US Human Rights Network Blog

US Human Rights Network Blog



Earth Day Spotlight: Indigenous Peoples threatened by oil and gas drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge

Apr 19, 2019

This Earth Day, the US Human Rights Network highlights the ongoing struggles of Indigenous Peoples in Alaska to stop oil and gas drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR). ANWR is the largest protected wilderness in the United States, created under the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act of 1980.

The plain is home to the Porcupine Caribou, polar bear dens, nesting places for 135 species of migratory birds, and the musk oxen, wolves, white owls, and arctic foxes, along with other animal species. Because of its unique and lush ecosystem, the Gwich’in peoples call the area "Iizhik Gwatsan Gwandaii Goodlit," which translates to "The Sacred Place Where Life Begins."

Caribou and calf in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Photo taken by Peter Mather.

The Gwich’in and Inupiat peoples have subsided on the lands of the ANWR for tens of thousands of years, caring for and living off of the land and its animals. The word “Gwich’in” means “people of the land” — it refers to a people who have lived in the Arctic since before the political boundaries that now divide Alaska and Canada were drawn.

Drilling in the ANWR is a direct threat to the lives of Indigenous Peoples who rely on the wildlife and plants that reside in the refuge.The United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, in Article 19 on Free, Prior, and Informed Consent and Article 20, on subsistence, among others, affirms that the Gwich'in have the inherent right to continue their way of life. Their human rights are further recognized by Article 1 of both the International Covenant of Civil and Political Rights and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights which read in part: “…In no case may a people be deprived of their own means of subsistence.”

The Gwich’in peoples believe that oil and gas-related activities in the coastal plain of the ANWR would affect the reproductive potential and migration patterns of the Porcupine Caribou herd and, as a result, threaten their way of life. Gwich’in peoples rely on caribou for at least sixty percent of their sustenance. The Alaska Inter-Tribal Council (AI-TC), which represents 229 Native Alaskan tribes, officially opposes any development in the ANWR. Conservationists likewise oppose oil development in the ANWR, arguing that it would unnecessarily threaten the existence of the Porcupine Caribou by developing calving areas. Oil operations would also erode the ecosystems that support wildlife on the tundra of the Arctic plain.

After over 40 years of political controversy regarding whether to drill for oil in the ANWR, in 2017 the Republican-controlled House and Senate passed the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017 which included a provision that would open the 1002 area of the ANWR to oil and gas drilling. It was signed into law by Donald Trump on December 22, 2017.

The USHRN stands with Indigenous Peoples of Alaska in calling for the United States government to recognize the rights of the Gwich’in people to continue their way of life by prohibiting development of the ANWR.


Related links:

Report: Cumulative Environmental Effects of Oil and Gas Activities on Alaska’s North Slope, National Research Council, National Academy of Sciences (2003)

Action: The Wilderness Society: Tell Congress to restore protections for the Arctic Refuge.
The Arctic Cultural and Coastal Plain Protection Act (H.R. 1146) aims to restore protections that were repealed by the controversial 2017 tax law.

News: April 8, 2019 - High North News, “Misleading the public: Arctic National Wildlife Refuge debate flared up again”

Gwich’in Steering Committee: Protecting the Sacred Place Where Life Begins since 1988

Alaska Wilderness League