Relocation of Alaska’s sinking Newtok village halted

Setback for tribal communities threatened by climate change as government freezes funding over local political dispute

Newtok, Alaska

An aerial view of Newtok, Alaska where the eroding bank along the Ninglick River has long been a problem for the village. Photograph: Al Grillo/AP

An Alaskan village’s quest to move to higher ground and avoid being drowned by climate change has sputtered to a halt, The Guardian has learned.

Newtok, on the Bering Sea coast, is sinking and the highest point in the village – the school which sits perched atop 20ft pilings – could be underwater by 2017. But the village’s relocation effort broke down this summer because of an internal political conflict and a freeze on government funds.

The Guardian wrote about the strains placed on Newtok by the erosion which is tearing away at the land, and at the villagers’ efforts to move to a new site, known as Mertarvik, in an interactive series in May.

Those tensions fed a rebellion against the village leadership, the Newtok Traditional Council, which had run the village for seven years without facing an election, and the administrator overseeing the relocation effort, Stanley Tom. His critics said he had botched the move to Mertarvik, and neglected the existing village.

Since October, Newtok residents voted repeatedly to elect a new roster of candidates to the council. They also tried to remove Tom. But the council refused to recognise the results, and Tom refused to step aside.

In July, the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) took the unusual step of intervening in the internal dispute, and ruled the old council – which was working closely with Tom – no longer represented the villagers of Newtok. In an 11 July letter, Eufrona O’Neill, acting regional director of the BIA, noted the agency generally did not intervene in tribal political conflicts.

But she said the stand-off put the village at risk: “The continuation of a leadership vacuum would be detrimental to the best interests of the tribe, particularly in the present circumstances, where the community is in the midst of trying to physically relocate to a new village site due to serious erosion occurring at the present site.”

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