Each year, the Goldman Prize honors grassroots environmental activists from around the world. Host Bruce Gellerman talks to the 2012 North American recipient, Caroline Cannon, from the Inupiat community of Point Hope, Alaska. Cannon is fighting to keep Arctic waters safe from offshore oil and gas drilling.
GELLERMAN: Plans are underway to begin drilling for oil two hundred miles north of the Arctic Circle. Deep, under the frigid waters, is one of the largest untapped oil reserves in the U.S. Several companies sought drilling rights, but only Shell Oil has federal permission to begin drilling exploratory wells in the Arctic.
That’s because Caroline Cannon made a federal case of it. She sued oil companies that had hoped to drill in the arctic waters and she and her co-plaintiffs won all the lawsuits except the one against Shell. For her efforts, Caroline Cannon is one of this year’s winners of the Goldman Environmental Prize. She lives in the remote village of Point Hope, Alaska, population seven hundred. It’s an Inupiat community trying to balance development and traditional ways.
CANNON: My traditional name is Aqugaq. A-Q-U-G-A-Q, Aqugaq.
GELLERMAN: What’s it mean, Aqugaq?
CANNON: You know most of our names, there’s no meaning. It’s just a name that was given…
GELLERMAN: I’m going to call you Caroline.
CANNON: Thank you.
GELLERMAN: Well, tell me about your home, Point Hope.
CANNON: Point Hope has always been a historical site, our old village, but we have the proof that we have been there for hundreds and hundreds of years. We have the ice cellars that our ancestors built to store away the whale meat. We have the sod houses that were built before even plywood came by, there were built with whalebones.
We land a whale and it’s a celebration for a whole calendar year. There’s a preparation that starts in March: We get the equipment, the boats, the skin sewing. The whaling starts as we speak; they are probably already out there. I know in Bear, I heard on the Facebook that they are out there whaling.
We have endangered species, the polar bears, the seals, the walrus, the beluga, the fish – bountiful! It’s a blessed place to be and I’m proud to be Tikigaq. That’s the Eskimo name for Point Hope.
GELLERMAN: Well, besides whales in this area, you’ve got a lot of oil and gas, at least that’s what oil and gas companies say, and they want to drill there, and Shell’s planning to do it this summer. Start at least exploring and drilling test wells. What’s your concern about the oil and gas drilling?
CANNON: For one thing, the infrastructure is not there. 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 image if there was an oil spill? You’re not going to be able to take care of it right then and there.
It took three months to stop the flow from the spill in the Gulf of Mexico. When the ice decides to stack up with the power that it has, there’s no stopping it. 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.
GELLERMAN: Well, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar has said that Shell will be operating under, and I’m quoting here: “The strongest of oversight safety requirements and emergency response plans ever established.” He says it’s okay, it’s going to be safe!
CANNON: On a piece of paper it looks good, but are we ready for it? And, I sure hope that they’re not gong to be able to test what ifs in our ocean, because that’s too much at stake, because the Arctic is so precious. We don’t want to be the first to test that out.
GELLERMAN: When you speak to Shell, what do they say? Do they talk to you?
CANNON: Well, I’ve sat with them and they’re saying: ‘Look, this is what’s going to happen, we have the equipment. We’ll have the manpower.’ And you know they’re trying to convince. They’ll say ‘we’ve done the sampling,’ or it’s one thing that they try to demonstrate and say that they’re capable of doing it, but for the actual thing. If they’re going to mess in our backyard, or in our garden as we refer it, they have to have the top of the notch. They have not convinced me yet.
GELLERMAN: Because there are people in the community who don’t agree with you. They want the jobs that the oil and gas drilling will bring.
CANNON: I thought about it, you know, there are two sides of the coin, there are the pros and the cons, and that’s the reality. I think I speak on behalf of my family, my tribe as I refer them, my many grandchildren, and my great grandchildren to come.
GELLERMAN: You know, as I’m imagining, here comes an oil company, they move in a big way, it will transform Point Hope.
CANNON: You know, we’re not ready. When you think about the social impact, we’re not prepared. It’s a scary thought. You know it’s going to be a culture shock, social impact (sighs). I don’t think my people have a clue what this can mean and how it’s going to affect our community in the long run. I’ll tell you one thing, I know that we can move mountains and remove mountains, and I just want to say: One voice can make a big difference. And I just say: I will do what I have to do, and if it’s just educating the world, and if that’s what our creator called me to be, I will be the voice. I’ll continue to, and if I have the prayer and the blessings of my people, I will do what I can.
GELLERMAN: Tell me your native name again, please?
GELLERMAN: Aqugaq, did I do that right?
CANNON: Aqugaq. Exactly.
GELLERMAN: Well, Aqugaq, thank you so very much.
CANNON: You said it so sweet. Thank you.
GELLERMAN: Caroline Cannon is one of this year’s recipients of the Goldman Environmental Prize.
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