09 August 2013

Indigenous Peoples' Day

 
Chief Gary Harrison at the Matanuska Glacier, which has receded so quickly that grass has not had an opportunity to grow over the soil.
 
Today is the United Nations' Indigenous Peoples' Day.

Three weeks ago, I was sitting in a cabin in Chickaloon, Alaska, with its traditional Ahtna Athabascan chief, Gary Harrison. I had traveled there to ask him about whether Alaska's indigenous people – uniquely placed – have solutions to a climate that, in the Arctic, is changing more rapidly and dramatically than anywhere else in the world. 

The extreme weather changes are already creating the world's first "climate refugees," people left homeless when entire villages flood out or wash away.  Chief Gary, as he is called, says this is not surprising given how cavalier governments and corporations are about the world's environment.

"Look at the cumulative effect of all of these things going on," he says.  "Like the oil spills that they have out there that go basically unreported to the public, not only on these platforms but in the aging pipe systems that's crisscrossing the inlet, underneath the inlet and going to the old oil tank facility on the other side of the inlet to the now defunct refineries, and all of these leaky pipes... and you say that these things don't have a cumulative effect?"

Chickaloon is a remote and beautiful village, about a hundred miles from Anchorage. It is bounded by the Chickaloon River, which during the summer burbles merrily between homes and along the Glenn Highway. Salmon, moose, and bear are not just common sights, but essential food sources. The view of this part of Chickaloon is dominated by the majestic King Mountain, on which caribou, mountain goats, mink, and Dall sheep live and forage.
 
 
Most of the people here are Athabascan Natives, homesteaders, or both. Chief Gary Harrison grew up in Chickaloon and comes from a family of homesteaders. He speaks deliberately and passionately. His demeanor is quiet, even bookish. Yet what he says clearly communicates his passion for the land and his frustration at its abuses.

Harrison is fighting a proposed mine in Chickaloon. The majority of people in the village appear to oppose the mine, despite the promise of new jobs and infusions of cash and economic power similar to that which briefly made Chickaloon into an important stop on the Alaska Railroad. But Harrison says these are ephemeral benefits that come with a high cost.  First, he says, it will pollute at least three hundred drinking wells, which the company itself admits. And many of the people who lived there are horrified at the idea of building roads over and around the mountains, through King Mountain and Castle Mountain and the migration paths of the moose and sheep. 

"People who talk about 'clean coal,' that's an oxymoron," says Harrison, shaking his head. "There is no such thing as clean coal. And they say, 'well, it's cleaner than that.' Cleaner than what? Cleaner than coal from other places? Well, that's not saying much.

"And the fact of the matter is, they can try to clean it out of the air, it's still submitting CO2, and then they take the carbons, the sulfurs, and all of the other toxic waste that's in it, and they put it in the ground.... it then gets in the groundwater and it poisons entire cities."

Harrison is also fighting the same battle on a much larger front. He is, among other things, the representative of the Athabascan Nation to the United Nations and the Arctic Council.  Right now, mining is a major topic.

"At the Arctic Council, we're trying to make a treaty, or a binding agreement, on short-lived climate forcers, and one of the basic things in the short lived climate forcers is black carbon. Black carbon gets on the snow, it gets on the ice, and it melts it much faster every year than ever before."  He points to the Matanuska Glacier, which feeds the Chickaloon River, as an example of how quickly the climate is changing.  The glacier has been receding and melting so fast that it has left miles of black soil where ice once was, fertile soil that is so new that grass has not yet had a chance to grow in it.



Harrison says that as glaciers and sea ice crack and melt at an alarmingly rapid pace and the native flora and fauna die off, the only thing that can save the habitat now is traditional wisdom and ideologies, such as mutual respect, sharing resources, and looking out for the world instead of mere economic interests. The selfish people of the world made our world this way, he says, and it is up to the selfless ones to make things better.

23 comments: