SAN FRANCISCO – As Congress and President Bush have debated whether to open the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil drilling, three indigenous spokespeople have devoted their days to ensuring the potential effects on the land, its wildlife and their people are not overlooked.
Jonathon Solomon, Sarah James and Norma Kassi are members of the Gwich’in nation and live north of the Arctic Circle in Alaska and Canada’s Yukon Territory. They have testified before Congress, negotiated agreements to protect wildlife, and traveled the world to raise awareness and support of their fight against plans to open the 1.5 million acre coastal plain of the Alaskan refuge.
Their work was rewarded Monday with the Goldman Environmental Prize, given annually to people around the world who strive to protect the environment by the San Francisco-based Goldman Environmental Foundation. The three winners will receive $125,000.
The refuge’s future concerns the Gwich’in because the coastal plain is the annual calving ground for the Porcupine caribou herd, which numbers more than 120,000.
While the tundra may seem a desolate place, it is home to the caribou and a variety of other wildlife, including peregrine falcons, musk-oxen, polar bears and millions of mosquitoes.
The Gwich’in, whose name means “caribou people,” hold the caribou sacred and rely on them for food and clothing. Their spiritual beliefs center on the deer • they call the plain where the caribou give birth “The Sacred Place Where Life Begins.”
The recognition was especially sweet for the three environmentalists after the Senate rejected an amendment Thursday in the president’s energy bill that would allow the drilling.
“Basically, this is another hurdle we’ve gone over,” Kassi said. “We foresee a lot more pressures for oil and gas from our lands.”
Sen. Frank Murkowski, R-Alaska, has said domestic oil production would cut the need to import oil from the Middle East, an argument backed by the energy industry and many politicians. Surveys in recent years show about 70 percent of Alaskans support drilling in the reserve. But the three critics say the nation’s leaders also must consider the welfare of local residents.
“They’re using development there as national security,” Kassi said. “Our national security is the caribou.”
Their work has drawn attention from all over the world to the 19.6-million-acre refuge. Some say, their activism has helped snag the proposal’s progress.
“I certainly think that it’s slowed it down,” said Lon Sonsalla, city administrator for Kaktovik, the only town within the coastal plain. “And it’s not that we exactly disagree with everything that they say.”
Sonsalla said the residents of Kaktovik do not want to see anything disturb the caribou either, but believe the drilling can proceed without any disturbance and provide jobs.
“We want to have a better future for our children and our grandchildren, and we don’t want to see the land or the caribou come to harm,” Sonsalla said. “We’ve seen what’s happening in Prudhoe Bay, and it hasn’t bothered them. We’ve kind of changed our opinions that these things can coincide.”
But the Gwich’in aren’t convinced, and believe most Americans feel the same.
“The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge is very sacred to our people,” Kassi said. “The American public has spoken through their senators to say that.”
Despite the various interests involved in the decision, James says people have been willing to listen to the message they bring from the indigenous people.
“We have to tell the truth, and it’s one people can relate with,” she said. “It goes beyond protecting the caribou and the Gwich’in way of life. It’s for their children.”
Solomon helped negotiate an agreement between the United States and Canada to protect the Porcupine caribou herd; James has traveled the world to draw attention to the cause; and Kassi has met with government officials, environmentalists and has organized conferences to urge people to oppose drilling.
The fight isn’t over. Before the Senate’s vote Thursday, the House approved ANWR development. Bush hasn’t indicated whether he will approve any energy plan that doesn’t include drilling approval.
Other winners include:
• from Africa: Fatima Jibrell, Somalia. Jibrell is working to prevent the massive logging of Somalia’s old-growth acacia trees to make charcoal and is speaking out against the overfishing by foreign fishermen of the Somali coast.
• from Asia: Pisit Charnsnoh, Thailand. Charnsnoh is an ecologist who has worked to restore and protect Thailand’s coast from the effects of heavy fishing and increased logging.
• from Europe: Jadwiga Lopata, Poland. Lopata is promoting Poland’s family farms with ecotourism in hopes of protecting open space and wildlife habitat.
• from Islands and Island Nations: Alexis Massol-Gonzalez, Puerto Rico. Massol-Gonzalez helped block mining in the mountains of central Puerto Rico and was able to have the area declared a mining forest preserve. It became Bosque del Pueblo and is a community-managed, government-owned preserve.
• from South and Central America: Jean La Rose, Guyana. La Rose has worked to stop mining upriver from the Mazaruni River, which has degraded the quality of the river, and to win the rights of indigenous people over the land that includes the river.