Exploring the Willow Project in Alaska: An Interview with Voice of the Arctic Iñupiat

20. aprila 2023

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As part of our ongoing efforts to shed light on important issues affecting the Arctic region, Globallis had the opportunity to interview representatives from Voice of the Arctic Iñupiat (VOICE). In this interview, we discuss VOICE’s support for the Willow Project, a proposed oil and gas development project in Alaska. We explore the organization’s stance on responsible resource development, the project’s potential impacts on the local environment and communities, and the role of Indigenous voices in shaping the future of the Arctic.

To learn more about the Willow Project, listen to our podcast (in Slovenian) describing the project itself and the response of the local and Native people to this project titled Aljaska: od nafte do demokracije (Alaska: from oil to democracy). Available on all platforms. Click here!

Could you tell us a little about yourself and your perspective on the Willow project? What does this project represent for you and how do you see it impacting your community?    

In 2015, Voice of the Arctic Iñupiat (VOICE) was formed as a nonprofit corporation, to establish a unified voice for the Arctic Slope region and people. Our twenty-four member organizations work collaboratively to ensure the Arctic Slope’s collective voice is heard locally, regionally, and nationally. 

VOICE serves to protect the interests of the Arctic Slope Iñupiat by providing local advocacy and engagement; promoting an understanding of the North Slope economy and encouraging culturally responsible development for economic sustainability; developing content to support activities that allow for protection of land, waters, and subsistence resources; and acting as an information bridge between outside organizations and the Arctic Slope. 

The Willow Project represents the long-term economic wellbeing of the North Slope Iñupiat. The project ensures a viable future for our communities, generating economic stability for generations to come, and advancing our self-determination as Alaska Natives. Willow is estimated to generate hundreds of direct jobs, thousands of construction jobs, a multitude of contracting opportunities for Native-owned businesses, and approximately $6 billion from federal royalties and local and state taxes. For our North Slope communities, the more than $1 billion in property taxes paid to the North Slope Borough will help to provide basic, yet essential, services like education, police, fire protection, and it will further stimulate our local economy by creating new job opportunities supporting these important services. Willow is also projected to add $2.5 billion to the NPR-A Impact Mitigation Grant Program, which will support social services, youth programs, civic facilities, and more in our communities.  

As members of Native peoples, what factors or considerations have led you to support the implementation of the Willow project?   

As discussed above, the economic benefits to the North Slope region are enormous. We live in one of the most remote parts of the country, faced with limited economic opportunity and high rates of inflation. Without this project, our communities could face the very real possibility of having to vacate the lands we have inhabited for more than 10,000 years. 

Willow has been designed to protect our traditional subsistence activities while providing economic opportunities to participate in the modern, cash-based economy. Iñupiat communities played an important part in the design of the project by participating in over 25 public meetings and making our voices heard during the 215 days of public comment on Willow. The result is a meticulously planned project that will coexist with our traditions.  

Furthermore, the Willow Project offers an important opportunity for the United States to seize its energy independence and serve as a climate leader. President Biden has publicly stated that the United States will require oil for at least another decade, if not longer. If we require this resource, then there is no better place to secure it than Alaska, where the project will be held to more robust labor and environmental standards than energy produced by foreign providers, like Venezuela, Russia, or Saudi Arabia. 

How do you anticipate the implementation of the Willow project will impact the lives of Indigenous peoples in the region, particularly with regard to job opportunities and the possibility of an imported workforce?    

The Willow Project will have an undeniably positive impact on our communities. The project is projected to generate hundreds of direct job opportunities and thousands of construction jobs for our region, as well as contracting opportunities for native-owned businesses. Meanwhile, the tax revenue generated by Willow and paid to the North Slope Borough – the largest employer in the North Slope Region – will create many new job opportunities to support an expanded suite of essential services supporting our communities. 

How do you respond to critics who question the compatibility of the Willow project with Indigenous peoples’ rights and interests, particularly in light of the advocacy efforts of other organizations on behalf of Native communities? 

We urge outside activists to listen to Alaska Native voices, the vast majority of whom are in support of the Willow Project.  

We know our lands and our communities better than anyone, and we know that resource development and our subsistence way of life are not mutually exclusive. Responsible resource development has taken place for over 50 years with the inclusion and engagement of North Slope Iñupiat. It exemplifies a positive model of cultural, economic, and ecological interdependence. 

Understanding and embracing that interdependence is paramount to the longevity of North Slope Iñupiaq culture and traditions. We understand the complexities of Willow, but also know that the project will make it possible for our community to continue our traditions while reinforcing the economic foundation of our region for decades to come.      

We know that Willow can coexist with our traditions and would not support it otherwise. It is also of utmost importance that we, Alaska Natives who have resided continuously on the North Slope for more than 10,000 years, are able to drive the success of our communities for generations to come. The economic benefits derived from Willow will go far in advancing Iñupiat self-determination. 

In your opinion, what role should Native peoples play in the decision-making process around the Willow project?    

Alaska’s North Slope Iñupiat should – and ultimately did – play an important role in the process around Willow, despite the best efforts of outside groups to co-opt or drown out our voices. Throughout the lifecycle of this project, VOICE has worked tirelessly to empower our communities and advance the self-determination of our people.  

Ultimately, we are thankful to President Biden and his administration for moving the project forward, and to the bipartisan Alaska congressional delegation, Alaska Native and labor leaders, and others who listened to and amplified the voices of the North Slope Iñupiat. 

What specific measures are being taken to ensure that the benefits of the Willow project are shared equitably among all stakeholders, including Indigenous peoples?    

The benefits of Willow for Alaska Native people have been carefully considered to ensure positive impact for our region. Of the thousands of construction jobs needed to build the project infrastructure, many will be filled by locals, who are almost entirely Alaska Native. The project also creates large-scale revenue opportunities for locally owned businesses, most of which are owned and operated by those native to the region.  

Additionally, the tax revenue generated by Willow for the North Slope Borough will be utilized to provide and maintain basic services for our people and communities, such as education, police, fire protection, and more. Willow is also projected to add $2.5 billion to the NPR-A Impact Mitigation Grant Program, which already provides direct benefits to our people in the form of social services, youth programs, civic facilities, and more.   

What message would you like to convey to those who are opposed to the Willow project, particularly with regard to the potential benefits for Indigenous peoples and their communities?    

We urge them to listen to Alaska Native voices. The Willow Project has been designed to be compatible with our communities and culture, in the ancestral homelands we have inhabited for over 10,000 years. The project’s economic benefits will help secure our communities’ future on the North Slope, allowing us to continue practicing and strengthening our traditions for generations to come. Without this project, we would face an economic setback that could threaten our ability to remain on the North Slope and continue the rich Iñupiat culture.   

How do you ensure that your voices are heard in regards to the Willow project, and are there any platforms or mechanisms available for you to express your opinions and perspectives? Do you feel that your feedback and concerns are taken seriously and properly addressed?  

We ensure our communities are heard by speaking with a unified voice on issues that affect the North Slope region. And we will continue to do so, in the best interests of our communities, to ensure the perspectives of Alaska’s North Slope Iñupiat are respected.  

Like most organizations, we make use of modern platforms, including Twitter (@VOICE_Arctic), Facebook (Voice of the Arctic Inupait), and a website (voiceofthearcticinupiat.org). We also regularly engage with local, state, national, and international press and publish written opinion pieces to make sure that our perspective reaches the broadest possible audience. 

We are pleased with the outcome of the Willow Project’s Final Record of Decision and feel our voices were heard by the Biden administration. However, there is still work to be done to guarantee that the promise of the Willow Project becomes reality. As the project progresses, we urge Americans and international followers to observe this simple fact: the North Slope is overwhelmingly in support of Willow. 

We would like to express our sincere thanks to the team at VOICE for taking the time to share their valuable insights with us. Their contributions to the conversation are greatly appreciated, and have provided a deeper understanding of this complex and important issue.

Hana Mohar

Katja Slapar Ljubutin

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