ARCTIC VILLAGE, Alaska – The Gwich’in Steering Committee and representatives of communities of Alaska Native peoples from across the region laid their bodies on the tundra May 30 to form a giant “Message from the North” to the world, and especially to leaders at the Bonn Climate negotiations, which started June 1. The human aerial image, created with aerial artist John Quigley spelled out “SAVE THE ARCTIC” and featured people arranged into the shape of a caribou on the Arctic Village landscape.
The message was a call for permanent protection of the Arctic Refuge and urgent action to address climate change. Gathering in their homeland, in what is arguably one of the most central and charismatic landscapes in the climate change debate, the Gwich’in and their allies challenged leaders to follow science and not politics, and to push for strong carbon emissions targets.
The event was part of a weekend long “Celebration of Land and Life,” marking 20 years of holding a line in the sand, protecting the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge from oil drilling. Ironically though, the threat of rising temperatures and a global climate crisis has become another critical threat to the region, and though no drilling has occurred there, the area is seeing some of the most extreme impacts of climate change and global warming.
“The people of the north are among the first to be experiencing the devastation of climate change,” said Sarah James, spokeswoman for the Gwich’in Nation. “We are calling for permanent protection of the Arctic Refuge and to immediately address the impacts of climate change.”
“We must act to support the Gwich’in so that they don’t end up the human rights casualties of climate change,” Quigley said. “The Arctic Refuge and the people and animals who live here are the canaries in the coal mine of the climate crisis and it is critical that we act quickly to stem overall emissions worldwide to address the impacts of climate change and rising temperatures in their region. This is a call for people around the world to join in a visual declaration to urge leaders to immediately adopt a treaty that reduces greenhouse gas emissions and stabilizes the climate at a carbon dioxide level of 350 ppm (parts per million), and to help the Alaska Native peoples to protect their livelihoods, their way of life and the lands they call home.”
Plans are underway to deliver this “Message from the North” to the world leaders gathering in Bonn for a round of preparatory talks in the lead up to the heavily anticipated UN Climate Negotiations in Copenhagen in December.
The Gwich’in have joined in an unprecedented partnership with the “tck tck tck” campaign, which brings together an unprecedented alliance of faith groups, NGOs, trade unions and individuals at this crucial time to call for a new international treaty that will save the planet from the dangerous effects caused by climate change.
As world leaders prepare to strike a climate deal in Copenhagen in December, “tck tck tck” will harness the voices of the people to demand an ambitious, fair and binding new international agreement that reflects the latest science.
Drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge has been a major debate over the last 20 years. The Arctic Refuge has been described as part of America’s last great wilderness. The coastal plain of the refuge contains the most biological diversity of the entire circumpolar north. Birds from all 50 states and six continents migrate there for nesting and staging.
This area is the last portion of the North Slope of Alaska that is currently unavailable to oil and gas development. Gwich’in experts and caribou biologists have concluded that allowing drilling in the Arctic Refuge coastal plain will detrimentally impact the porcupine caribou herd. The caribou instinctually migrate up to 3,000 miles to the coastal plain safe from the predators in the foothills of the Brooks Range, where they can graze on highly nutritional vegetation and the ocean provides vital insect relief.
Protecting the calving and nursery grounds is a human rights issue for the people of the Gwich’in Nation, a right guaranteed by the International Covenant on Human Rights that states, “In no case may a people be deprived of their own means of subsistence.”