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Native Activists Are Forging a Just Transition to Renewable Energy

Activists are looking to the “original green new deal” – an economy based on Indigenous values and practices.

A solar microgrid on the Blue Lake Rancheria in California provided 75 percent of energy to the tribe's casino, hotel and government offices during a power shortage in October 2019.

Native activists and youth are shaping a clear vision for the transition necessary to guide us toward an environmentally just future — and there are more of them coming. Nationally, the Sunrise Movement and Indigenous environmental justice groups are overtaking entrenched political power with a breath of fresh air. Democrats are even talking about it. The Green New Deal policy is in Congress, but underlying it is the broader need for a just transition strategy — a plan that supports workers in securing fair and meaningful jobs as deep structural changes are made to the way humans relate to the environment.

Transition is inevitable, but justice is not. That’s the basics. “Just transition” is a framework for a fair shift to an economy that is ecologically sustainable, equitable and just for all.

Fairbanks is a place where just transition may well be on the horizon. Yes, Fairbanks, Alaska — the heart of that state’s military industrial-complex and the Prudhoe Bay oil fields. This is not Berkeley, California. But it is a multiracial town, largely because the military is more diverse than the Alaskan population itself. On the coldest day in a month in Fairbanks, a balmy -35 degrees Fahrenheit, the Indigenous social justice organization Native Movement gathered hundreds of Indigenous leaders with economists, planners, writers and visionaries to talk about the next economy, and has based their strategy on the traditional economy. After all, that was the original green new deal.

“Kohtr’elneyh” means “We Remember” in Benhto “Kenaga,” the lower Tanana Dene Athabascan language. The phrase refers to the Indigenous knowledge which guides the just transition. The idea of embedding that term, and acknowledging traditional knowledge as a guiding light in just transition work, came from Native Movement. For two days in January, visionaries came to talk about the future of their communities, from local food systems to renewable energy. There’s no time like the present, as climate change melts away the permafrost in Alaska.

“The just transition framework,” Enei Begaye of Native Movement reminds us, “upholds relationships that stem from time immemorial and must recognize it was not people who governed the land, but rather the land and the spiritual beings of the land prescribed relationships among humans and their relationships to the land…. We acknowledge the depth of Indigenous knowledge rooted in the long inhabitation of a particular place offers answers as we search for a more satisfying and sustainable way to live.”

Native Movement is challenging the holy grail of oil and the military, and it’s about time. Frontier thinking has brought Alaska into continuous cultural, economic and environmental crisis. With the discovery of the largest oil field in North America, Alaska was forced to legally deal with Native people, creating the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act (ANCSA) of 1971, which created the largest Native land claims settlement in United States history. It was implemented to provide the oil industry with access to Native lands. ANCSA was intended to resolve long-standing issues surrounding aboriginal people’s land claims in Alaska. It created a boom for the oil industry and destruction of Native lifestyle. Exploiting oil released millions of tons of carbon into the atmosphere. And that was not a good idea.

The Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act transformed Indigenous politics and opened a door for Alaska to create its frontier economy full on. Prudhoe Bay, or Sagavanirktok, is the jewel of Alaska’s oil exploitation. Spanning 200,000 acres, the field is estimated to contain about 25 billion barrels of oil. It’s booming, and the Trump administration hopes to boom right along into the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, where the Gwich’in and their allies have held off oil exploitation for a good 30 years. Trump’s plans amount to a big problem ecologically and in terms of the future of a people. After all, the Prudhoe Bay oil fields and the Trans-Alaska Pipeline system cause about 500 oil and toxic chemical spills annually on the North Slope, and the Arctic is melting. The Prudhoe Bay oil spill in 2006 leaked an estimated 27,000 gallons of oil.

For 30 years, Iizhik Gwats’an Gwandaii Goodlit or “The Sacred Place Where Life Begins” (the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to the south of Prudhoe Bay) has been threatened by big oil companies. It is home to the largest remaining herd of caribou on the continent. The Gwich’in people have relied on the Porcupine caribou herd for thousands of years, for food, and cultural and spiritual needs. The Porcupine caribou herd migrates to the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge’s coastal plain every year where pregnant caribou will give birth.

This area is also home to the military. After Hawaii, Alaska is the most militarized state in terms of the Pentagon’s economic impact. Seven hundred active and abandoned military sites account for at least 1,900 toxic hot spots. Five out of seven Superfund sites in the state are a result of military contamination. The 700 formerly used defense sites in Alaska tell a history of the Cold War and every war since. The military holds over 1.7 million acres of Alaska, and it’s not going anywhere soon.

Finally, take the largest new boondoggle mining project in Alaskan history, the proposed Pebble Mine, a huge gold-mining complex at the headwaters of Bristol Bay, the most productive salmon fishery in the U.S. After rejections by the Obama Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and huge citizen opposition, the Trump EPA may try and permit another project which should never happen.

Yet, in the face of Alaska’s colonial environmental violence, Native people are shining a light on the path ahead. Many Native villages have been least served by the fossil fuel industry and first world infrastructure, in spite of the fact that Native wealth and resources built Alaska. Now tribes are leapfrogging into the next economy. Take the Pribilof Islands. The Aleut villages “where the wind is born” lie 900-plus air miles from Anchorage. The price of electricity generation is between 22 cents and 58 cents per kilowatt hour. That makes for some expensive power in a cold location. Aleuts have a complex gift of wind — class seven wind, the highest rating, with some big turbulence of l50 mph wind speeds in a gust at times. Necessity is the mother of invention, and for the past two decades the Pribilof Islands have been working with wind power, putting up some small- and medium-scale turbines to meet local needs, or at least offset diesel.

In a time of climate change, Alaska is hurting. Climate impacts are amplified in the Arctic; and Kivalina, Shishmaref and a number of other villages are melting into the ocean. The polar bears are starving. The ice is not good, meaning that polar bears cannot catch seals because the ice does not form or does not support the weight of the bears. They need thick ice, which is not being created because of climate change. The rising sea level is flooding villages along the Alaska sea coast. In the village of Newtok, the ocean has risen so much that the sea is within inches of the front doors of their homes. Strong winds bring the waves over their door sills. The price tag for the relocation of Native villages that have been there for a thousand years is in the hundreds of millions. That’s killer. There’s no time like the present to make a plan.

The basic food of Alaska is found in the bush or the ocean. That’s in total disarray with climate change. As Alaskan villages grapple with more food insecurity than they have ever known, climate change brings the possibility of Arctic agriculture. Fairbanks has two additional weeks of above-freezing growing time now, and as Norway, Iceland and other Scandinavian countries move toward larger agriculture, Alaska will follow. In Fairbanks, the number of frost-free days has almost doubled since the 1900s, said Milan Shipka, director of the Agricultural and Forestry Experiment Station at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. “The ability to work the ground occurred at least two weeks earlier than what anyone would have expected,” he said.

Alaska has more than 750 farms working 830,000 acres of farmland. The industry contributed more than $48 million to the economy in 2014. More than that, those farms can grow food for villages, not just for money. And that is part of just transition. Native villages are looking to year-round greenhouses, heating from natural hot springs, and working with the endless light to grow for the future.

Alaska is only one place where Indigenous leaders are moving toward the next economy. At a June 2018, gathering at Albuquerque’s Larry Casuse Freedom Center, Indigenous leaders unveiled core principles of the Red Deal, asking: “Imagine if we had over a trillion dollars to invest in healthcare for everyone? To increase teachers’ pay so they can provide quality, free education to everyone? To repair roads and provide safe and accessible public transportation for everyone? To invest in large-scale language revitalization programs in every Indigenous nation on the continent?”

From Lakota territory, born of the successful work of the Thunder Valley Community Development is the national NDN Collective. It’s a powerhouse of leading young Indigenous economists, architects and leaders. They call on the larger movement to not only divest from fossil fuels, but also to create an economic strategy that will “achieve net-zero greenhouse gas emissions through a fair and just transition for all communities and workers.” Further, the collective holds that “any Green New Deal project or program that impacts our lands and people must have Indigenous leadership and occur in transparent, and collaborative partnership.”

Similarly, Alaska’s Native Movement argues for an Indigenous-led transition rooted in Indigenous ecological practices and social values associated with long-term stability.

“If the purpose of the Regenerative Economy is ecological restoration, community resilience and social equity, then resources must be acquired through regeneration,” Native Movement wrote in a conference handout. “We must build rather than deplete soil. We must engage forests and rivers in ways that provide for our needs, but at a scale and pace aligned with living systems. In other words, we must remember and return to land-based ways of knowing.”

The Department of Energy estimates that wind power from tribal lands could satisfy 32 percent of the total U.S. electricity demand. And solar production from Native lands could generate enough energy to power the country two times over. That’s the next economy.

The implications are immense, as is the potential. A post-fossil fuel economy is being born across the continent. The Standing Rock reservation brought on line the largest solar project in North Dakota; the Blue Lake Rancheria leads northern California in solar power and storage; White Earth reservation is manufacturing solar thermal panels (8th Fire Solar) to heat cold homes; and in the Navajo Nation, a historic powerhouse of coal generation, the Kayenta II Solar Project, will provide solar energy using the grid built for coal. The beginning is near, and it’s a green, restorative economy, based on Indigenous values and knowledge.

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