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UN anti-racial discrimination committee questions ANWR drilling decision

 FILE - In this undated photo provided by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, an airplane flies over caribou from the Porcupine Caribou Herd on the coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in northeast Alaska. The refuge takes up an area nearly the size of South Carolina in Alaska's northeast corner. (U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service via AP)
FILE - In this undated photo provided by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, an airplane flies over caribou from the Porcupine Caribou Herd on the coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in northeast Alaska. The refuge takes up an area nearly the size of South Carolina in Alaska's northeast corner. (U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service via AP) (KTUU)
Published: Sep. 8, 2020 at 8:02 PM AKDT
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ANCHORAGE, Alaska (KTUU) - A United Nations committee is questioning the way the U.S. Government issued a decision to advance oil and gas leases in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

Last month’s Record of Decision outlined the federal government’s plan to auction oil and gas leases in approximately 1.5 million acres of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. The lands are considered sacred by the Gwich’in people, who depend on the porcupine caribou herd, which calves in the Coastal Plain.

In August, the chair of the United Nations' Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination wrote to the U.S. representative at the U.N., Andrew Bremberg, requesting the United States look into a number of requests concerning drilling in ANWR, including measures taken to “guarantee the respect of the right to consultation and to free, prior and informed consent of the Gwich’in indigenous peoples,” and “effectively protect the sacred sites of indigenous peoples.”

The letter is dated Aug. 7, which is just over a week before the Department of the Interior released the record of decision on ANWR drilling. It came months after Bernadette Demientieff, executive director of the Gwich’in Steering Committee, spoke to U.N. representatives about the importance of the Coastal Plain. Demientieff says now that the government has indicated it intends to hold lease sales; the Gwich’in Steering Committee has sent another letter to the U.N. requesting more urgent assistance.

“We have to fight this on every level. State, congressional, corporate, legal. We went to the banks, and we started going to the United Nations,” Demientieff said. “At the United Nations, I met so many wonderful people there. And it breaks my heart to know that indigenous people all across this world, our rights are being violated. Our ways of life are not being respected, and the good thing is though that we’re united. There’s an uprising of indigenous peoples.”

In a prepared statement, a spokesperson for the Department of the Interior stated, “This is a clearly misinformed letter, as there is no mention of the native people who actually inhabit the Coastal Plain and live near the proposed development area. The Inupiat people of the Arctic and residents of the village of Kaktovik, the only village inside the refuge boundaries, support responsible development of the Coastal Plain.”

The statement added that “the input of native communities was received and valuable to the extensive development of this plan. There were more than 25 Government-to-Government and Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act (ANCSA) Corporation consultations conducted during this process, including meetings with the Gwich’in community and their leaders.”

The department did not respond to specific requests from Alaska’s News Source regarding how it specifically considered input from communities outside of ANWR’s Coastal Plain but dependent on the caribou that calve there, or to what extent the department met with Gwich’in people.

“We are up against a very dysfunctional and misleading government, but we are keeping up. We’re barely keeping up because I don’t think they know what they’re doing half the time. But we are also standing up against our own elected leadership here in Alaska,” Demientieff said.

After the DOI’s decision on opening ANWR to drilling, two separate lawsuits were filed to stop the sales from moving forward. One was filed on behalf of the Gwich’in Steering Committee and a number of mostly regional environmental groups. Another lawsuit was filed by the Natural Resources Defense Council, Earthjustice, Center for Biological Diversity and other national environmental groups.

Though many environmental activists seek to protect the refuge given its ecological importance, for Demientieff the fight is about protecting sacred ground.

“They like to say that environmental groups are running us or telling us what to do. The fact is, we have always held this place sacred,” Demientieff said. “We have always protected this area, way before there was a government, way before there were environmentalists, way before there were activists. We always protected this area. And we’re not going to stop.”

The letter from the UN committee and the DOI’s full comment can be read below.

“This is a clearly misinformed letter, as there is no mention of the native people who actually inhabit the Coastal Plain and live near the proposed development area. The Inupiat people of the Arctic and residents of the village of Kaktovik, the only village inside the refuge boundaries, support responsible development of the Coastal Plain. Development of these important energy resources will provide the Inupiat communities who live there with jobs and keep the lights on for future generations, providing opportunity and basic infrastructure such as schools, roads, stores, community centers, running water and basic sanitation systems.

The input of native communities was received and valuable to the extensive development of this plan. There were more than 25 Government-to-Government and Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act (ANCSA) Corporation consultations conducted during this process, including meetings with the Gwich’in community and their leaders.

Developing an oil and gas leasing program in the Coastal Plain of ANWR is congressionally mandated. The Department’s decision regarding where and when development can take place includes extensive protections for wildlife, including caribou and polar bears. One of these protections is the timing limitations encompassing the Porcupine Caribou Herd’s primary calving area, which suspend major construction activities for a month each year during the calving period.”

Office of the Secretary, U.S. Department of the Interior

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