May 2, 1994
By Eugene Linden
One of the most cherished truisms of the environmental movement is that native peoples hold the key to the planet's salvation. The fact is that from New Guinea to the Amazon basin, indigenous peoples can be as rapacious as outsiders in destroying delicate ecosystems. Increasingly, however, native groups are leading innovative efforts to ward off despoliation. In British Columbia, Canada's westernmost province, for example, native people have enlisted government and the conservation movement in the cause of saving their patrimony.
Take a maritime climate, add a coastal mountain range to trap moisture laden winds, steep for millenniums, and the result is the temperate coastal rain forest, one of the rarest, richest and most threatened ecosystems. Over the centuries, 56% of those forests have been cut, often leaving behind eroded slopes and ruined salmon rivers. On the West Coast of the Americas, only one such watershed remains intact—the Kitlope, a 400,000 hectare swatch of British Columbia that is the largest pristine area of its kind on earth. When its huge Sitka spruces were targeted for harvesting in the late 1980s by Eurocan, a Finnish-Canadian joint venture, the 600 member Haisla Nation, the provincial government and a fledgling conservation organization called Ecotrust joined forces to fight back.
The Haisla have fished and hunted in the Kitlope area for 3,000 years. "Grease trails," long established trading paths, cut through a forest dotted with red and yellow cedar trees whose bark and wood were once used for clothing and shelter. In 1949 an influenza epidemic nearly wiped out the Haisla; the survivors and their offspring now live in the village of Kitimat, 60 km from the Kitlope. A few have found jobs with logging and aluminum companies, but the unemployment rate is 60%, and alcoholism is rampant.
In the late '80s, with logging operations steadily encroaching on ancestral territory, Haisla elders, led by tribal spokesman Cecil Paul, decided that they had had enough. They rallied the tribe to oppose further cutting and lobbied in Victoria, the provincial capital, for preservation of their lands. They made little progress but then got unexpected support from conservationists.
The green knights came from Ecotrust, a small Oregon based offshoot of the multinational environmental group Conservation International. Beginning in 1990, Ecotrust used satellite imagery, aerial photography and information gathered on the ground to identify the Kitlope as the only untouched coastal watershed remaining in British Columbia. "Before the Ecotrust people came, I had a dream," recalls Paul. I was reaching out for help to save the Kitlope, and reaching down to help me was a white hand. When the whites told me this was the largest untouched forest of its type remaining, I realized that my dream had come true."
The Haisla and Ecotrust decided to jointly develop a preservation plan for the Kitlope; they got a boost in 1991 when the environmentally sensitive New Democratic Party came to power in the province. In British Columbia 95% of the remaining forested land is controlled by provincial and federal authorities and leased to loggers; until recently, the province had much the flavor of a company town run by big timber interests. Faced with rising public opposition to unchecked cutting, the new government promised to increase the proportion of protected ecosystems from 5.5% of provincial land to 12% by the year 2000.
Armed with an Ecotrust study documenting the area's ecological importance, the Haisla asked last January that the Kitlope be exempted from timber licensing and granted protected status and that they be allowed to co manage the forest with the government. Eurocan had long possessed a logging license for the Kitlope but decided that it would be politically unwise to begin logging without obtaining the tribe's consent. With that in mind, the company promised that every job in the Kitlope would go to a Haisla. The Haisla said no and, while the decision was painful, never wavered. Since then, several provincial ministers have lined up with them and the British Columbia government is expected to announce an agreement this autumn to protect the Kitlope. Remarked John Cashore, the Aboriginal Affairs Minister: "We are the last generation on earth that has the opportunity to make these decisions." The Finnish partner in Eurocan last year sold out to its Canadian partner, which has begun to try to negotiate a profitable way to relinquish its claim to the Kitlope's timber.
If the Haisla want further guidance on how to protect the forest, they might study the agreement signed last January by the neighboring Haida tribe and the federal government in Ottawa. The accord covers one of the most pristine island chains in the western hemisphere, the South Moresby National Park Reserve or, as the Haida call it, the Gwaii Haanas Heritage Site. Though the two sides cannot even agree on the name for the protected area, they are intent on preserving the 86-km-long archipelago, which makes up the southern third of British Columbia's Queen Charlotte Islands. The Haida, accomplished fishermen and seal hunters, first came to the Queen Charlottes about 10,000 years ago, most likely from coastal Alaska. In the 19th century they fell victim to disease and alcohol; their numbers on the islands have shrunk from roughly 10,000 then to fewer than 2,000 today.
Gwaii Haanas comprises 138 islands—the Pacific side wild and forbidding, marked by cliffs and grottoes and an angry sea, the eastern shore more protected. The islands abound with hot springs, rich fishing grounds and old tribal villages. When loggers began making inroads in the 1970s, the Haida knew they had much to lose. "Our relationship to our life source was being alienated," says Miles Richardson, the elected chief. "Our first priority was to keep Haida Gwaii [the Haida name for the archipelago] in its natural state in perpetuity, and our second objective was to assert and gain recognition for Haida jurisdiction over this area."
In 1974 the tribe began challenging logging licenses in the courts. Later it mounted a nationwide public relations campaign, and asked the U.N. to designate the area a World Heritage Site. When logging continued, the Haida turned to civil disobedience, blocking key roads on an island they had designated a cultural heritage site. Says John Broadhead, a non-Haida activist: "We were speaking into a void until the Haida acted. They brought a cultural and moral authority to the issue that environmentalists could not." The controversy also brought federal government mediators from Ottawa who proposed that the area be made a national park; the Haida insisted that first the issue of who owned the land had to be settled.They also balked at a proposal that would have given the federal Minister of Environment the final authority over the territory. "We want a stable relationship with Canada, but at be we consider ourselves to be involuntary citizens," says Guujaaw, a leading Haida activist.
In the end the two sides agreed to disagree on the question of ownership. The accord they signed lays out their conflicting claims for sovereignty side by side and asserts that "both parties agree that long-term protective measures are essential to safeguard the archipelago as one of the world's great natural and cultural treasures." The federal government vowed to spend $106 million to compensate logging companies, $32 million to have the Canadian Parks Service protect Gwaii Haanas and $38 million in capital investment to diversify the local economy. Representatives from the Haida and the Parks Service share membership on a board that oversees decisions affecting the archipelago.
The results are plain to see: while logging roads spread like capillaries across other islands, nothing but green shows from the border of Gwaii Haanas toward the south. Haida watchmen still police the preserve but are now paid by the Parks Service. Conservation has also been good news for the economy: while 90 logging jobs were lost 150 park related jobs were created. Unlike loggers, those workers never need worry about running out of trees.