Leaf Litter

Non-Profit Spotlight: Alaska Institute for Justice

The Alaska Institute for Justice is working with Alaska Native communities on the front lines of climate change to build a framework for relocation governance that ensures the protection of their human rights.

Alaska is home to 229 federally-recognized tribes of Alaska Natives, many of whom literally live on the front line of a rapidly changing Arctic climate. For many of these peoples, the impacts of climate change on their communities are direct and dramatic. Erosion, saline intrusion, and land collapse caused by extreme weather events and thawing permafrost is threatening infrastructure, property, access to potable water and for many communities, their very way of life.

Article Index

A 2009 report from the Government Accountability Office stated that 31 Alaska Native villages were facing imminent climate-related threats, and 12 of those communities were already exploring relocation options. Yet there is little to no government accountability–on the federal or state level-when it comes to assisting communities in determining when and if they need to move, or helping them to plan, finance, and implement a relocation. To date, only one community in the US has received a grant from the federal government to relocate in response to climate change. That was Isle de Jean Charles in coastal Louisiana and it was through the National Disaster Resilience Competition (NDRC), organized by the Obama administration in 2014. The Alaskan town of Newtok was in the running for the grant but unfortunately, they didn’t make the final cut.

Moving an entire community, however small and remote, is a daunting undertaking laden with physical, logistical, and political challenges. For indigenous people whose culture and livelihoods are often deeply connected to place, the decision to relocate also carries the weight of serious cultural and economic impacts. If a community doesn’t have a plan in place, then residents may be forced to scatter when their towns become inhabitable – potentially losing their connection to their language and culture as families find new homes in bigger cities like Juneau or Anchorage. Some Alaska Native communities have made the decision to move but cannot do so because they lack the funding and frameworks for planning and implementing a relocation. Meanwhile, their health and well-being, like their very land, is eroding. In the village of Chevak, for example, erosion, flooding, and permafrost thawing has impacted access to traditional foods and the viability of community infrastructure. Emergency erosion control measures in the Native Village of Kivalina, located at the tip of a chain of barrier islands, is not sufficient to protect the community’s airport, landfill, and drinking water source from impacts of increased storms, erosion, and permafrost thaw.

Chevak bluffs in 2015. Photo by Cynthia Paniyak

Fortunately, the Alaska Institute for Justice (AIJ), a nonprofit organization dedicated to protecting the human rights of all Alaskans, is implementing an initiative aimed at increasing the adaptive capacity of Alaska Native communities experiencing the impacts of climate-induced environmental change. They are working with Alaska Native communities to design and implement a community-led approach to decision-making about community relocation in the face of climate change. The AIJ’s ultimate vision is a relocation governance framework that protects human rights and can be used by communities throughout the world.

The concept of “relocation” has a very painful legacy for many minorities in the US, including the Alaska Native communities, one fraught deep feelings of alienation, pain, and subordination. “The only examples of governments relocating communities involve forcible relocation,” said AIJ Executive Director, Robin Bronen. Those examples include the U.S. government’s relocation of 881 Unangan people from the Aleutian and Pribilof Islands to internment camps in Southeast Alaska during World War II. Ten percent of the Unangan population died as a result of that relocation. Thus, the idea of turning to existing or past models of government-run relocation programs was never a consideration for the AIJ. They needed to take a different approach – one grounded in community.

In 2016, in partnership with NOAA and the Alaska Native Sciences Commission (ANSC), the AIJ convened 15 Alaska Native communities to begin the process of developing a relocation governance framework that fit their needs and considered the social, cultural, and environmental preservation priorities associated with voluntary relocation. The first Rights, Resilience, and Community-Based Adaptation Workshop resulted in the sharing of knowledge and expertise between Alaska Native Communities, and the strengthening of partnerships between Tribes and representatives from state and federal governments.

2016 workshop participants. Photo by Denise Pollock

Got an idea?

Contact The Editor

Sign up for Leaf Litter

Browse by topic

Browse by year