Encroaching Erosion a Looming Threat to Chevak Native Village

Communities who have contributed the least to the planet’s climate crisis are threatened by accelerating climate change impacts. Chevak Native Village is one of the many frontline villages in Alaska which needs urgent protection. Minimal government assistance has left villagers to cope with weather related changes and erosion caused by increasing temperatures and thawing permafrost by themselves. But like other villages in Alaska, this community does not have sufficient capacity nor resources to deal with the barrage of ongoing climate issues, and is in need of immediate assistance.

Chevak village is about 518 miles northwest of Anchorage and about eight miles inland from the Bering Sea. The village is home to 1,200 Cup’ik villagers, including 200 children who attend the local Chevak School. The village has over 200 stilt homes painted with bright colors that mask the wooden structures arranged neatly across the village.

In early June, UUSC joined our partner, the Alaska Institute for Justice (AIJ), on a visit to Chevak, one of the 16 villages that AIJ is working with to develop advocacy strategies to enhance their ability to adapt to a radically changing environment. Our shared vision is to ensure that the human rights of Alaska Native villages are advanced and protected in the face of climate risks.

The primary goal of the visit was to assist the State of Alaska’s Division of Geological & Geophysical Surveys (DGGS) Coastal Hazards Program to install shoreline erosion monitoring equipment. Project Manager Jacquelyn Overbeck describes this work as part of the State’s effort to facilitate community-based monitoring of erosion in areas where minimal or no baseline erosion data exists in rural Alaska. The installation included a community teach-in to discuss the basis of the monitoring and to show villagers how to collect and read data. Chevak is one of the first villages where this work is taking place.

Land erosion is taking place along the bluffs that form the southwestern borders of the village causing land instability for homes and other community structures. Over the years, individual homeowners have placed sandbags and metals to stop the erosion, but this has not been enough. According to some villagers, erosion has been happening since the 1980s but is now happening at a more rapid pace. Without immediate assistance, Chevak could erode away and cause the community to relocate.

But relocation is not an option, nor is it new for Chevak. Chevak Mayor Richard Tuluk states that “This is our third home.” Chevak first moved a few miles inland from their original location along the Bering Sea sometime in the 1930s, where they lived for about ten years. In 1950, they moved to their current location, which is located behind the bluff of the Ninglikfak River. The land that Chevak currently sits on belongs to Hooper Bay. This history pays homage to the nomadic culture of Alaska Natives as natural voyagers.

AIJ’s work with Chevak focuses on implementing community-based monitoring, which is coordinated with state and federal government agencies that can provide information regarding rates of erosion and resources to respond and protect the community. Robin Bronen, the Executive Director of AIJ, states that “Part of what needs to happen, is that communities need to be given the information they need to predict when storms or natural hazards are going to happen, and at the same time monitor the impacts of these disasters in real time and report that back to national and state agencies so that they are aware of what communities are experiencing. With this data, communities will also be able to access financial resources that will help them reduce their hazards and risks.”

Erosion is not the only issue that Chevak is dealing with. Some villagers shared stories of how they were once able to travel across permafrost-laden marshland to access the surrounding volcanic mountains during winter to pick berries, but due to permafrost melting earlier and faster than before, those trips are now becoming impossible to make. Other villagers spoke of finding fewer fish stocks, increasing flood waters during storms and frequent warm weather periods.

Without a governance framework in place to address this multitude of problems, government assistance will be provided on an ad-hoc basis at best, and communities will continue to lack the resources they need. Alaska Native villages will not be the only communities in the nation or the world who must adapt to this accelerating climate crisis. The Internal Displacement Monitoring Center (IDMC) reports that in 2016, about 24 million people were displaced by sudden onset hazards in over 118 countries. This figure does not include those that are displaced by slow onset climate impacts, which are difficult to determine. This data is staggering and reflects the enormity of climate induced forced displacement and the importance of a governance framework.

Responding government agencies must partner with communities at risk to determine effective adaptation strategies that ensure the protection of life and property. This also ensures that the processes that take place are transformational, and that they recognize and respect the agency and human dignities of those who are unjustly confronted by our climate crisis.

UUSC Recommendations for the Global Compact on Migration

On Tuesday, May 23, Salote Soqo, senior program leader for environmental justice & climate action, spoke as a respondent at the Second Informal Thematic Session for Global Compact on Migration at the United Nations Headquarters in New York. Speakers at the event identified the many causes of forced migration and improvements for global migration policy, which will be incorporated into the Global Compact on Migration, the first intergovernmentally negotiated UN agreement to cover all dimensions of international migration in a holistic and comprehensive manner. 

Read Soqo’s full remarks on climate refugees and climate-forced displacement below.

Thank You, Your Excellency.

The Unitarian Universalist Service Committee, through our work with some of the most vulnerable communities around the world, and particularly in the South Pacific and in Alaska, recognizes that climate-induced environmental degradation is an obvious driver for human mobility.

In the interest of time, I would like to emphasize four main points based on our experience thus far:

Firstly, it is important for us to acknowledge that the root causes of climate-induced displacement are not climate change per se, but global economic and power inequality. Industrialized countries therefore have an obligation to protect those that are made vulnerable by their carbon emissions. We must assign responsibility to where it is due.

Secondly, there have been previous remarks made by member states to center the global compact on a human-rights centered approach. We concur with this concept and reiterate the recognition that the experts of this approach are the communities that are most affected by these issues and who inherently hold the power to meaningfully address these problems with dignity—these are Indigenous People, women, children, the elderly and people living with disabilities, and farmers and fishermen whose subsistence and livelihood depend on their natural environments, and those living in remote areas of the world. Their active participation must be mandatory in state responses, their rights must be respected, and means to incentivize and implement community-based climate initiatives must be enabled through this compact. And more to the point of internally displaced populations, states must recognize that they have the obligation to protect their residents within their borders, and this compact should enforce their existing obligations.

Thirdly, building protections in place to protect communities where they are must always remain the priority, and if relocation is a necessity, which is particularly the case for small island developing states where displacement is inevitable for some islands, it must be planned proactively. It is thus important that this global compact work in tandem with the instruments of the United Nations Framework Convention of Climate Change (UNFCCC) and the accompanying institutions to enforce adaptation, disaster risk reduction, emergency humanitarian aid, and mandatory mitigation measures, particularly through the extension/renewal of the Doha Agreement, to compliment aspects that are not addressed by these instruments in order for this compact to be of value-add, and to avoid repetition.

Lastly, the compact must recognize that climate change is a multiplier of risks, as stated throughout this session. In some situations, this leads to conflict and violence, which often leads to forced migration. Thus, there is increasing recognition amongst states that climate change is a national security issue, and indeed it is, but it is important that, and in the spirit of unity and moral conscience, that the compact avoids language or measures that further dehumanizes or commodifies climate-forced displaced populations and must intentionally combat xenophobia and other forms of religious, cultural, and social discrimination against migrants.

Rights Reading

Our weekly roundup of what we’re reading: a few select articles from the front lines of human rights that we don’t want you to miss. This week’s Rights Reading highlights articles on sanctuary, sustainability, and the Paris Agreement.

White People, It’s Time to Prioritize Justice Over Civility, Tauriq Moosa, The Establishment, May 9, 2017

Photo of justice statue

One of the hallmarks of white privilege is the option to be uninformed on and indifferent towards issues of oppression. In the name of “civility” and a backwards sense of fairness, the media has been giving white supremacists a platform on television to express their hate speech. However, this show at fairness actually undermines the platform of people of color fighting for true equality, giving them less airtime and raising white supremacists’ “concerns” to the same level as the concerns of those who are actually oppressed. Whether it’s in an effort towards equal airtime or boosting viewership, the media and white moderates’ uninvolved attitude thus promotes a more passive sense of fairness than an active move towards justice.

Moosa makes a strong argument for how the disaffected white majority can be even more harmful than hate groups. Just because white supremacists can make themselves look presentable and can express their views in a civil manner does not make their rhetoric valid or worthy of a platform in mainstream media.

Not Just Cities: We Can Become a Sanctuary Nation, Robert Greenwald and Angel Padilla, The Nation, May 9, 2017

Trump has called for a crackdown on undocumented immigrants, pushing for law enforcement everywhere to report even the smallest of misdemeanors to the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). This is just one example of the alarming move towards the criminalization of marginalized communities that has been happening under the Trump administration.

“Sanctuary” is a term being used a lot lately, but it doesn’t just have to apply to cities. Communities all across the United States can engage in sanctuary practices to protect immigrants. There are many ways that individuals can get involved, such as coming together to push sanctuary laws, going with immigrants to ICE check-ins, staying vigilant and spreading the word about potential ICE raids, and working with grassroots organizations to advocate for immigrant rights.

UUSC recently called on Massachusetts to pass legislation that would would end “287(g) agreements” whereby local law enforcement personnel are authorized to perform a variety of federal immigration enforcement functions, including questioning people about their immigration status, arresting them for immigration violations, and place them in deportation proceedings. Read the press release here.

You can also read our Expanded Sanctuary blog series to learn more.

White House Advisors Postpone Paris Climate Deal Meeting, Andrew Restuccia, Politico, May 8, 2017

Yet again, Trump’s meeting with advisers to discuss the United States’ involvement in the Paris Agreement has been postponed. His advisers are in disagreement on this issue. Trump is expected to make a decision soon on whether the United States will withdraw from the Paris Agreement, a potential step that is being condemned worldwide.

During his election campaign, Trump stated his intent to withdraw the U.S. from the climate deal. Already under his administration, we have seen an increase in policies and government appointments that favor big business interests over the safety of the environment and the public. Withdrawing from the Paris Agreement is a dangerous step in the wrong direction for environmental policy and foreign relations. UUSC is watching the White House closely for further developments. Read our latest statement on Trump’s “Energy Independence” Executive Order.

The Dark Side of Fashion We Never Talk About, Rachel Selvin, Refinery29, May 8, 2017

Do you know the environmental footprint for what you’re wearing right now? It’s probably larger than you think. The process to manufacture and distribute clothing requires a high amount of energy and resources. While often overlooked, the fashion industry is one of the leading contributors to environmental pollution and resource depletion in the world.

Selvin discusses pioneering new biotechnologies to cut down on the environmental cost of fashion, but it isn’t just manufacturers who need to think more sustainably. Consumers need to be conscience of what they’re really buying, and how much. Cutting down on how many new clothes you buy and making sure that that your clothing is sustainably sourced are two great ways to reduce your personal environmental footprint.

The Good Buy, UUSC’s online store, is a great option for buying sustainably sourced products, and you’ll also be helping to fund UUSC’s human rights efforts.

Rights Reading

Our weekly roundup of what we’re reading: a few select articles from the front lines of human rights that we don’t want you to miss. This week, we are focusing on Climate Justice, as Climate Justice Month comes to an end.

How a Tiny Alaska Town Is Leading the Way on Climate Change, Joe McCarthy, Global Citizen, April 18, 2017

 School in Kivalina

“By 2100, as many as 13 million people living in coastal regions of the US and hundreds of millions more people throughout the world could be displaced by climate change.”

Kivalina, Alaska is a small village in Northwest Alaska, with a population of 420 indigenous people. Located 70 miles above the Arctic Circle, Kivalina is one of the most affected communities of climate change. The temperature increases have doubled in Alaska compared to the United States, and the Arctic Sea has evaporated by half in the last 35 years. In just 10 years, Kivalina will no longer be a place people can inhabit.

The people of Kivalina are mobilizing and planning. They are known to be self-reliant and have a lot of experience working with their communities and government. The article highlights more of the history of Kivalina and some of the work our partner, Alaska Institute for Justice is doing.

How a Warming Planet Drives Human Migration, Jessica Benko, The New York Times, April 19, 2017

There are obvious environmental consequences to climate change, but the effects are manifold. Climate change leads to droughts, floods, food and housing insecurity, and famine. This then leads to both political and economic insecurity. While there is no official legal definition for what it means to be a climate refugee, in 2010, it was estimated that 500 million people would need to evacuate their homes by 2015 due to climate change.

The evaporation of Lake Chad has led to 3.5 million already being displaced. In Syria, 1.5 million were forced into cities because of a three-year drought in 2006. Other areas, such as China, the Amazon Basin, and the Philippines have also experienced the detrimental effects of climate change, displacing and even taking lives.

On April 29, We March for the Future, Bill McKibben, The Nation, April 19, 2017

Climate justice is being threatened by the Trump administration, but the reality is, climate justice has been a decades-long battle with each administration. The current climate-justice movement is being led by communities, farmers, scientists, and indigenous people. Those that are marching march for a multitude of reasons: pipelines, the labor movement, fracking, solar panels to other sustainable measures.

The United States is facing setbacks with the current administration, but the rest of the world is showing hope. Solar panel prices have dropped, wind energy is being used, and other countries are investing in renewables. People continue to march, protest, and resist in other ways, defining what the new normal is.

Check out related blogs and articles for climate justice month

Three-part series on composting, The Good Buy, April 18, 2017

5 Ways to #Resist this Earth Day, Green Peace, April 18, 2017

Making a Deeper Commitment to Climate Justice Month, UUSC, April 19, 2017

Rights Reading

Our weekly roundup of what we’re reading: a few select articles from the front lines of human rights that we don’t want you to miss. This week’s Rights Readings highlights focus on our partners the Coalition of Immokalee Workers and the effect of climate change in Alaska.

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In Downtown Crossing, a picket line of fifth-graders, Cristela Guerra, The Boston Globe, December 12, 2016.

Earlier this week, fifth-graders from the Boston Workmen’s Circle Center for Jewish Culture and Social Justice in Brookline, Mass. proved that you’re never too young to protest. Chanting, “Hold the burgers, hold the shakes. A penny more is all it takes!” these students showed solidarity with UUSC partners, the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW). “I believe in justice for everyone,” 11-year-old Jasper Milstein said.

Wendy’s is the last of the major U.S. fast food chains to refuse to join the Fair Food Program. This program improves pay and working conditions for farmworkers in the tomato fields. It also supports partnerships between businesses, growers, and farmworkers to ensure that the people who supply their produce are treated with dignity and respect. CIW has organized a boycott of the restaurant that is over 75,000 strong. Join them here!

 

A Wrenching Choice for Alaska Towns in the Path of Climate Change, Erica Goode, The New York Times, November 29, 2016.

Shaktoolik, a village of 250 people in Alaska, is facing an imminent threat from increased flooding and erosion, due to climate change. The state is warming about twice as fast as the rest of the United States, and many indigenous communities are increasingly vulnerable to rising seas.

The United States has identified at least 31 Alaskan towns and cities at risk of destruction.

The choice these communities face is between a costly, decades-long relocation and the risk of staying and losing everything. As the effects of climate change continue, the situation is likely to only worsen.