Bristol Bay, Alaska, has re-captured headlines as the battle to protect the area from the extractive industry continues. Last week the Pebble Mine Partnership‘s efforts to establish a vast gold mine in the region was dealt a devastating blow by the EPA’s latest watershed assessment. This extensive study definitively reveals that large-scale mining operations would have severe detrimental effects on local fisheries, wildlife and Native culture in the home of the world’s largest and most spectacular wild salmon runs.
For the people of Bristol Bay, and its precious ecosystems, this victory comes just months after mining giant Anglo-American’s surprise decision to withdraw from the project, and could herald the end of the Pebble Mine saga. This is the hope of Indigenous community groups such as Nunamta Aulukestai, Caretakers of the Land, who have been instrumental in resisting the mine, fiercely protecting their culture, livelihoods and their beautiful home of wide bays and winding rivers.
Here Bobby Andrew, a Native Yup’ik spokesman and staunch opponent of the mine, discusses the struggle so far, the importance of Indigenous solidarity, and the award winning film We Can’t Eat Gold, directed by Joshua Tucker.
Culture and Place in Bristol Bay
Hannibal Rhoades: How long have your people lived in the Bristol Bay area and what is their relationship to the salmon, the caribou and the land?
Bobby Andrew: The Native People within the region have probably lived there for over 10,000 years. In some of the ecological studies I’ve read up on they’ve found remnants of the type of food our ancestors were eating way, way back. Our way of life is similar to back then, like the primary diet – the wild game like moose, caribou, beaver. Salmon is number one, basically because during the summer time when the salmon return we immediately start preserving the five species of salmon. They don’t all come in at once – The King salmon come in first, the Sockeye next. The Silvers and the Dog salmon come in mixed with the Sockeye. Many of the people currently preserve enough fish for the winter. If I was to estimate, my family, we save probably about 300 pounds of salmon, dried, canned or frozen. And this being the primary diet, I sure don’t want to lose it (due to mining).
HR: The CEO of the Pebble Partnership, John Shivley, has said that if they can’t build a mine that will co-exist with a healthy fishery they won’t build it. The EPA and Native Communities clearly feel it will have negative impacts. What would the cultural impact be if the mine was built?
BA: It’s going to have an impact culturally if ever it is developed, but we’re not prepared to let that happen. Myself, I’m going on 72 and I have my grandchildren and various other young families have their children and their grandchildren who will be impacted. I sure would not like to see my errors be responsible for the need to clean the environment in perpetuity.
HR: Will the mine be built on land over which the Native groups have a specific claim?
BA: The mine site is located on state land. I am a state resident and part owner of those state lands. There are 700,000 residents or maybe more in the State of Alaska and we’re all part owners and have the right to a voice in state governance. But it seems like they only have half an ear for us.
Joshua Tucker (Director, We Can’t Eat Gold): It’s also important to note, Bobby, that you’re older than the state of Alaska! Alaska achieved statehood in 1959, yet for 10,000 years or more your people have lived here. This designation of state land is really recent.
Jennifer Huseman: What was the Native community’s opinion of the project in the very beginning?
BA: In 2003 the village corporations signed off an MOU to get their own management of our in-holding land. We invited the State of Alaska biologists and the mineral processors as well, and we invited Northern Dynasty Mining Company there. And when they gave their presentation it sounded like a very good project because they were going to be creating many jobs.
Then right after that, we started working with a group located in Anchorage and decided to do a mine tour. We took sixteen leaders from the region and toured four mines in Nevada. But prior to touring those mines we had a meeting with Western Shoshone tribes and a meeting with the Paiute tribes to see what experiences they had had when those mining companies came in and mined outside of their reservations.
JH: Was that for copper and gold as well?
BA: Copper and gold, uranium as well. They told us that mining companies are going to be making promises that they won’t damage the environment, that they will make jobs for the tribes, if there’s any environmental damage they’ll give compensation and repair it. Our question was: ‘what will they do after they close the mine?’ They told us the mining companies go bankrupt, this way they don’t have to pay the damages.
In Nevada the companies had provided money for the schools, they gave money to make grants to some individuals as well as to tribal governments, so they were basically buying off the leadership. Similar things have happened in Bristol Bay.
When we got back to Bristol Bay we did more in depth research into the mining industry and what they do. We partnered with Earthworks and they provided us with quite a bit of information that changed our minds. I was one of the supporters (of mining) in the very beginning because of the creation of jobs, and being a president of the village corporation I thought it would help us. But knowledge of the long-term environmental damage is what made many of us change our minds toward the project.
A Watery Wasteland?
JH: What mining activities have already taken place and what impacts have you seen?
BA: I believe they’ve drilled 12-1500 boreholes and the contaminants they use have already impacted the water. They’ve already done damage to the water and there have been some hydrology studies by organizations that have studied the water quality and the salmon that are returning to their spawning areas. They’ve mapped the majority of the spawning areas that are there. The mine site is right by the river and we have five species of salmon right on the Nushagak river: King, Sockeye, Humpy, Silver and Dog salmon.
JH: I’ve been told that Bristol Bay is actually the largest salmon producing area in the world…
BA: Well it’s the world’s largest salmon producing area and we call it the ‘Salmon Capital of the World’. We have three or four river systems that have salmon right in the area. The Nushagak river, the Kvichack River, the Ugashik River, the Koktuli River and further down the chain we have the rivers that flow into the Chignik Lake System. We also have, on the west side of the snake river, the Togiak river – all of those are rivers that produce salmon in the Bristol bay area. So there’s, let’s see, the fishing districts – there’s the Togiak, the Nushagak, the Kvichak, the Naknek River – we have the Nushagak River – so there are many rivers that have lakes, that are spawning areas for the five species of salmon.
JH: What do you think the impacts will be on the ecology of the area – considering all those waterways – if The Pebble Mine was to go through the way that the Northern Dynasty Company want them to?
BA: With the many systems of groundwater it (the impact of the mine) could go north or it could go south. It could go west, and east. There’s potentially going to be an impact on Lake Clark, the Tikchik Lake as well as the Togiak Lakes and others. Some of the river systems are located in tidal areas, so the water moves from the Nushagak River, from the Kvijack River down and then flows into the Bering Sea, and then up in a kind of circle. So any of the contaminants that were produced if there was ever a breakage with the tailings ponds may have an impact on all of the waters in the Bristol Bay area.
Rallying Resistance: Alaska and Beyond
HR: How have Native communities been resisting the mine? What kind of positive actions have they been taking themselves?
BA: After we created Nunamta Aulukestai across the nine villages, what we did is we rotated the location of meetings (about the mine) on a monthly basis in each of those villages. Each time we had the meeting we invited the biologists, the scientists and David Chambers who is an expert in minerals. In addition to that, we invited the Pauite tribe from Nevada to help us educate each of the communities on what the impacts would be.
Many of the elders in each of the villages have their natural or traditional knowledge and they were telling people, like myself, what to expect in the future. Anything that comes in, any development in a specific area, can have an impact on the environment and our renewable resources. So the education process started way, way back.
JH: Are there any native communities that are still supportive of the project?
BA: Opinion surveys done in our region show that at least 98% of the people oppose the project. I am aware of two or three communities who supported the project because of the contract they had with the Pebble Ltd Partnership. Now with Anglo pulling out I’m not sure about those contracts, whether they’re still in existence or if they’ve pulled them all out.
When Anglo-American pulled out I got a call at about 5:30 in the morning and they said ‘have you heard’ I said, ‘no’ and that same day I had a call from KTUU, a television station in Anchorage and they were asking me questions. That took me off guard because I had barely heard anything about Anglo pulling out.
JH: There’s a lot of opposition to this project compared to others in Alaska, which as a state seems to largely support mining projects, and a lot of unlikely alliances happening. What are the dynamics of that?
BA: The State of Alaska, one of their goals is to develop the resources and that’s one of the problems we have. Even if we meet with the state legislators as well as the governor, they want to see those resources developed. As a resource owner I’m in opposition to that part of the constitution relating to resource development and their goals. But sometimes we have a voice at the state government level because we meet with our state legislators. What we did at the very beginning (of the resistance process) is educate our State legislators on what the impacts would be, especially on water and critical habitat areas. So education goes both ways.
Many times when I make a statement, my statements include the opinion of the impacted member villages, and the majority of those people do oppose the Pebble project and don’t want to see it occur. Just recently we had a board meeting in beside the Nushagak River and we heard an Elder who said:
“There is a change going on right now. The salmon are decreasing in their habitat spawning areas. The Caribou and the moose are moving away because of noise pollution occurring at the mine site.”
He also said that what we need to do is assist the Elders in educating the younger generation on what the impacts will be. I appreciated the fact that he spoke out, and that he spoke out in Yup’ik, our Native language. Many of the younger generation in attendance were agreeing with what he had to say. This is because the younger generation are the ones who are doing the hunting and fishing on the Nushagak river and are starting to see the changes. Many of the Elders are saying we must stop the project, don’t let them get into the permitting stages.
JH: I’ve heard that the commercial fishermen are also against the mine development?
BA: Yes, the commercial fishing industry is against it, the tourism industry is against it and the Native People within the region are totally against the project because without clean water and salmon in the region we won’t be able to survive. The basis of our whole diet is salmon.
HR: Do these communities feel they have been properly consulted. Has there been a fair public participation process? Do you feel you’ve been listened to by the Pebble Partnership?
BA: Going back, we’ve had the EPA involved since the very early stages educating on what their permitting requirements are, as well as the State of Alaska’s Natural Resources Department. They’ve come in and educated us on what the mining industry’s process is. So we’ve got the education from both sides, as well as having the opinions of others who have already been impacted by the mining industry. We’ve also gone to the EPA in Washington DC and spoken to their high level staff to give our opinions on the process since 2005. It’s been ongoing.
We had meetings with Northern Dynasty Minerals in Anchorage and met with their CEOs and the chairman of the board prior to the days of the Anglo-American annual shareholders meeting. We’ve also met with the CEO and Chair of Rio Tinto.
I think Anglo American has listened to us. That’s how I consider their decision (to withdraw from the Pebble Partnership) because of the environmental damages. Maybe there were other reasons, but that’s my opinion.
HR: Has the Pebble Mine Partnership used any unorthodox tactics to get you or others on side?
BA: I’ll go back to one of the meetings we had with Anglo American. One of the individuals there asked me: ‘What can we do to make you change your mind?’ I’m not going to give any names, but my response was:
“Show me a mine that you operate worldwide, in any country, and give me a tour of that mine that has not contaminated the environment.”
I had an invitation from ex-Anglo-American CEO Cynthia Carrol that never came to fruition, that they would be giving me a tour. She’s gone now, and I don’t think another invitation will ever occur…
In some of the villages they’ve created what they call ‘community associates’ and they pay those individuals $100,000 a year, and they are the ears and eyes of the Partnership. They get involved with their tribal governments, their city governments as well as their corporate organization. I do believe that by paying those individuals they were basically buying them out.
A little bit later they started an Elders group. I don’t know how much they were paying those Elders to attend their meetings. One of those Elders I know, I talked to him. They wouldn’t give me any dollar amount because they don’t like any opposition, and being a strong, vocal opponent I think they were afraid to say anything.
JT: Bobby, there was also the Nuna that they created in the villages.
BA: Ah, let’s see, Nuna Resources was created by one of their (The Pebble Partnership’s) contractors. It was fully funded by the partnership. Since Anglo pulled out I don’t know where they stand because the Partnership was paying 100% of their funding.
JT: Nuna was filming its own documentary called the ‘The Villages’. This thing was super patronizing.
JH: So, you’ve been lobbying at the state level, educating your own people, educating younger people. Have you engaged on an international level? With the UN or other Indigenous Communities, say in Canada with the Tar Sands, who are facing similar issues?
BA: This project isn’t just a state-wide issue, it’s a global issue. Having traveled globally I try to educate whoever I meet with of the dangers and risks of the projects and tell them that these are too high for the environment and for us, the Indigenous community, nationwide, worldwide.
HR: As far as you’re concerned, would it be a direct violation of your rights to Free Prior and Informed Consent under the UNDRIP if the mine were to go ahead?
BA: If the mining company were to go into production it would be a violation of the UNDRIP. In working with the Paiute tribe who have close connections with the UN, what we did is we provided a copy of all the resolutions that were opposing the Pebble Project through the Paiute to show we do oppose it. I don’t remember exactly when the UN Rapporteur came to meet with the tribal governments in Dillingham, I think I was traveling, so I never had the opportunity to talk with the representative.
‘We Can’t Eat Gold’
HR: To support the campaign to stop the mine you’ve created the ‘We Can’t Eat Gold’ film. How did that come about and what are its aims?
Joshua Tucker (Director of ‘We Can’t Eat Gold’): I’m a public radio journalist and I was reporting for Alaska Public Radio. I would go to these Department of Natural Resources meetings with communities. I’d fly in a little plane off the road systems. I felt like the subsistence users, the people who have the traditional ecological knowledge, who live off the land passing down knowledge over 250 generations, I felt like in these meetings with the state they became the quiet person in the back of the room who doesn’t really get heard. So I went to my editors and said I wanted to do something big about the Pebble Mine, and they said, well, the Pebble mine is our number one underwriter so you really can’t do anything there. I said, okay I’ll do it on my own then. The intention all along was to open a space for Alaskan Native elders and youth to share their ways of life. It’s a key principle for me in journalism to go to where the silence is; that the story is where people are not being heard, not where they’re being heard all the time.
We made the documentary classroom length, 45 minutes, so that hopefully within educational circles people will understand the value of passing on traditional ecological knowledge and be able to hear from people like Bobby and the elders who are the scientists of their community.
BA: I didn’t realize I even made the statement ‘We Can’t Eat Gold’ because I’ve made so many different public statements for Nunumta Aulukestai. Each time I speak it’s coming from the heart and in the very beginning we’d be given written statements to say and I felt uncomfortable in that situation because it had to come from the heart, because we live it and I don’t want to see our way of life being changed by something we don’t want. I feel they can get gold and copper from somewhere else. The location for the mine site is wrong because of the habitat area for the salmon and other big game. It’s going to have an impact on too many people. The salmon fishing industry, the sports fishing industry and first and foremost it’s going to hurt the Indigenous people in the region. I’m doing this not for myself but for future generations.
HR: Bobby, do you have a message for the international community or for the many communities facing similar challenges around the world?
BA: For the international community and for communities anywhere around the world where there’s a mining claim. What they need to do is educate the people that are going to be impacted by the mining company and they need to really look at what the promises are and whether they can keep those promises. Because many times those promises aren’t kept. If a partnership or a mining company sells out to another mining company, the promises can be broken that way. That is what we learned from the Western Shoshone tribe. If ownership changes, those promises are no longer there.
If communities are going to be in opposition they need to organize and start partnering with other environmental groups at their state level, at the national level and at the global level. Which we have done. They also need to help their leaders attend the meetings mining companies may have among their communities and learn what their plans are. You need to keep on top of what their plans are because they change; what their permitting processes are; what your governments policies are on mineral extraction because each country’s policies are different.
This interview was conducted by Hannibal Rhoades and Jennifer Huseman at the 7th Native Spirit Film Festival, which featured We Can’t Eat Gold. Our thanks go to Bobby Andrew and Joshua Tucker for sharing their stories with us, and in solidarity with the people of Bristol Bay.