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Sustainable Biomass Energy and Indigenous Cultural Models of Well-being in an Alaska Forest Ecosystem

Munish Sikka, Former Student at University of Oxford
Thomas F. Thornton, Senior Research Fellow, Environmental Change Institute, University of Oxford
Rosita Worl, President – Sealaska Heritage Institute

DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.5751/ES-05763-180338

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Abstract

Oil-dependent indigenous communities in remote regions of Alaska and elsewhere are facing an unprecedented crisis. With the cost of fuel and transport skyrocketing, energy costs are crippling local economies, leading to increasing outmigration and concern for their very existence in the future. What can be done to address this energy crisis, and promote energy security, sustainability and resilience in rural forest communities? We examine the potential of developing a sustainable biomass-energy industry in Southeast Alaska, home to nearly 16,000 Alaska Natives in a dozen rural and two urban communities within the United States’ largest national forest: The Tongass. Although the potential for biomass energy has long been touted, realization of the opportunity has been catalyzed only recently as part of a model of sustainable development being enacted by the region’s largest Native corporation, Sealaska, and its subsidiary, Haa Aaní (“Our Land”) L.L.C. In this paper we examine the unique nature of Alaska Native corporations and their potential as engines of sustainable development, particularly through Sealaska’s emerging cultural model of sustainability in relation to social-ecological well-being. We assess the economic, ecological, and atmospheric emissions parameters of a wood-biomass energy industry at various scales according to the “triple bottom line” of sustainability. Finally, we address what additional policy and support measures may be necessary to nurture the successful transition to biomass energy at a sustainable scale to support rural indigenous communities, a more resilient, renewable energy system, and a lower carbon footprint.

Key words

forest ecosystems; indigenous communities; Native corporations; policy recommendations; sustainable development; triple bottom line analysis; wood-biomass energy
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Ecology and Society. ISSN: 1708-3087