The Willow Project will Bloom for A While, but Indigenous Wisdom Blossoms Always

Hispanic Access Foundation
5 min readMay 26, 2023

By: David Riera

It is up to each and every one of us to use our voices–imagination–influencia ‘power’ to heal and restore balance to our natural world, juntos y unidos podemos. For too long Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) Communidades have been forestalled by two polar forces, having to choose between economic development and traditional–cultural preservacion. The evidence is all around, in our own communidades of environmental [cultural] injustices, inequities, racism, and unsustainabilities, we must continue to act locally and think globally para levantar los pueblos y barrios across our nation and through each corner in the globe. This is a student, son, brother, cousin, godson, scientist, teacher, advocate, and–and human asking another to find where your belonging can do the greatest good to protect y restore nature, while starting to be in alignment with other environmental stewards: ancestral, traditional, y tu… the emergent ones. During this time of unprecedented legislative environmental stewardship in the U.S., supported– apoyado across party lines and between the congressional isle toward assuring 30 percent de la tierra y las aguas are conserved/protected/restored by 2030, as well as acts from the Biden Administration like protecting Castner Range National Monument, Avi Kwa Ame National Monument, and the start of a new marine sanctuary in the Pacific Remote Islands. I am proud to see these movements develop and evolve into bringing much-needed and long sought-after relief and aid to frontline people ‘living’ realistically surviving to garner/facilitate the equitable protection of coastal, wetlands, forested, mountainous, and even desert land/waterscapes across this nation’s (sub)tropical, arid, and temperate regions. I mention this como un testimonio that it does not matter the season or the temperature we rise to steward; nos levantamos para conservar y proteger nuestro paisaje.

But what some would say is a ‘give and take’ process, I am beginning to reflect on the possibility that it is a ‘smoke and mirror’… the old switch-o-roo. I am referring to the Willow Project, which has been approved/aprobado to explore, drill, and extract potentially 600 millones de barriles on the Alaskan North Slope. Those worried, and rightly so about the implications, impacts, and harm that this work/proyecto will have on the already exacerbating climate crisis are looking at ‘taking’ those ~600 million barrels (maybe for U.S. consumption, but not immediate relief of ‘gas prices’), while in return we are continuing to ‘give’ el planeta/ our planet more ‘fuel to burn’ ending in the release of 9.2 million metric tons of carbon pollutants/emisiones anualmente. This only considers the immediate actions of simply extracting oil and consuming it in a distant future. Are the years–decades of environmental destrucción y sufrimiento not enough to make witness and experience the irreparable damage that humans have done to nature? One incident in particular will always live in my mind, which is the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill. I was nine years old, y ahora, about 32 years to the date, this environmental tragedy still haunts Alaska’s Prince William Sound. Today, where 2.2 thousand kilometers of coastline–beaches drowned in sticky unprocessed oil costing the lives of wildlife from marine mammals to shellfish and from migratory/endemic shorebird to birds of prey. (I mean, the Bald Eagle, a symbol of America, was placed in jeopardy as a result of this). Entire ecosystems, micro and macro, from waters to the coast and beyond, changed at a moment’s notice. Tambien pensamos lo que esta tragedia did to the local commercial economies (recreation, fishing, and tourism), not to mention the chaos this must have had on the subsistence resource collection and the very real…very mortal impacts all of this had on [local] Indigenous practices and cultural traditions, especially while the ‘clean-up’ occurred. Even though features indicate that the environmental damages have been “fixed”, I must take pause and reflect on the lives–life that was irrevocably shortened and could not be brought back.

I wanted to close with an opening: one of the biggest commitments of the Biden administration and many of those serving in the congressional and judiciary bodies has been to listen to, engage with, and include Indigenous wisdoms and teachings, yet with the Willow Project, the government and private enterprise va a destrozar con tantas intenciones ecosistemas that are not even in their or their families immediate ‘backyard’. How can faith in justice ever be restored throughout Indigenous peoples, frontline y communidades de color if something like the Willow Project gets the ‘green light’? There is a reason why President Obama and his administration halted the Keystone pipeline project. In an address from the Roosevelt Room almost eight short years ago, President Obama said, “Today, we’re continuing to lead by example. Because ultimately, if we’re going to prevent large parts of this Earth from becoming not only inhospitable but uninhabitable in our lifetimes, we’re going to have to keep some fossil fuels in the ground rather than burn them and release more dangerous pollution into the sky.”

I may not be an Alaskan or an Indigenous American, but I know what it is firsthand to be a ‘pawn’ in securing oil/mineral resources, especially during my time overseas in Iraq and Kuwait as a U.S. Marine. Ahora, still a Marine. I fight in Florida to ensure that cataclysms like the BP Oil spill never happen again in the Gulf of Mexico and beyond my home coast. Por eso llego al final in the hopes that my commitment raises las voces y acciones en mi barrio y en mi community to support the Iñupiat Eskimo people, the Alaskan Federation of Natives, y la comunidad de Nuiqsut. Now is the time to restore more than a sense of justice and equity. We need to band together/unidos ‘response-ably’ to restore the future…Today. Because what we are facing together (whether we like/see it or not) es the slow deterioration of people’s connection with nature, el mundo alrededor de nosotros y our kids. While protecting nature is not just a ‘job’ for Indigenous people alone, we must listen, engage, learn-and-grow alongside them and their teachings y sabiduría, especially as the steward of origin in the world; each of us is tasked to protect.

To Presidente Biden, please lean on the words that President Obama and you once worked on and revisit your administration’s commitment to the Indigenous peoples of our nation. I know that you, like President Obama, said, “If we want to prevent the worst effects of climate change before it’s too late, the time to act is now. Not later. Not someday. Right here, right now.

David Reira is a combat Marine Corps veteran and FEF McKnight Fellow at Florida International University. As a Hispanic Access Foundation Oceans Advisory Committee Associate, he seeks to work alongside a diverse and passionate team of change agents, create opportunities for underrepresented communities to connect with their natural resources, to feel like they are stakeholders, and to help build platforms for better communication across the ocean conservation realm.



Hispanic Access Foundation

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