“Putting the Development Back Into Rural Development: Finding Shared Language.” A guest post by Professor Jenny Bell Jones

Has “development’ somehow become a bad word because of how it has been pursued in Alaska? Do some of us tend to shy away from serious discussions about development because the word has become synonymous with big business, oil and gas and mining and we see ourselves in opposition to these pursuits, believing that they can only bring destruction to rural and Native communities and the lands they depend on? If this is the case it is time for a second look at development and how we approach it because history shows us that development in one form or another has been with us since the dawn of time. It will affect us no matter what we do so if we can control those effects we will be much better off. We cannot expect to control them if we do not participate in the discussions.

Development of some kind is coming to our communities whether we like this or not. The questions we must answer are what kinds of development do we want and how to best attain them? Where do we see our communities twenty or fifty years from now and how do we want to get there? What do people in those communities really want to see in terms of development and how are they going to implement that vision? Can we come to an agreement about what people mean when they say they want development, or that they do not want it?

It is not enough to blindly oppose all “development,’ digging in our heels and refusing to move forward, and we must be realistic about the things we do oppose. This is where discussion comes in; if we oppose something have we really thought through our reasons for opposition? If the development we oppose would put local residents to work, and there are community members who want this, have we come up with a viable alternative? It simply is not sufficient to throw out vague statements about “alternative energy jobs’ if we oppose oil and gas development unless there is some real possibility of those jobs being available.

How can we change the conversation? First we need to be realistic about the future of the communities; if they are to be healthy safe places to live and raise families they will need to have healthy economies. No amount of language revitalization or cultural revival can substitute for economic stability. Only the very smallest most remote communities might be able to contemplate a future dependence on subsistence resources alone and even the people in those communities need some money to get by. It will be “subsistence and’ not “subsistence or’ going into the future and what the “and’ will look like depends on how we approach development and economics in each community. Instead of avoiding development we need to engage with it head on and put our research efforts into identifying and implementing development projects that will actually improve and sustain rural economies.

What do we really need? Is it jobs, is it better infrastructure, cheaper energy, better transportation … is it just one of these things or varying combinations of all of them? What kind of jobs do people in rural communities really want and what changes are they willing to accept in those communities in order to have those jobs? All of these questions and more are ones that Rural Development (RD) majors need to be trying to find answers to as they go through their academic programs.

This is hard work. It involves looking at the money and it involves talking to people with very different views on development from those we may hold dear ourselves. It requires that we learn “new stuff’ about development and the different options that are available. We have to take a long hard look at the community involved to try to figure out what kind of development is right. We have to make sure the people from the community have a space where they can speak honestly about what they want. We have to let go of ideas about all development being “bad’ and instead differentiate clearly between development we want and development we don’t.

Development includes a huge range of opportunities in Alaska, opportunities that can really help build sustainability in rural and Native communities which will in turn allow things like language and culture to thrive. No community survives for long without a functioning economy. For hundreds of years what we call “subsistence’ today formed the economies of Native communities in Alaska but those economies and the technology that supported them were not static; they developed as time went by and new tools became available via trading relationships and invention by community members. Today many communities retain aspects of subsistence as integral parts of their economies but those economies have developed and now include many things that were not there fifty or a hundred years ago. It is those things, some of which have been very positive, that we need to talk about in our development discussions.

Development is not just about ANWR or Pebble Mine or drilling for oil and gas in the Beaufort Sea; it is also about the wood burning boiler and greenhouse at the school in Tok, the wind farm in Kongiganak, mariculture and kelp farming in Southeast and hydroponic farming in Kotzebue. Development is about Igiugig finding a way to recycle so that they can extend the life of the landfill, local guys manufacturing aluminum skiffs in Naknek or running small businesses in Bethel, and small scale hydro projects around the State. It is about sustainable forestry projects, expanded reindeer herding programs, bison ranches, growing industrial hemp for building and other products, and cultivating specialty crops like peonies and Rhodiola Rosea for export.

Development needs infrastructure; better roads, energy efficient homes, high speed internet, cheaper transportation and better access to health care. Development means making sure that communities have proper law enforcement and tribal and local governments have systems in place to prevent corruption. It means finding ways to respond to climate change and mitigate its effects in Native and rural communities. All of these and more must be part of the development conversation and they all provide opportunities for students.

When Congressional delegates and business leaders make sweeping statements about “all Alaska Natives want development’ and “large majorities of Alaskans support development’ they are very likely being truthful, but something important gets lost in that conversation. If “development’ means affordable energy, better schools, more job prospects and safer communities it is probably safe to say that a majority of Alaskans, Native and non-Native are in support. If on the other hand, “development’ means all of the above but only at the expense of the environment and overall quality of life, and the benefits do not accrue to those closest to the development project but instead line the pockets of people far away, then the numbers of those in support are likely to be much smaller. The second kind of development is the colonial style and it would be very interesting to find out how many Alaskans really support that.

We can move away from colonial style development where “natural resources’ are extracted and profits go out of state, and we can move away from development that contributes to climate change but neither of these things will happen if we opt out of the conversation. These things will not go away overnight, and we need to accept that, but they will go away much faster if we are able to bring viable alternatives to the table. As long as those alternatives are lacking, the State will continue to default back to promoting large scale resource extraction because nothing else is on the table that they think will work.

As Rural Development practitioners we must work to bridge the communications gap. Find out what people really want and convey an honest message. Do the kind of surveying that produces accurate data, not the kind that skews answers to fit with political or personal goals.  Be willing to talk to “the other side’ not just with those who share our own position. Study the economics of development and come up with proposals that are feasible. Look beyond the short term profit motives of colonial style development and consider long term schemes that will grow slowly and sustainably over time. If we want our communities to be vibrant healthy places to live in fifty years’ time then our development language and planning needs to reflect that. If the State of Alaska shares that goal then we need to develop shared language on how we will all achieve it and we can only do that by talking with each other.

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