A new documentary film provides a chance for native Alaskans to explain, in their own words, the importance of salmon fishing in their culture – and why the opening of a new gold and copper mine would threaten their way of life.
The film, titled “We Can’t Eat Gold,” deals with the proposed Pebble Mine, which would be located in the Bristol Bay watershed about 250 miles southwest of Anchorage. The mining companies trying to open the Pebble Mine want access to one of the most valuable deposits of gold, copper, and molybdenum in the world. However, Bristol Bay is also home to the world’s largest, most spectacular sockeye salmon fishery.
Residents justifiably fear that the mine will pollute the water and disrupt habitat for salmon and other wildlife. The mine would require the construction of a dam to hold an estimated 10 billion tons of toxic mine waste in perpetuity. If the dam ever failed or spilled, it could devastate the salmon fishery. Last year, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) released a draft study showing that the mine could be catastrophic for the local environment.
The new documentary, which premiered on April 6 at the Finger Lakes International Film Festival in Ithaca, New York, makes clear that what’s at stake is not just the environment, but the culture and way of life of native Alaskans. For more than a thousand years, native Alaskans have depended on salmon as a food source. Today, salmon continue to provide food and jobs. The commercial salmon fishery generates $500 million per year and employs 14,000 full and part-time workers.
The film trailer (see below) shows fishermen at work, children and adults preparing salmon, and native Alaskans talking about what salmon mean to them. “Taking our salmon away would be like what happened to the lower 48 Indians when they took the buffalo away,” says Tom Tilden, First Chief of the Curyung Tribal Council, in the trailer.
A poll in 2009 showed that about 80 percent of local residents oppose the mine. Despite this overwhelming opposition, the mining companies have not backed down. Why not? One reason is that the companies have support from state officials, who think that the mine would provide a net benefit to the Alaskan economy. The mine promises to create 1,000 permanent jobs, which is significant but much lower than the jobs that depend on the salmon fishery.
The best way to stop the mine would be for the EPA to determine that the mine would violate the Clean Water Act. But this decision is really a question about values – about whether we as a society decide that the Bristol Bay watershed and the way of life tied to it are worth preserving. As the EPA and President Obama decide what to do, it’s essential that local community voices be heard and understood. This new film could be very helpful in that regard.
The local community needs others to voice their opposition too. The community is getting some high-profile help from celebrities like Robert Redford. We think that the jewelry industry also has a special obligation to speak out, since much of the gold from the Pebble Mine would be used to make jewelry. At Brilliant Earth, we’re dedicated to stopping dirty gold mining – we use only recycled gold in our jewelry – and so we have been expressing our opposition for several years. If you would like to add your voice to those opposing the mine, a great way to do so is to sign this petition by the Natural Resources Defense Council.
The film trailer is below, but to see the full documentary keep an eye on the film’s web site for information about future screenings. (In the meantime, we recommend this excellent ABC Frontline documentary on the Pebble Mine issue). The “We Can’t Eat Gold” filmmakers are also trying to raise $4,000 to help them return to Bristol Bay to show the film. To support this effort, you can donate here. If you give a $50 donation, they promise to send you delicious smoked salmon strips directly from Bristol Bay!
Here’s the film trailer:
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