As we travel to rural Alaska communities discussing possible Arctic oil and gas offshore exploration, we frequently learn more from the Native people than we have to tell them. While the communities are eager to learn about potential plans, the main lesson from our conversations has been that listening is more important than speaking. The feedback from stakeholders is varied and concerns are complex. For subsistence users who have long called Northern Alaska home, an important consideration is: Can our ancient culture co-exist with modern development?
Companies with U.S. Alaska offshore leases are required to engage with stakeholders, as outlined in the federal lease stipulations' "plan of cooperation." Effectively engaging with stakeholders in Arctic Alaska has benefits far beyond checking off a regulatory requirement. Earning mutual trust and respect are not simple or time-bound processes, but require a genuine commitment to inclusive and collaborative engagement practices, patience, and follow through.
When working with indigenous Alaskans, a primary focus is demonstrating respect for their culture and especially their subsistence way of life. Today the Inupiat work to balance their traditional subsistence livelihood and spiritual connection with the ocean with the high cost of modern living. They harvest up to 70 percent of their diet from their garden: the sea and Alaska mainland. Any development that may occur represents a potential threat to their way of life which is understandably met with concern. Being able to discuss how development and subsistence can co-exist is integral to an effective discussion. Another consideration is the economic and cultural impacts that development may have on these very rural areas which lack educational and economic opportunities. They suffer from outmigration, language loss, and external influences that are eroding their culture. Oil and gas exploration represents opportunity, but also significant change. Understanding and addressing socioeconomic impacts are as equally important as minimizing environmental impacts.
Regardless of where we are operating in the world, companies have an obligation to work with stakeholders at all levels. As we continue to explore the Arctic, the right approach to connect with indigenous people is imperative. By engaging with youth and elders, incorporating traditional knowledge into our plans, and formulating strong relationships based on shared values, meaningful corporate social performance is achievable.