ACTIVIST— Pavel Sulyandziga, an indigenous rights activist of the Udege tribe, visited Nome last week on behalf of Arctic-FROST.

Nome hosts sustainable Arctic development workshop

Members of the Arctic-FROST Steering Committee visited Nome early last week, hosting a workshop entitled “Sustainability that Works in the Arctic: Sharing Challenges and Experiences of Arctic Communities on the Path to Sustainable Development.” 

According to Andrey Petrov, one of the project’s leaders and a professor of geography and geospatial technology at the University of Northern Iowa, sustainable development improves human well-being and health, while preserving ecosystem structures and functions.  Indigenous community members from throughout the Arctic, including Canada, Russia and Alaska traveled to Nome for the workshop

In 2013, Petrov applied for a grant from the National Science Foundation to start the program, officially titled Arctic-FROST, an acronym for Arctic Frontiers of SusTainability: Resources, Societies, Environments and Development in the Changing North. “In recent decades Arctic communities [have] experienced dramatic economic, social and cultural transformations, as well as rapid environmental change,” Petrov wrote in an email to The Nome Nugget. The program examines why some communities thrive in the changing environment, while others struggle to survive. Vera Metcalf, Director of the Eskimo Walrus Commission, and an Arctic-FROST steering committee member, and Bob Metcalf, Director of the Northwest Campus, were instrumental in bringing the group to Nome.

It seems that areas rich in natural resources, such as the North Slope, are better able to adapt to the Western structure of government, said Mara Kimmel, a professor at the University of Alaska Anchorage. One hypothesis is that the governing bodies in regions rich in resources had discussions about what is best for their communities for a long time, so their governing systems are well-oiled. These regions also have more money at their disposal. “I don’t think that’s been systematically explored, that intersection between governance and economic development,” Kimmel said.  She added that the local regional corporations and tribal governments often clash in areas where there are really no resources to argue about.

Bob Metcalf said that traditional communities sometimes struggle to adapt to the Western governing system. Drawing on his experiences in Savoonga, Metcalf said that the village historically made decisions by consensus. The community had trouble selecting one person to be a decision-maker.  According to another participant, board members of corporations are often not fully competent in their positions. Since communities are uncomfortable with the Western system and unsure whom to elect, they vote for relatives and friends. The leaders of the corporation boards sometimes do not realize how to best capitalize on their resources, and do not bring new money into the region. “It’s not bringing in the money the way it could,” Petrov said.

Along with governance issues, another important topic at the workshop was education. “The main resource of the arctic is its people,” Petrov wrote in an email to the Nome Nugget, “Investment in people is key.” Kawerak’s Cindy Weiler said the school systems in rural Alaska are not up to par with those in the rest of the country.  For local people to earn college degrees, they often need to leave their region.  

According to Lakehead University professor Chris Southcott, indigenous people often have a stronger desire to stay in their regions than non-Native residents do. Arctic communities are interested in resource development when it is done in a way that maximizes local benefits, which is hard to ensure. He mentioned modern comprehensive treaties as being key in protecting indigenous Canadians. “You do see a big change in communities when these communities have some control over their future,” Southcott said. The treaties establish the Native peoples law-making and self-governance powers, and help the communities and traditional lifestyles survive.

The effects of climate change were also addressed.  It is hard for traditional communities to survive when climate change is altering seasonal patterns. Tatiana Vlasova with the Russian Academy of Sciences said there is a need for adaptive capacity building in the face of climate change, when subsistence opportunities are taken away.  Lakehead University professor Chris Southcott said economic development is one of most important aspects of adaptive capacity. Communities need money in order to change, and “Often communities say ‘we have all these social issues, but if we can get new money we can solve them ourselves. What we need is for you to tell us how to get the money.’”

However, the main focus remained on governance.  Diane Hirshberg, a University of Alaska Anchorage professor who moderated the panel, expressed her concern about the lack of control indigenous people often have at the federal level, where the fates of communities are often decided. Hirshberg’s comment was a follow-up to a presentation the day before by Varvara Korkina with UNI. Korkina spoke about corporate social responsibility in the Chukotka region. “I’m really struck by the governance concept as not being explored enough, and as being really critical in our Northern communities,” Hirshberg said.   She said there needs to be a way of identifying obstacles keeping local governments from succeeding, and a plan to overcome them, in order  “to translate the work that Arctic-FROST and other research organizations are doing… and convey that in a way that local governments can comprehend and then put into practice,” Hirshberg said.

Bering Straits Native Corporation’s Matt Ganley said there needs to be a way of preserving subsistence while maintaining an economy. “The reality is that there are two things out there here. One is the very western cash based economy that you need in the villages, and also the (subsistence) lifestyle. The opportunity lies in between,” Ganley said. White Mountain hunting guide Tom Gray said modern technology, such as the Internet, interferes with subsistence activities. But obligations, such as jobs, provide an even bigger challenge. Entire communities used to spend summers on the rivers setting fishnets and drying fish. Now, Gray said, only about five families spend summers on the river. “Money, to me, is just a tool. Subsistence, for me, that’s a bigger issue, I mean, that’s my life.”

Greenland has developed a novel approach to combining subsistence and commercial economies. Towns have employees who are designated subsistence hunters who can sell what they catch to people who want to continue to eat traditional foods, but need to work. “We don’t have regulations in this state that recognize this possibility, and this might be where that conversation can begin,” Kimmel said. She stressed the need for an international discussion with Greenland to look into the possibility.

On the last day of the workshop, Petrov asked the group where it believed social scientists should be focusing their research. The ultimate goal is for regions to tell the program where they need research, not for researchers to come into communities with a specific idea in mind. To do this, the group decided to hold community-wide listening sessions.


Pavel Sulyandziga

   Pavel Sulyandziga, a Russian indigenous rights activist, gave a key note speech during the workshop. Sulyandziga is of the Udege nationality, and leads the group’s effort to regain control over their traditional territory along the Bikin River, which was the topic of his presentation.

The Udege are one of the few Russian ethnic groups to remain in their home territory. Sulyandziga said that he could see other villages disappearing. “No one of course killed them, their environment was destroyed… so they just dissolved,” Sulyandziga said through a translator. The Bikin River is one of the only places with absolutely no industry, but that is not for lack of effort on the part of the Russian Government.

When, in the 1980s, the Soviet Union gave the territory to a South Korean company on a 30-year lease, the Udege people knew what to expect. They decided to fight for their land, and chose to do so through education. “Our grandfathers made the decision that, no matter what you do, you need to be educated,” Sulyandziga said. In his ethnic group of about 700 people, 30 percent have bachelor’s degrees, and in his village alone there are nine PhDs. “I think it’s one of the reasons we were successful in the end,” he said.

What the Udege people lacked in numbers they made up for in unity. In the face of pressure and bribes from the Soviet Union, they decided they would make all decisions together. “The unity was the second element in the struggle against external forces,” Sulyandziga said.

The government questioned the Udege people’s ability to live without any industry, so in 1993 they received a grant from the U.S. Forest Service to create a development plan. With help from the Russian Academy of Science, they took data on all of the resources in their region, including gold, coal and wood. They developed a program that showed they could sustain their community on traditional resources alone. The region has large amounts of coal and gold, but the Udege people are allowed to develop the resources on their own terms.

The Udege territory is in the Primorsky Krai province, located on Russia’s southeastern border. The Primorsky region is the only one where indigenous people do not receive any government money. When the Udege people asked for funds, they were forced to choose between getting the money and getting their land. They chose the land, which was designated a Territory of Traditional Natural Resource Use, and were tasked with how they wanted to develop it. Ultimately, they decided to create a tariff for Korean pine nuts, which come from the cedar forests on their land. The Udege people also decided to allow part of their territory to be designated a federal park to protect the habitat of the Amur tiger.

In an email to the Nome Nugget, Petrov observed that the experience of the Udege people demonstrated that “even in very difficult institutional, economic and political circumstances strong leadership, entrepreneurship (including local government) can lead to positive results.”

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