On the Cultural Impacts of Mining

At Alaska?s proposed Pebble Mine site, the focus is on environmental and economic outcomes. But what about the Native culture and community?

| Wed Jun. 7, 2006 3:00 AM EDT

Jobs, jobs, jobs. When mining projects attract criticism from environmental activists, their most reliable defense has always been the thousands of jobs the company will provide to an otherwise economically depressed community. In the battle over the proposed Pebble gold/copper mine in the Lake Iliamna region of Southwest Alaska, the debate is no different. Northern Dynasty, the Canadian company developing the site, is boasting 2,000 jobs during the initial construction phase and 1,000 permanent jobs for at least 30 years after that. The promise of an economic boom is very appealing to the locals, who have watched their traditional fishing economy suffer from falling salmon prices and rising fuel costs. But numerous locals and advocacy groups have complained that the potential environmental damage far outweighs any promises of prosperity: toxic mining chemicals, they say, might seep into sensitive salmon spawning streams; transport roads will cut through pristine Alaskan wilderness; noise of heavy machinery and vehicles will disrupt caribou and moose migration.

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But it's not just the land and animals that are under threat.

For the Native Alaskan tribes that depend on these natural resources for food, their very livelihood is at stake. Throughout the world, indigenous peoples in particular have seen their centuries-old traditions razed by the introduction of industrial-scale business. From Peru to Ghana to Nevada, mining projects have left native tribes plagued by contaminated waterways and forests, health problems, upsurges in violence, destruction of local traditions, and community infighting.

There is little reason for southwest Alaskans to think things will be any different for them. Herman Nelson, a tribal leader in Koliganek, downstream from the proposed Pebble site, echoes the concerns of surrounding tribes. “Jobs don’t impress me very much. The mine is going to deplete the resources,” he says. “It’s going to change the feel of the community, the way we live.”

The Pebble Mine is “a textbook example,” says Alaskans for Responsible Mining advocate Scott Brennan, who has worked closely with Native tribes battling mines throughout the U.S. “When this scale of development comes in, first you lose wild food sources. Next you begin to lose your relationship with the land. Then your home territory is flooded with thousands of people from somewhere else. The end result is erosion and degradation of native culture.”

More than half the world's mines are built on indigenous lands. Some problems are particular to the geography of the land and the particular traditions of the tribes, but there are several broad trends that unite them.

"At first, people only see dollar signs," says Dean Stiffarm, environmental liaison for the Fort Belknap tribe in Montana. But promises of jobs, cheaper electricity, and reduced property taxes proved empty for the Montana Fort Belknap tribe. Despite guarantees of job priority, tribal members were routinely passed over for highly technical jobs. Then when the mining company declared bankruptcy after 20 years of operation, the natives were left to pay for the upgraded electricity system and the environmental clean-up.

Negative health impacts are a more subtle outcome. At the Laguna reservation in New Mexico, 60 miles west of Albuquerque, naturally growing plants that were a common part of the native diet and medicinal tradition were destroyed by construction and radioactive dust pollution from a nearby uranium mine. Supermarkets and a Western medical clinic took their place. People weren't used to manufactured medicines, which made some sick and often didn't work. Store-bought high-cholesterol foods led to rapid increases in heart disease and diabetes. Air and water pollutants dramatically increased rates of childhood asthma and kidney infections.

Around Iliamna Lake, locals believe the wild fish and game, rich in omega 3 oils, keeps them healthy and youthful. If there is an accident that harms wildlife habitats – chemicals leaching into groundwater, acid runoff – or, so health aide workers believe, if people get accustomed to the convenience of store-bought foods, high cholesterol and diabetes rates will go up. Cecilia Suskuk, an aide at the Iguigig clinic says that already among local people “there’s more high cholesterol, because they’re incorporating more processed meats into their diet.” In several communities, the fear alone that resources have been contaminated stops locals from consuming local water supplies, plants, or animal stocks. Instead, they rely on less healthy packaged foods and their kids lose interest in traditional hunting and cooking.

There are other social impacts, like those observed in Wayne Garcia’s native community in New Mexico. When the Anaconda Company built the Jackpile uranium mine next to the Laguna reservation, there came a flood of alcohol and methamphetamine with the thousands of new workers. Garcia, who is the Chairman of the Yerington Paiute Tribe, has visited the communities around Alaska’s Pebble site to share his experiences. He believes rates of drug abuse and alcoholism among Natives at Laguna went up over the 30 years the mine was in operation, which in turn led to increases in domestic violence, child abuse, and child neglect. “It was the ripple effect,” Garcia says.

Manuel Pino, a member of the Acoma Nation, neighboring Laguna, believes the drinking problems and other changes were due to the shifts in lifestyle. “We went from being agriculturalists and livestock raisers to wage earners,” he testified at the World Uranium Hearings in 1992. “People prioritized their eight-hour-a-day-job over participating in the ceremonies. Our Elders cry today that the generation below us cannot speak our language.”

Bonnie Gestring, an advocate in the Northwest office of the environmental group Earthworks, points out that the rise in violence puts added strain on small rural public health care and law enforcement systems. “It takes a while for services to come up to speed with increased demand,” she says. Theoretically, Iliamna Lake residents could prepare in advance for the changes. But with so much attention focused on potential environmental hazards and job creation, health needs are low on the priority list. Northern Dynasty won’t complete its cultural impact study until well after the project is fully developed, several more years down the road. For now, and when the mining project ends after 30 to 50 years, it is the communities themselves that are left to cover the expanded services and public health costs on their own.

No amount of preparation can account for what Wayne Garcia called the worst effect of mining in his community: fighting within the tribe. “We were always taught that family is unity and we have to depend on each other for support.” But when money and material possessions took over as symbols of status and power, an ethic of competition began to dominate. “These outside influences come in and you’ve got jealousy and greed that erode the family value. Soon you see family against family.”

Northern Dynasty’s COO Bruce Jenkins insists such problems will be mitigated by company policies. To keep the number of outsiders limited, for example, hiring preference will go first to local Alaskans, so long, he adds, as they are “interested, willing, and able."

But who exactly are all these local workers who will fill the 1,000 to 2,000 jobs? In the entire Lake and Peninsula Borough, which includes 14 towns spread across 24,000 square miles, the population is just over 1,600. More than 43 percent of the population is under 18 or over 65 years of age; three quarters are Alaskan Native. Even if all those eligible for a job at the mine take one, the communities around Iliamna Lake can expect a mass influx of outsiders – enough to more than double the current population – and all the problems they bring.

Jenkins swears these things won’t happen at Pebble. Workers who are flown in from outside the area or state will be housed in dorms secluded from pathways frequented by locals, he vows. There will be zero contact with natives. Alcohol and drugs will be strictly prohibited, as will fishing and hunting.

“This is still America,” counters Brian Kraft, coordinator for the Bristol Bay Alliance, a coalition opposing development of the Pebble Mine. Employees work in shifts, two weeks on and then two weeks off. When they’re off the clock, Kraft argues, “they can do whatever they want” – and that includes taking recreational substances or fishing and hunting the stocks that locals depend on for food. With a new road, lake harbor, and port, and cheaper air fares expected to make travel in and out of the region easier for employees – and tourists – the company’s rules and promises can go unbroken for only so long.

Still, the allure of a steady income is attractive to many locals. “I love my people, but I got to tell you something, it is a struggle to live,” says Myrtle Anelon of Iliamna. “You cannot pay your electric bill, you cannot pay your fuel bill unless you have money.” She is hesitant to dismiss the Pebble proposal so early in the development stages. “If we don’t give them a chance, we won’t have nothing.”

Greg Anelon of Newhalen, the administrator of the Iliamna Lake regional clinic, testified at a Borough hearing that the area villages desperately needed a new ambulance, fire trucks, and EMS system. A tax on the Pebble mine could be “a tool to finance [these] needs.” To date, six tribal councils out of more than a dozen have voted in favor of the mine; several others are waiting for updated mine development plans before casting judgment for or against.

Dean Stiffarm cautions against such optimism. "In the beginning, we didn't see the whole picture, what the mine was going to do to our environment, our way of life." Now, when he meets with tribal representatives from Alaska who are grappling with how to reconcile their traditions with a bleak economic outlook, he says, "I try to get them to look at the long term impact."

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