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Standing with indigenous communities fighting to preserve their way of life

Earlier this year I was lucky enough to experience firsthand the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in northeast Alaska, and this past week Sens. Michael Bennet (D-Colo.) and Ed Markey (D-Mass.) took a bold step to protect one of our nation’s most iconic places by introducing legislation that would designate the Coastal Plain of the Arctic Refuge as Wilderness. In doing so, both senators acknowledged an important reality: that we all have a responsibility to preserve wild places like the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, for the indigenous communities that live there and for future generations to enjoy.

As the president of GreenLatinos, I have seen the Latino population in the U.S. grow in its advocacy for protecting the health of our planet and our communities. Latinos are one of the nation’s fastest growing populations and our historical and cultural ties to protecting and defending what we call “nuestra madre tierra” can be traced back for centuries. Land, water and wildlife have sustained our people and our culture, and with that relationship comes the awareness that we must now preserve them for our children and grandchildren. We have seen this across the country as Latinos worked together to protect places like the San Gabriel Mountains National Monument, the Browns Canyon National Monument and the newly designated Boulder-White Cloud wilderness areas. And that is why I can see so many parallels between our struggles and the struggle of the Gwich’in of Alaska to protect a place that is sacred to their people – the Arctic Refuge – from oil and gas development.

{mosads}We believe it is our role to preserve our Mother Earth. For the Gwich’in people, it is very much the same when you mention the Arctic Refuge. They refer to the Coastal Plain of the Refuge as “Iizhik Gwats’an Gwandaii Goodlit” or “the sacred place where life begins.” This piece of the Refuge acts as the birthing and nursing grounds for the migratory Porcupine Caribou Herd. The caribou in turn are the foundation for the social, economic and spiritual fabric of the lives of the Gwich’in people. I see the struggle of the Gwich’in to protect the Arctic Refuge and I realize why the Latino community should stand with them and other indigenous communities who are fighting to preserve their way of life. The Gwich’in people have sustained themselves through the Arctic Refuge region for generations; it is central to their history, and critical for their future.

As Gwich’in leader Sarah James once said, “Our whole way of life as a people is tied to the Porcupine caribou. It is in our language, and our songs and stories.” To allow drilling in the Arctic Refuge, and in particular on the Coastal Plain, would be disastrous to the caribou. And for the Gwich’in, a decline in caribou numbers or any major change in migration would be devastating to future generations.

As a group, Latinos in the United States are also being disproportionately affected by climate change and environmental pollution. Nearly 40 percent of Latinos live within 30 miles of a power plant and are confronted by the environmental impacts that come with them. Nearly 80 percent of Latinos can identify with experiencing the effects of climate change in some way, be it heat waves, intense storms or flooding. Gwich’in communities are feeling the impact of climate change as well. As they face the threat of drilling on lands sacred to them, they are also threatened as climate change impacts everything from the migration patterns of the Porcupine caribou to the number of salmon in their streams. Warming temperatures are causing the plants caribou rely on for food to become scarcer. And drilling in the Arctic Refuge would put wildlife in double jeopardy: first by invading pristine wildlife habitat to drill for oil, and then by putting those weakened ecosystems under additional climate stress as newly opened sources of fossil fuels are burned. 

In January of this year, President Obama and Interior Secretary Sally Jewell made protecting the Arctic Refuge a priority, releasing a new management plan that recommended Wilderness for the Refuge and its Coastal Plain. And in April the president made a formal recommendation to Congress that the area be set aside as Wilderness, which would provide lasting protection for this sacred place. Only Congress can actually designate Wilderness, but with Wilderness bills now introduced in both the House and the Senate, there is hope. Now is the time for Congress to follow through and protect the Arctic Refuge once and for all, for the indigenous communities who call it home and for our children, so one day they will be able to experience the wonder that is the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

Magaña is the founding president and CEO of GreenLatinos, a national coalition of Latino environmental, natural resources, and conservation leaders.  He was the first Latino to serve as senior staff at both the White House and in Congressional leadership – as special assistant to President Clinton for Legislative Affairs and senior policy adviser to the House Democratic Caucus Vice Chair Robert Menendez (D-N.J.).

Tags Ed Markey Michael Bennet Robert Menendez Sally Jewell

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