Comment: Clayoquot Sound — it’s not just about the trees

Twenty years ago, environmentally minded citizens flocked to the Clayoquot Peace Camp to put an end to logging of the iconic ancient temperate rainforests of Clayoquot Sound. Twelve thousand people attended, and by the end of Clayoquot Summer, 856 people had been arrested in the largest act of civil disobedience in Canadian history.

Our world has changed dramatically in the past 20 years. For example, British Columbia’s legal relationship with First Nations has experienced a groundshift. Yet there’s been mostly talk and not much action. Clayoquot Sound is home to three Nuu-chah-nulth First Nations: the Hesquiaht, Ahousaht and Tla-o-qui-aht. They have never ceded their territories to the Crown nor have they signed treaties. This is an international human-rights issue that must be resolved.

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Many indigenous communities suffer from under-employment and poverty. This makes it difficult for leaders to say no when industries come knocking, offering millions of dollars in exchange for access to resources.

Yet corporations offer short-term economic solutions that come with long-term social and environmental impacts. The challenge of our time is to find ways to sustain healthy human communities without destroying the Earth’s life-support systems, which provide the clean air and water we all need.

Twenty years ago, we did not know that wild salmon are the lifeblood of the rainforest. Rainforest soils are shallow and nutrient-poor. Scientists only recently came to understand that up to 80 per cent of the nitrogen in the massive rainforest trees comes from a marine source. Salmon returning to their natal streams to spawn carry in their bodies the nitrogen that fertilizes the ancient forests. Black bears and more than 200 other species in the “salmon guild” spread this nitrogen throughout the forest.

We now understand that any activity that threatens wild salmon puts the rainforest at risk. Despite the abundance of pristine rainforest habitat, Clayoquot’s wild salmon populations are in serious decline. In this light, Clayoquot Sound is more threatened than ever.

The logging of ancient forests has never actually stopped in Clayoquot Sound. The rate of cutting has slowed, but raw logs are still being exported with no value added. Now, in addition to logging, there are several new threats: mining, fish farms and oil spills.

Imperial Metals is proposing two potential mines for Clayoquot Sound. One is an open-pit copper mine 10 kilometres north of Tofino, just three kilometres from the native village of Ahousat on Flores Island. The other is an abandoned gold mine up Tofino Inlet. With the price of gold much higher than in the past, mining companies globally are re-opening old mines.

The toxic effects of mining are well documented, and no doubt would expose the wild salmon of Clayoquot Sound to considerable risk. Waste rock left behind would constitute a toxic legacy that would need to be managed for centuries, if not millenniums. Mining companies come and go — ultimately it is taxpayers, and especially indigenous peoples, who bear the burden.

Fish farms began moving into Clayoquot Sound in the early ’90s while environmentalists had their hands full trying to put an end to clearcutting. Now there are 21 fish-farm sites, with 16 active farms. These industrial feedlots are breeding grounds for pathogens such as sea lice and viruses. Because many salmon farms are located on wild salmon migration routes, transfer of pathogens to wild populations is inevitable.

Last but not least is the risk of increased tanker traffic posed by the Enbridge and Kinder Morgan proposals to build or expand pipelines from Alberta to the B.C. coast.

Long Beach experienced a minor spill of 5,500 barrels in 1989. While government agencies quarrelled about who was responsible for the cleanup, residents simply rolled up their sleeves and got to work with shovels and garbage bags. Fifty-six thousand seabirds were killed by the spill, and locals were left exhausted and traumatized by weeks of desperate volunteerism. It is unthinkable that our governments would set the stage for a spill 350 times bigger. A ban on tanker traffic is needed.

Twenty years after, it’s high time to realize the dream of Clayoquot Summer 1993. The communities of Clayoquot Sound were at that time global leaders in the movement to protect rare and endangered ecosystems. We must be leaders again, this time with the intention of recognizing indigenous rights, as well as the rights of nature.

Dan Lewis is the executive director of Clayoquot Action and has lived in Tofino for more than 20 years.

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