Caroline Cannon, winner of the 2012 Goldman Environmental Prize, has not rested in her fight to save her Inupiat community and their way of life from Arctic oil drilling.
For 30 years the Inupiat people of the remote community of Point Hope, Alaska, have looked to Cannon for leadership. This year she was recognized on the international stage for her role in the struggle against oil and gas drilling in the Artic Circle.
Cannon won the 2012 North America Goldman Environmental Prize, an award that honors grassroots environmental activists around the world, providing them with international exposure and $150,000 to benefit the recipient’s organization or cause. For the grandmother of 26, the cause is preventing an oil spill that, she asserted, could cause the “eradication of our culture, people and way of life.”
In an interview with Public Radio International’s Living on Earth following her April 16 award, Cannon explained how an oil spill could affect her traditional Inupiat community and the entire region.
“For one thing, the infrastructure is not there,” Cannon said about how Point Hope would deal with an oil spill emergency. “Look, we’re a unique, small village, and yet sometimes a Medevac can’t even come in. If it’s a life-and-death situation, we’re not ready for it. But could you imagine if there was an oil spill? You’re not going to be able to take care of it right then and there.”
Indeed, in the Gulf of Mexico, where operations are unimpeded by ice, it still took three months to stop the flow from the BP oil spill, she pointed out. In the Arctic, she said, there is no way to quickly mitigate a spill.
“When the ice decides to stack up with the power that it has, there’s no stopping it,” she said. “We cannot, no man can stop it. When mother nature does her thing and the winds are gusting forty to fifty miles an hour, there’s no way, no how.”
While Cannon and her allies had some victories in preventing oil and gas development in the region—she represented Point Hope as a co-plaintiff in a suit that resulted in stopping all but one major gas lease in 2009—Royal Dutch Shell received permission to proceed despite equipment problems, and the company conducted preparatory work in September.
“I know we have to fight for our rights to a clean environment and the continuation of our culture and traditions because that is what our elders have dictated,” she wrote. “We are to do everything in our power to protect our water, our land, our way of life. The proposed oil and gas activities affect the very foundations of who we are as individuals and as a people. We have a right to life, to physical integrity, to security, and the right to enjoy the benefits of our culture. For this, we will fight; we just hope not to die as a people during the process.”
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