Protecting Old-Growth and Indigenous Knowledge

By: Isabelle Vauclair, a Laurier Institution Blog Contributor

Last month, more than one hundred politicians, celebrities, and citizens alike signed an open letter to Premier Horgan calling on him to save at-risk old-growth trees in B.C. Pressure for government intervention continues to increase as climate conditions worsen globally.

From record-breaking floods in China, western Germany, and Belgium, to raging forest fires in southern Turkey, the urgency of climate action has never been clearer. Increased levels of carbon emission from logging will only exacerbate current weather conditions.

The link between the land and its native inhabitants has long been tarnished by the legacies of colonialism, Indigenous genocide, and ecocide. After decades of empty reconciliation efforts and glossing over unmarked graves, Canada’s disturbing history of cultural genocide is finally coming to light. Despite public outcry, not enough is being done to preserve the ecological and cultural identities of the land.

However, that may be beginning to change as Indigenous-led accounts like @indigenouspeoplesmovement and @decolonizemyself gain traction on social media.

Indigenous knowledge and traditions are deeply rooted in caring for the land. To truly aid the movement to end old-growth logging, activists must recognize that the land they are defending is stolen.

Why is protecting old-growth important?

While the provincial government claims that 23 percent of B.C.’s forest is old-growth, an analysis of the province’s own data reveals that less than one percent of old-growth containing large trees remains.

The vast majority of unprotected growth consists of smaller, younger trees, which are only still standing because they are too small to be harvested at a profit. Why does this matter?

The larger and older the tree, the more likely it is to cope with the effects of climate change. Older trees are also home to some of the most biodiverse ecosystems in the world.

Scientists fear over a million species could go extinct if clearcutting continues. Since productive old forests are naturally rare in B.C., local ecosystems are especially at risk.

How does logging harm the environment?

We’ve already begun to see the devastating effects of clearcut logging in B.C.—and scorching temperatures and record-breaking heatwaves are just the start. Over time, old-growth forests accumulate large amounts of carbon per hectares. Logging releases all of that carbon back into the atmosphere.

Industrial logging also increases the risk and severity of flooding, landslides, and water turbidity. If that isn’t enough, approximately 50 percent of biomass left behind after a clearcut will dry out and become fuel for forest fires.

Current forest policy fails to maintain the natural range of ecosystem diversity in B.C., which means biodiversity and long-term carbon storage are at an even greater risk. If current old-growth forests can hardly sustain themselves, what will happen with continued deforestation?

Who is responsible for the damage?

Half of B.C.’s forest tenures are held by five major companies: Canadian Forest Products, West Fraser Timber, International Forest Products, Tolko Industries, and Western Forest Products. The NDP’s newest plan to protect old-growth includes increasing the tenures for Indigenous peoples, forest communities, and other smaller operators.

The Truck Loggers Association claims that their clearcutting practices are sustainable and an economic necessity. However, satellite images of Vancouver Island show otherwise.

In reality, Vancouver Island forests are being destroyed three times faster than those in the Amazon.

As of 2015, human activity has disrupted 49 percent of the coastal Douglas fir biogeoclimatic zone land base. It is the smallest and most at-risk area in the province, and 80 percent of it is privately owned. There are currently no rules that prevent logging on private lands, so protections for these remaining strips of coastal Douglas fir are a must.

Leaders of the coastal forestry industry often cite the livelihoods of their workers and their communities as the reason for continuing harmful deforestation practices. However, research shows there is a multitude of alternative, sustainable jobs that can replace those that deplete the environment.

For example, repairs to existing pipeline infrastructure created nearly five times more jobs than the Keystone XL pipeline ever did. Although job losses are not uncommon during a transition into a clean energy-based economy, these newly created jobs will drive growth, exponential job creation, and utilize cheaper energy. So in short: a win-win-win scenario.

What is the connection between conservation and Indigenous sovereignty?

Indigenous peoples are among the most culturally diverse populations in the world, speaking around three-quarters of the world’s 6,000 languages. Of the estimated 6,000 global cultures, between 4,000 and 5,000 are Indigenous. How is this relevant to old-growth?

The 17 global First Nations (the “Biological 17”) are home to more than two-thirds of the Earth’s biological resources. Preserving Indigenous cultures and languages will also preserve ecological diversity.

Indigenous ties to the land predate all colonial logging and milling efforts. However, the western logging industry was built on the premise that Indigenous peoples were incapable of caring for the land or utilizing its resources. The result? A forestry sector that is just as exploitative and damaging to the environment as it is to Indigenous lives.

How is ecocide a direct result of settler colonialism?

The arrival of white settlers in the Americas devastated the land, its ecosystems, and the ways of life for many First Nations communities. Some of these changes–diseases, rats, and invasive plant species–may have been brought on unintentionally. However, the development of clearcutting practices was deliberate.

The goal was two-fold: to clear away ancient forests and to remove Indigenous communities from the land. First Nations could not claim to have ancient ties to the land if that land was no longer there.

The settler mentality that white people have the knowledge and the right to impose their ‘ways of life’ on the natural world is ever-present. Reconciliation must include giving back control of the land to First Nations. The land cannot be protected if the people of that land are not an integral part of decision-making processes.

What is happening in Fairy Creek?

In July 2021, Horgan announced that old-growth logging was deferred in the Fairy Creek area, after two long years of conflict. The deferrals were requested by The Pacheedaht, Ditidaht, and Huu-ay-aht First Nations, who asked that deforestation be halted while they further develop resource management and stewardship plans.

Despite his government’s commitment to reconciliation and environmental preservation, Horgan continues to uphold the harmful logging practices of the colonial status quo.

Much of the campaign to end logging in the region is documented by protest organizers via @fairycreekblockade. While the account has shed light on the many abuses of power on the part of the RCMP, it also reveals the discrepancies between appropriating Indigenous cultures for a cause, and actually including Indigenous people at the forefront of the movement.

What role does the media play in perpetuating settler narratives?

For decades, Indigenous people have led conservation efforts on a global scale. Instead of following their lead, however, many white blockaders and media representatives have taken to the area to tell stories that are not their own.

Using Elder Bill Jones and other key figureheads to convey a message of urgency without first consulting the First Nations whose land they occupy shows a lack of true collaboration. According to several Indigenous activists on the frontlines, there is no tangible proof that anyone other than 17-year-old Joshua Wright has administrative access to the Fairy Creek Blockade account. This lack of inclusion reveals the white settler underbelly of the movement.

How did the Fairy Creek Blockade start?

According to Indigenous-led accounts, the original blockade was first assembled by settlers without the consent of First Nations. Over time, blockaders were encouraged to collaborate with Indigenous community leaders and provide more tangible support, such as vehicles for transportation to “HQ” to increase community access to blockade sites.

While some improvements have been made over the past year, many feel that white protestors have not taken enough time to build lasting relationships with the Pacheedaht and Nuu Chah Nulth Nations, instead opting to use their movement for their own personal agendas.

Calls for further transparency continue on social media.

How can the movement become more inclusive?

Firstly, white land defenders need to think more critically about how their actions–good intentioned or not–affect their Indigenous counterparts.

While Bill Jones has advocated for the presence of Fairy Creek protestors in the region (often putting him at odds with his own band council), that does not mean that he, or any one person, speaks for the entire Pacheedaht Nation, let alone multiple First Nations in the region. In fact, elected chief councilor Jeff Jones has repeatedly asked third-party protestors to leave.

Secondly, leaders and participants should address disparities in media representation. Not tiptoe around the issue or steamroll over valid criticisms.

At an age when BIPOC and Indigenous accounts are being de-platformed on a regular basis, it is paramount that accounts like @fairycreekblockade spread accurate information provided with consent.

In a recent Instagram Live, the account came under fire for their lack of Indigenous leadership, to which the admin responded:

“United we stand, divided we fall. That is the guidance we have received from Elder Bill Jones as we work against the force of colonialism. We must not let be divided. Please join us in solidarity with Elder Bill Jones and indigenous land defenders on the frontlines.” 

Although upon first glance, the caption appears to be a motion of solidarity with Indigenous protestors, it implies that any sign of diversion from the group will hurt the movement, and by extension, the environment.

Given the exploitative history of the logging industry, it is unrealistic to expect all First Nations members to feel the exact same way about protesting. Even Bill Jones himself is a former logger, and defends his Nation’s right to be divided on the issue.

Ultimately, non-Indigenous protestors have nothing to lose by protesting on someone else’s land. Indigenous communities are the ones that will be displaced by both continued logging, and the blockades respectively. 

Bottom line: be wary of media accounts that use Indigenous knowledge and traditions to further their message, but neglect to include Indigenous people in front of their cameras and in positions of authority.

“Environmentalism without the presence of Indigenous sovereignty and land back will only ever replicate the same systems of violence that got us here in the first place.” — @siiamhamilton

What role does climate activism play in restoring Indigenous knowledge?

In the 1992 UN Conference on Environment and Development, the role of Indigenous peoples in ecological conservation was finally recognized for the first time. In spite of this, most governments have yet to apply Indigenous knowledge to their conservation policies.

Instead, the rights of Indigenous peoples are trampled on, and their native land polluted and exploited for corporational gain. The Pictou Landing First Nation of Nova Scotia, for example, fought for years against the dumping of toxic waste into Boat Harbour by the Northern Pulp paper mill.

Elsewhere, however, there are tentative signs of progress. As the link between climate change and industrial logging grows, some countries have begun to expand the role of First Nations in developing environmental policy.

In 2018, the Australian government expanded its Indigenous Protected Areas program to five new areas, leaving the management of these areas to the aboriginal people of that land. This allows them to apply their knowledge about nature to preserve its most susceptible ecosystems. As a result of this partnership, Australia now has 10,000 protected areas that cover nearly 17 percent of its landmass.

To save old-growth in B.C., the government must grant Indigenous Elders the authority to govern, manage, and develop their own lands. If local governments do not step in, then it will be up to environmental justice movements — such as the movement in Fairy Creek — to advocate for Indigenous land rights.

Until there is a major shift in power dynamics, the movement to end old-growth logging will remain at a standstill.

How can you help protect old-growth?

  1. Research and donate to indigenous-led development projects in Canada’s forest sector. The Indigenous Forestry Initiative (IFI) works to increase indigenous participation in forestry-related opportunities, businesses, careers, and governance. This will allow for greater collaboration between Indigenous peoples and other natural resource development stakeholders, including governments and industry organizations.
  2. Donate to Indigenous land defenders at Fairy Creek. Diversify your news sources to gain a better understanding of the blockade and region. Consider following @siiamhamilton, @nipawi, and @dreamsincoastal to better understand the perspective of Indigenous frontliners.
  3. Hold government officials accountable for meeting the midterm priorities and action items. At least 30 percent of each forest type must be preserved, as well as 30 percent of the total forested area. The latter will compensate for any natural disturbances that may occur.
  4. Follow social media accounts of Indigenous environmentalists, artists, and creators to increase visibility. @cbcindigenous, @indigenousclimateaction, @indigenoustiktok, @urbannativeera, @lilnativeboy, @dineaesthetics, @indigenousrising, @seedingsovereignty

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