Agreements on paper, results on the ground?

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Feature story - April 8, 2003
After a long and intense struggle by environmentalists world-wide, the British Columbia government agreed to protect 20 of the Great Bear Rainforest's most ecologically important valleys from all industrial activity. Another 68 valleys were placed under a moratorium until informed decisions could be made how to best manage the forest. It was an unprecedented move by a government and a heart-warming victory for all involved. But two years later few of the promises have made it off paper and into the forest.

It's report card time and members of the British Columbia government will not be taking this one home to the family.

Two years ago, the world praised British Columbia for forging a great consensus - the Great Bear Rainforest Agreement. In April 2001, the long and intense battle over the fate of BC's Great Bear Rainforest, the largest area of intact temperate rainforest left on Earth, resulted in what many viewed as a great first step and a win for everyone.

The BC government, First Nations, rural communities, forestry companies and people concerned about conserving ancient forests for posterity all walked away in agreement. A comprehensive solution unlike anything the world has seen could happen in British Columbia, Canada.

A key component of the agreement was a commitment to a new way of logging on the coast, one that valued the coast's unparalleled ecological diversity, and abandoned relentless and indiscriminate clearcut logging. And many of the most crucial areas of biodiversity were set aside for future protection.

In turn, environmentalists suspended an international markets campaign that resulted in high-profile customers like Home Depot and IKEA agreeing to stop buying forest products from the Great Bear Rainforest if clearcut logging continued.

Since then, what has the British Columbia government done to ensure this unprecedented "peace in the woods" remains intact?

Along with other groups ForestEthics, Rainforest Action Network and the Sierra Club of Canada all involved in forging the agreement and working toward long-term solutions for the region, we have evaluated the government's progress.

Contradictory direction and a lack of open communication from the government are raising concerns about the fate of the Great Bear Rainforest. Cases of inconsistent government timelines and breaches of process are numerous. It appears that internal strife within the government itself is holding back progress. Opportunities for lasting solutions could be lost.

Although the province may be upholding, for now, the letter of the agreement, the constant delays and frequent attempts to undermine the process and their boosterism of unsustainable development belies any real commitment to change.

Internationally, BC's market reputation is at stake. A lack of strong direction and clear communication from the government regarding their commitment to a conservation solution for the Great Bear Rainforest creates a climate of uncertainty.

In fact, a new survey by IBM Business Consulting of buyers who annually purchase more than $2 billion worth of BC wood found that "there is clear evidence of a greenward shift in the market for forest products, including those from BC. The shift is real, buyers believe it will continue, and it will have a negative impact on forest regions and producers that do not respond to it.

But extensive analysis by the David Suzuki Foundation, Global Forest Watch and the Raincoast Conservation Society shows that on the ground logging companies have not changed their practices, despite commitments on paper to "conservation" and "sustainability".

Since the agreement was signed, 72 percent of the logging was done through clearcutting. In other areas the trees left standing in logging sites are too few to sustain old-growth dependent species and these meagre patches of forest cannot be described as old-growth "habitat".

Improvements to practices are virtually non-existent and destructive clearcutting of the Great Bear Rainforest continues outside of the agreed moratoria areas.

Right now, British Columbia has the opportunity to lead the world and create lasting conservation solutions, as well as capture new market share for environmentally responsible products. Will the coming months be a time of unprecedented progress or increasing uncertainty for BC's coast?

The Report Card

Protection: D-

Two years after the historic "peace in the woods" agreement, none of the valleys have been permanently protected. In May 2002, the BC government placed the valleys in "interim" protection. However, this expires in less than three months, then the valleys will have no protection from development and logging could resume anytime.

Credible Science: C+

A strong team of biologists and ecologists has been pulled together, and good work is being done on the ecosystem-based forest management. But the work of this team remains underfunded and behind schedule. The delays are due to government's sluggish delivery of critical scientific data and analysis, largely because of ill-advised reductions in technical capacity. It is unlikely there will be enough time to understand or adequately incorporate the team's work in to the final decisions for the Great Bear Rainforest.

Forest Policy: D-

Earlier this year the BC government announced a package of forestry reforms to agreements that have governed the relationship between communities and logging companies for more than half a century. While communities saw their longstanding benefits from this contract simply eliminated with little in return, the logging companies' benefits were greatly increased and further entrenched.

These momentous changes have been drafted with the forest industry behind closed doors and with no community consultation. The government's policy changes will increase corporate powers by allowing forest tenures to be subdivided and sold, while companies are released from their obligations to run local mills and sustain local economies.

Ecological Management and Planning: F

Regarding the Central Coast the government has been sluggish providing essential data and analysis to the scientists who, in turn, has been unable to meet the timetable for delivery of information. Instead of delaying discussion until they have credible information to use, the government is forcing the planning table to go over old ground.

On the North Coast several issues are causing profound concerns among environmentalists including the tight timelines for the planning process, limited capacity for First Nations to engage effectively in this process, the government's continued approval of raw log exports from the area and the proposed rapid expansion of aquaculture on the coast.

Last year the government temporarily reduced the rate of logging by removing 1.5 million hecatres from the Annual Allowable Cut, but this decision also expires the end of June.

Managing Change: B-

While there have been some positive steps, BC's government has slashed existing community economic development programmes on the coast and the infrastructure for assisting economic diversification has not been replaced.

While little has been done in coastal communities, there are various initiatives taking place, including development of potential investment models to help fund economic transition for communities that want to undertake conservation-based planning. To date, these talks, while they are promising, have been slow. A committee is working on this project and the government and others have committed funds to develop new models and securing conservation investments.

First Nations Rights and Title: D

The government-to-government protocol, signed by eight coastal First Nations and the province, establishes mechanisms for land-use planning and commits the two parties to both a framework for environmentally responsible development and implementing agreements that would provide economic opportunities for First Nations.

The province and First Nations agreed to develop a range of economic strategies for forestry, tourism and fisheries guided by principles of ecologically responsible management. In the past year progress has been made to plan activities, but First Nations still have not had any direct benefits.

Meanwhile, the province's changes to forestry regulations will further infringe on First Nations' rights through the weakening of provincial oversight mechanisms, without which it is questionable whether the government can fulfill its fiduciary obligations to BC's indigenous peoples.

Finally, the government's commitment to massive expansion of the aquaculture industry has proven to be an enormously contentious issue in First Nation communities. While one or two First Nations are receptive to, or engaged in, fin-fish aquaculture, the huge majority are adamantly opposed to the siting of this high-risk industry in their traditional territories.

Download the full version of the Great Bear Rainforest Annual Report Card (pdf,551k).

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