Comment: Clayoquot legacy should shape the future

Clayoquot Sound remains in the minds of many as ground zero for large-scale, peaceful civil disobedience over logging of ancient forests on B.C.’s fabled West Coast.

What happened 20 years ago has become synonymous with the widespread desire for the protection of intact ancient forests — too few of which remained then, and even fewer today.

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The need to abide by the rights of the First Nations of the region, who never ceded their traditional territories, coupled with ecological imperatives to protect ancient forests, lay the groundwork for what was to come a decade later, and which remains unresolved two decades after that.

That summer when 12,000 people came together to protect the intact valleys resulted in more than 850 arrests, the largest act of civil disobedience in Canadian history.

The trigger for the summer protest was the provincial government announcing the Clayoquot Sound land-use decision, which largely ignored First Nations and environmental concerns. It essentially allowed for two-thirds of the area to be logged. This was entirely unacceptable.

As Greenpeace, we were able to call on our colleagues around the world who took up the cause in their home countries. Twenty years ago on Nov. 9, Greenpeace activists chained themselves to each other on the road to stop the logging trucks.

The blockades and mass arrests, the international spotlight, the markets campaigns, the grassroots support everywhere and standing with First Nations members resulted in the region becoming controversial.

The government finally listened. In 1995, a government-sanctioned scientific panel was struck and developed recommendations for Clayoquot that resulted in improved logging practices. These practices and the subsequent watershed plans were all good steps along the way. However, the panel didn’t answer the question of how much to log in the light of the broader context of Vancouver Island, which continues to lose so much of its old-growth forests. And this was before we understood how old forests help mitigate climate-change impacts.

Although inadequate, those 1995 recommendations for more sustainable logging practices were important and helped create a living laboratory out of Clayoquot Sound, showing how economic activities and conservation might be mutually enhancing. It’s a work in progress.

Moving further out of conflict into an era of collaboration, a First Nations-owned logging company was formed and eventually took over tenures from the largest company operating in the area and the target of much of the ire.

Iissak Forest Resources, on behalf of its five First Nations community owners, signed a “peace in the valley” memorandum of understanding in 1999 with environmental organizations, pledging not to log in the remaining unprotected valleys. We agreed to support them as a producer of sustainable wood products.

Yet, some of those intact valleys remain under threat of industrial logging. More important, the region’s First Nations communities have not economically benefited from those agreements.

Along with our allies that make up the Clayoquot Sound Conservation Alliance and the region’s First Nations, we have been working on a long-term conservation-based solution, inspired by a model piloted in the Great Bear Rainforest. The “conservation financing” approach provided funding for alternative and sustainable economic opportunities to ensure the well-being of communities, combined with a land-use designation (conservancy) that respects and protects First Nations cultural values. We hope this can inspire the solution for Clayoquot, resulting in environmentally friendly investments that allow for sustainable forms of economic activity that preserve the remaining large ancient forests and valleys, which total about 74,000 hectares.

The legacy of the Clayquot protests is still not fully understood. We know that with climate change now upon us, the imperative to protect large old-growth forests that absorb great amounts of carbon is essential. We also know that the area makes up the traditional and unceded territories of the Tla-o-qui-aht, Ahousaht and Hesquiaht Nations, and their support and involvement is critical.

We should honour the sacrifices of all those who were arrested, whose lives were radically transformed by their actions and passions to protect Clayoquot Sound, as well as those who have called the area home for millennia (and indeed on behalf of all species that inhabit the region), by encouraging a more resilient type of economy that ensures the old, deep emerald-green of Clayoquot remains that way.

Eduardo Sousa is senior forests campaigner with Greenpeace and a member of the Clayoquot Sound Conservation Alliance. The alliance has organized a panel discussion this evening on the legacy of Clayoquot Sound, featuring MP Elizabeth May and members of the environmental, media and First Nations communities. The discussion starts at 7:30 p.m. at Alix Goolden Hall.

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