Tuesday, December 30, 2008

A lapse of memory in an age of global warming

After a few posts that don't really address the original aim of this blog, I've finally found a story that resonates with what I want to talk about here. Last night I watched a Tom Bearden piece on the Jim Lehrer Newshour about the problems of resettling native Alaskan peoples from small islands that are being gradually submerged by the effects of global warming. One segment stood out for me. To wit:

PERCY NAYOKPUK, Resident of Shishmaref, Alaska: I think most of us have the same conclusion here is, in that we're not going to beat Mother Nature.

TOM BEARDEN: Percy Nayokpuk is one of the elders in Shishmaref. He owns one of the island's two grocery stores.

Residents here voted six years ago to move the village to safer ground on the mainland just a few miles away, but such a move will be expensive. Estimates run as high as $200 million to $300 million for each village.

And Nayokpuk thinks the federal government should pick up much of that tab. Nayokpuk says, for 400 years, his people lived in smaller, more nomadic communities, which could easily pick up and move.

But in the 1920s, the federal government mandated that all native children must get a formal education, so it built a central school on the island, effectively ending the nomadic way of life.

PERCY NAYOKPUK: They very easily could have built it on the mainland and everybody would have been on the mainland. Shishmaref is here mainly because the government insisted we move here.

Now, I think they should also remember that and maybe also give us a hand with the move. We certainly can't do it ourselves.

TOM BEARDEN: The median family income in Shishmaref is $30,000 a year, and virtually every household on the island receives some sort of government assistance.

It's hard to imagine why rebuilding a village like this in another location would be so expensive. After all, the roads here aren't paved and the homes have no indoor plumbing. Instead, they use what are euphemistically called "honey buckets."

But the corps' Opheen says, if the federal or state government is involved, it means following strict rules and regulations for housing and infrastructure, all of which is costly. New construction also means transporting building materials a great distance and bringing in workers.

PATRICIA OPHEEN, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers: You've got a crew of 25, 30 people. You have to bring everything in to house that crew for construction, including their housing, water, as well as all of the food.

The transportation and the hauling to get these folks to those locations is extremely expensive. And we're moving to a location, typically if they do relocate, that doesn't have a road service to it. So even building the road service up to the new community has an expense associated with it.

I think it would be a shame if these people had to lose their community because of the short term memory problems of local governments. I can just see now how a hue and cry will be raised about the 'enormous expense' involved in keeping these communities intact. The whole problem has arisen because there wasn't enough respect for native communities' vitality and importance in the first place.

Let's not think we are somehow good because we fix a problem we created. Repairs are costly, and harder to shell out for when we know we have some responsibility for them in the first place. But we need to bite the bullet and pay for them, not blame the people who are blameless and only want their communities to survive.

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