As far back as I can remember, my people have considered the coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge sacred. Known to the Gwich’in people as “Iizhik Gwats’an Gwandaii Goodlit / the sacred place where life begins,” I was always told that if it were ever disturbed, we would lose our identity, our culture and our way of life as Gwich’in.
For thousands of years, the Gwich’in people have relied on the Porcupine caribou herd that births its young in the coastal plain. Any disturbance of the coastal plain would threaten our food security and our survival.
But the Arctic Refuge and my people are facing an unprecedented threat. In late December 2017, the U.S. Congress passed a budget that, for the first time, opens the coastal plain to oil and gas development. Since then, the Trump administration has jumped at the chance to sell off this land to the fossil fuel industry for drilling, regardless of the cost to the Gwich’in and other Alaska tribes.
Donald Trump may have made up his mind to sell off the Arctic Refuge, but the fight to defend it is far from over. We are calling on oil companies and the banks that fund them to listen to the Gwich’in and the overwhelming majority of Americans and pledge not to invest in drilling in the Arctic Refuge, one of the world’s last unspoiled ecosystems.
The Gwich’in Nation is unanimous in its defense of the coastal plain, and we have been fighting this fight since it first came up 40 years ago. We are not alone in our fight. We’ve been joined by some of the world’s biggest investors, representing more than $2.5 trillion in assets, as well as more than 100 other environmental and indigenous groups.
Recently, these groups and investors sent letters to all the major oil companies and banks that could have interest in Arctic drilling and called on them to stand with the Gwich’in by not initiating any oil and gas development in the Arctic Refuge.
We know that the public is with us — more than two-thirds of the American people support keeping the Arctic Refuge protected — and any company or bank that invests in drilling there will face an enormous public backlash and damage to their reputation.
They would also face significant financial risk. As the world rapidly shifts toward clean energy sources, a speculative fossil fuel source like Arctic oil will likely become uneconomical. It would be both deeply unethical and unwise to permanently destroy lands vital to the culture and existence of the Gwich’in to pursue this high-risk gamble.
Now companies and banks can choose whether they want to stand with the Gwich’in, on the side of human rights and climate justice, or be publicly associated with trampling on human rights, destroying one of the world’s last remaining intact wild places, and contributing to the climate crisis.
It’s up to all of us to protect this sacred place for generations to come. Together, we are sending a message with a unified voice that we won’t stand for the destruction of the sacred place where life begins.
Bernadette Demientieff is the executive director of the Gwich’in Steering Committee.
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