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In Alaska, the Inupiat torn between the wealth of a copper mine and the caribou hunt

The visitor who, in summer, ventures to Ambler, a small Inupiaq village along the Kobuk River, north of the Bering Strait, is greeted by a swarm of mosquitoes. But in winter, when temperatures sometimes drop below – 45°C, hunting reigns supreme. Kristy Walton, 29, explains what her life is like under the Arctic Circle. With her trapper husband, she operates a 50-kilometre trail of traps. His targets? Wolves, foxes, lynxes and wolverines, whose furs she assembles to make traditional clothes.

The family lives on subsistence: berries, fish, moose and, above all, caribou. “We almost finished eating the one we killed in early April”, she says. Recently they shot a grizzly bear. “We gave it to the elders. Everything is shared. We ask them what they want, because they are no longer able to hunt. » This hunter-gatherer way of life concerns a few handfuls of remote villages in Alaska, accessible only by plane, snowmobile or river. But now the village of Ambler is threatened with losing its splendid isolation, due to the construction of a gravel road, baptized “road of Ambler”.

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This single track of 340 kilometers is supposed to open access to the copper and zinc mines of the region, to the rare earths and other strategic minerals which abound but are poorly listed. It would connect Inuit villages to the modern world, linking them to the road that goes from Fairbanks, the second city in the heart of the state, to the oil fields of Prudhoe Bay, on the Arctic Ocean, 800 kilometers to the north. “We like to live cut off from the world, with our model of subsistence, as our ancestors did: without roads, without destroying animals or trees”says Kristy Walton.

The trouble is that the Inupiat also need the mines which explore the riches of this immense virgin zone, the size of a fifth of France. Kristy Walton’s husband worked, in 2021, about thirty kilometers away, on the Bornite site, where the company Ambler Metals is prospecting for copper. “I like the Bornite mine, because it is very close and brings work, while each village is fighting for employment. At least ten people from the village work there”greets the young woman.

“Serious environmental concerns”

This half-traditional, half-capitalist life brings a smile to Alex Kurtser, 32, an American of Russian origin, walking barefoot to toughen up and wearing a mosquito net, crossed by the river, as he unloads his ship the wood for the winter. “The inhabitants say they are against the road, but in their attitude they are for it: they all work for the mine”explains the one who looks like the hero ofInto the Wilddied poisoned by berries in the tundra, in 1992. No road to evacuate the ore, no mine or dollars.

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