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A Moral Choice for the United States: The Human Rights Implications for the Gwich’in of Drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge
Executive Summary


The US Congress is again considering opening the Coastal Plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil and gas drilling.  The proposal threatens to violate the internationally recognized human rights to culture, subsistence, health, and religion of the Gwich’in people of northeastern Alaska and northwestern Canada.  Since time immemorial, the Gwich’in have relied physically, culturally and spiritually on the Porcupine Caribou Herd that calves each spring on the Coastal Plain.  The herd and its birthing and nursery grounds are so significant to the Gwich’in that they call the Coastal Plain Izhik Gwats’an Gwandaii Goodlit, “The Sacred Place Where All Life Begins.”

For the Gwich’in, a long-term decline in the herd’s population or a major change in its migration would be physically and culturally devastating.  For thousands of years, the Gwich’in have relied on the caribou as their primary food source, and despite the inroads of modern civilization, that remains true today.  The caribou are also deeply intertwined with Gwich’in culture – as Gwich’in leader Sarah James has said, “The Gwich’in are caribou people....  Our whole way of life as a people is tied to the Porcupine caribou.  It is in our language, and our songs and stories.”  Further reductions in the size of the herd could make it difficult or impossible for the Gwich’in to continue the connection they have maintained with the caribou for millennia. 

The Coastal Plain, and in particular the so-called “1002 area” that is the focus of the oil exploration and development proposal, is vital calving and post-calving habitat for the Porcupine Caribou Herd.  The area offers nutritious vegetation during a vulnerable part of the caribou’s life cycle, as well as protection from predators and shelter from harassing swarms of insects.  Researchers have shown that caribou calf survival rates drop significantly when the herd is unable to calve on the Coastal Plain; indeed, the drop in calf survival rates is enough to stop herd growth or, more importantly, to prevent the herd from recovering from the current 15-year decline in the herd’s population.
Research has shown that oil drilling activity in critical caribou calving habitat, such as the Coastal Plain, drives away female caribou and calves, diminishing calf survival rates.  For the Porcupine, displacement from the best calving grounds would be extremely damaging because there are no alternatives that provide the same essential protections, and the herd is already in a population decline.  The stress of opening their prime calving and post-calving grounds to oil exploration and development – particularly when added to the current stress on the herd brought on by global climate change – will very likely lead to a long-term decline in the herd. 

International law requires the United States to protect the fundamental human rights of Native groups like the Gwich’in to culture and religion, their own means of subsistence, and health.  International human rights tribunals have ruled that governments are obligated to prevent environmental harm that would undermine these rights.  For example, the United Nations’ Human Rights Committee held that a government violated indigenous people’s rights to culture and subsistence when it permitted oil and gas development that would destroy the people’s traditional hunting and trapping areas. 

Because of the impact of drilling on the Porcupine Caribou Herd, opening the Coastal Plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge would deal a serious blow to the ability of the Gwich’in to continue their subsistence culture that is reliant on the Porcupine Caribou Herd.  Loss of this culture would violate the internationally recognized human rights of the Gwich’in to their own means of subsistence, to culture, to health, and to religion. 

Click here for the full text of the report.

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