Oil Sands Truth: Shut Down the Tar Sands

Boreal countdown

Boreal countdown
By Enzo Di Matteo
Now Toronto // June 3-10, 2010

The details of the greenprint signed two weeks ago by eco groups and the forest industry to save the boreal forest are emerging after the 39-page pact was leaked last week. Is the historic Canadian Boreal Forest Agreement (CBFA) as good as advertised?

We break it down in five easy pieces.

1. Burning question

The one on everybody’s mind: why weren’t First Nations included in the discussions?

That was deliberate, says Larry Innes, executive director of the Canadian Boreal Initiative. The nine ENGOs that are signatories to the pact, he says, didn’t want discussions to be encumbered by baggage from three decades of land claims squabbles between native groups and timber companies. The practical consideration was also that there are some 600 First Nations in Canada. As it was, the deal took two years to finalize. (As well as the nine ENGOs, 21 timber companies signed the agreement.)

Innes says work is under way to bring First Nations into the fold. Some First Nations in Quebec and Labrador have offered qualified support for the agreement. Others, like Nishnawbe Aski Chief Stan Beardy have called the pact “disrespectful” for not including natives from the outset.

Says Innes, “We understand that the lands we’re fighting for belong to government and First Nations. We see ourselves as stakeholders in this. It was always our hope that aboriginal communities and provincial governments would be brought in later to be the ultimate decision-makers.”

2. The devil in the details

The positive: the agreement defines what areas are off limits to logging, some 29 million hectares in all. The trade-off: huge areas, so-called “commercial forestry zones,” making up some 50 per cent of the boreal forest, will be opened to logging.

Also, under section 28, lands sold by a signatory to the agreement to a third party are removed from the conditions of the deal, which could be a good thing or bad thing, depending on who ends up being the purchaser.

Clayton Thomas-Muller of the Ottawa-based Indigenous Environmental Network worries that the pact is a precursor to a deal on carbon offsets that will allow forest companies to continue clear-cutting in other areas, like the tar sands and native territories already being deforested. 

3. The big risk for the environmental movement

ENGOs know they’re taking a big gamble abandoning what Innes calls “old but reliable approaches,” i.e., boycotts, in the fight against logging interests. Can timber giants that have shown reckless disregard for native claims and a cavalier attitude toward environmental concerns over clear-cutting in the past be trusted to change their evil ways? Or will they use the agreement to apply the old strategy of divide-and-conquer against ENGOs that are signatories to the agreement and smaller eco groups that are not part of it and are engaged in struggles on the ground against timber interests?

Innes argues that the agreement will give environmental groups leverage to contrast the bad practices of non-participating logging companies with the new commitments made by signatories to the agreement.

Proponents of the deal point out that huge swaths of the area involved in the deal are already under licence to lumber companies.

Says Canopy executive director Nicole Rycroft: “One hundred per cent of nothing gets you nothing.”

4. Most misunderstood about the pact

It’s not a done deal, but rather a first step – a ceasefire, if you will – between two long-time warring factions. It’s voluntary and non-binding and still requires the blessing of provincial governments and aboriginal communities.

Much hard work and goodwill will be required to make it work. It’s not a land use planning agreement; it’s aspirational and part demonstration, as in “to demonstrate to governments that practical, broadly supported outcomes are possible through voluntary and collaborative measures, in the hope that governments will respond by adopting them,” says Innes.

Just as important as which companies signed, however, is which didn’t. In that group is Domtar, the largest paper company in North America, which runs a pulp mill in Dryden whose toxic releases continue to poison the nearby Grassy Narrows reserve. Who’s supplying the chips to Domtar’s Dryden pulp mill? The question has been asked. Could it be one of the signatories to the Boreal Forestry Agreement?

5. Why now?

A confluence of factors made the pact doable and provided the necessary breathing room for negotiations. First, forest companies are hurting, feeling the strain of boycott campaigns over the last decade, and had no choice but to cut a deal with environmental groups. Many of the signatories to the agreement are in bankruptcy protection and see the deal as a green lifeline.

For environmentalists, the sense of urgency was being pushed by the coming climate change bomb and the need to preserve the boreal forest, or at least large parts of it, as a carbon sink to counteract ever-growing amounts of greenhouse gases.

Saving the woodland caribou was the other big consideration. Half of the 57 herds roaming the country are in steep decline. The hope, says Rycroft, is that the deal will provide a model to save other important stands on the planet like the Amazon rainforest.



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