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CanadaChanging: The Great Bear Rainforest
Dawn Danby, 21 Jul 06


Here's a familiar story: up along the coast of British Columbia, Canada, there's a region of old-growth forest that represents a quarter of the world's remaining temperate rainforest. Ten years ago, plenty of people had all sorts of ideas about the best use for this land and its trees. Not all these people agreed.

As the years went by, protests were followed by careful campaigns, and finally, negotiations and dialogue. And then this last February, a sort of miracle: a coalition of environmental groups, First Nations communities, and businesses got the critical backing of the BC Provincial government to permanently protect 33% of the Great Bear Rainforest and apply Ecosystem-Based Management (EBM), a new sustainable forest management system, to the remaining 10.5 million acres.

A region's remoteness can sometimes preserve it. But ever since coureurs de bois were stoking the fur industry by pulling beavers out of northern lakes in the 17th Century, Canadian industry has been nothing if not fantastically resourceful. Consequently, many of our ecological sins are largely hidden from our view; the tar sands are only the most recent installment. In Canada - as in most of North America - the battle over big pretty trees is our archetypal environmental story. It comes bundled with angry protestors and standard corporate villains. This cartoon version circles around conflict. And yet the power of the Great Bear consensus was such that it ultimately transcended provincial politics. The pendulum swing from left to right in the province did nothing to destroy or undermine the work that had been done to find a solution.


It's easy to celebrate the technologies that will serve as tools in a better version of the world. But there's no substitute for forests. And no matter how much analysis is applied to an issue, scientific facts alone don't always win arguments. Neither do tree-sits, direct actions, or boycotts - especially when livelihoods and massive corporate profits are on the line. Working to preserve land is a fundamentally human concern. It has a lot to do with how people get along. Here, then, is the activist's challenge: while you may always have to generate attention - make noise, pull in the media, sit in trees - to really win you'll eventually have to switch gears, and balance politics and economics with local interests and personalities. Including your own.

There's no hacking or leapfrogging this process. All of the people that I've spoken to who've been involved in the Great Bear project over the last ten years have been forthright about the long and hard work involved. My friend Darcy Riddell, who worked on the campaign at various points over the last decade, looks at the Great Bear project through the lens of integral ecology. Put simply, she points out that enormous systemic change demanded more than just protests or boycotts, or even dialogue or negotiation. It needed people who saw themselves as solution-builders instead of just outside agitators; it needed a plan to support the flourishing of First Nations communities; and it needed new tactics that pushed the influence of markets:

Environmentalists developed international markets campaigns targeting the customers of BC wood products... creating a larger economic imperative for conservation, that is, the threat of contract cancellations. [They] further engaged with economic systems by creating financial incentives for conservation, and by attracting investment capital for sustainable community development. Such out-of-the-box thinking has been possible because of internal transformations in environmental leaders that changed their experience and their behavior, cultivating their capacities to value and integrate multiple perspectives and to come to negotiated solutions around legal protection and new forest practices. The emergence of new technologies and capacities to map and model ecological and cultural values expanded the terms of debate beyond narrow industrial perspectives on forestry.

Protests, of course, have their uses. With limited resources, environmentalists have tended to battle over individual valleys with the cheapest and most powerful tools at hand. The largest civil disobedience incident in Canadian history was over the protection of Clayoquot Sound, near Tofino, BC. When it came to sitting down at the table, environmentalists had to be calculated about their timing. Once the coalition of environmentalists sat down with the First Nations communities and six major logging companies,

...reactive campaigning was no longer required to protect the remaining valleys in the short term, and effort shifted to building long-term solutions to address sustainable community development, First Nations Rights and Title, political interests, corporate bottom-lines, and ecological integrity.

It may sound illogical, but without taking into account human well being and economics, pure conservation can be unsustainable in the long run. First Nations communities throughout the region suffer unemployment levels that can run well upwards of 70%, and these Nations had no rights or land entitlements, and were in fact rarely even provided with employment by the logging companies. The Great Bear protection won't solve all these issues, but the financing will provide opportunities for stewardship and watchman programs for First Nations as well as development for shellfish agriculture (not fish farming) and tourism.

In December, Jamais wrote about the enormous valuation of Canada's Boreal forest merely in terms of carbon sequestration. Globally, this package is on par with work done to protect 25% of land in Costa Rica, or 33% of the Great Barrier Reef. In spite of the piles of work yet to be done to sustainably manage the Great Bear territory, it has the potential to be a model of how to balance ecological integrity along with social justice and aboriginal rights. Much of the world could learn from it - the rest of Canada most of all.

(photos: Ian McAllister for Grist; ForestEthics)

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Thanks for the insight, Dawn!

I was just talking to a friend recently about the "policy pipeline" - mapping out what it takes to move an idea all the way to implemented reality. This is a valuable case study.

Posted by: Hassan Masum on 21 Jul 06

I want to thank you for this as well. I also wonder what kind of consensus building techniquess were used in the process. I know for Land Resource management plans in and around Kamloops BC, consensus building techniques were the basis of everything. A good resource book for these techniques is "Getting to Yes"

Posted by: Arjun Singh on 22 Jul 06



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