the Trump administration’s dangerous Arctic drilling plans.