The agreement between loggers and activists to save Canada's remaining boreal forest is proving controversial
Will historic deal to protect Canada's mighty boreal forest work?
26th October, 2010
The unprecedented Canadian Boreal Forest Agreement will, if all goes to plan, preserve vast swathes of the country's pristine wilderness. But as environmentalists and the logging industry begin to roll the initiative out, there are claims that not everything is as it should be, reports Christopher Pala
Six months after campaigners and loggers signed the Canadian Boreal Forest Agreement to safeguard unprecedented amounts of forest land, the deal's real contours are starting to emerge, and they include papered-over differences that promise a rough ride ahead.
The historic agreement was announced at a press conference in Toronto on May 18 after two years of secret talks – two years during which the US construction industry collapsed, newspapers closed and the Canadian dollar went up. As a result, harvesting has fallen to about half the allowable amount.
The pact was designed to bring a fresh green lustre to the ailing industry and increase its market share, pave the way for unprecedented conservation, and end campaigns, boycotts and poor harvesting methods in one of the world’s biggest spreads of relatively intact nature, which is home to Canada’s iconic woodland caribou – and all by the end of 2012.
Shy and reclusive, the woodland caribou requires large areas of intact boreal forest, unlike the barren-land caribou that lives further north, in herds that can reach tens of thousands of animals. It has largely abandoned the southern, more intensely harvested part of the boreal forest and its numbers are in steady decline.
The boreal forest is composed mostly of slow-growing conifers such as pine and spruce. Unlike the temperate or tropical forest, in which trees die individually and there is habitat continuity, the boreal forest is renewed by vast forest fires or insect infestations every century or so. After 70 years, scientists say it’s hard to distinguish a forest that has been clear-cut from one that burned naturally. The differences reside mostly in the way the trees and plants grow back.
The boreal agreement was signed by nine environmental organisations (Greenpeace, the Nature Conservancy, the Canadian Boreal Initiative, the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society, known as CPAWS, Canopy, the David Suzuki Foundation and the Ivey Foundation, ForestEthics and the Pew Environment Group’s International Boreal Conservation Campaign) and 21 companies that are members of the Forest Products Association of Canada (FPAC). FPAC’s members are responsible for 80 per cent of the wood cut in Canada.
The centrepiece of the agreement calls for companies that have acquired the right to harvest vast tracts of forested land – called tenures – to work with scientists and environmentalists to select which areas to conserve, privileging caribou habitat. They are then to approach the provincial government that sold the tenure to the company in the first place and propose that the area be removed from exploitation forever. In exchange, the company would be given the right to cut a comparable amount of wood in a less ecologically sensitive zone (some are available in Ontario and Quebec) or would be allowed to exploit some existing tenures more intensively (the only option in Alberta, where all tenures have been allocated).
The combined boreal tenures at play in the agreement total 73 million hectares, an area three times the size of the United Kingdom.
Since it was signed, says Richard Brooks of Greenpeace, teams have drawn 'circles on the map' from which the first potential conservation areas are to be drawn. The circles cover 2.3 million hectares in Quebec, 5.7 m hectares in Ontario and 7.1 m hectares in Alberta.
Canadian indian organisations (known as First Nations), already angered to have been left out of the talks that created the agreement, say the process of deciding which areas to set aside also leaves them out of the loop. 'Any agreement that directly affects our homelands should only be between those First Nations and the Crown (provincial government),' insists Grand Chief Stan Beardy of the Nishnawbe Aski Nation, which represents 49 First Nation communities in an area covering two-thirds of Ontario. 'This agreement disrespects our rights and was developed without our consent.'
Brooks says that the process of identifying which areas to set aside is now being worked on. But he expects that, in addition to company officials and environmentalists, it will include resource managers for both the provincial and aboriginal governments. 'This is a radically different approach, because in the past aboriginal government were mostly not recognised,' he says. He adds that when this becomes clear to the First Nations, he hopes they will come on board.
The agreement’s second major component aims to improve harvesting methods – and it too is causing controversy. More precisely, the question is how it would affect the expansion of the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC), the international organisation that sets high and verifiable standards on how lumber companies can cut forests, and how they must respect the interests and rights of indigenous peoples, trappers and tour operators, as well as their own workers.
Of the 135 million hectares of FSC-certified forests in 80 countries, 40 million are in Canada, mostly in the boreal forest, of which FSC makes up 20 per cent.
A new standard
The partners in the agreement pledged to create a new standard for harvesting trees that would be as good or better than FSCs. But a close reading of the agreement itself shows that the new harvesting standards would only equal or exceed FSCs in the environmental sphere, which regulates how many trees are left standing, which trees to cut, how best to mimic forest fires, and so on. The agreement leaves out the so-called social clauses that govern community, First Nations and workers’ rights, which for most companies have been the main obstacle to adopting FSC.
Environmentalists have said that they hope the social clauses will be included in the new standards, due to be elaborated over the next year or two, but this seems unlikely. Only after these clauses are written and adopted, and the companies have finished the process of giving up as much land as they can (basic rule: no mills should close as a result of this), have the environmentalists said they would actively help non-FSC companies sell to major buyers such as Home Depot and Kimberly-Clark, which today privilege FSC products.
But on May 14, four days before the press conference unveiling the agreement, both sides signed a memorandum of understanding to 'confirm how the CBFA is intended to operate in relation to public advocacy in relation to certification'. It painted a different picture. The memo, seen by the Ecologist, said the environmental organisations 'from the outset' (i.e. the signature of the agreement) would 'encourage customers [lumber and paper companies]… to modify the wording of their procurement policies' if these exclude non-FSC companies.
It remains unclear what commitment the environmentalists will follow: the one to their partners, the logging companies, who hold the key to large-scale conservation, or the one to the general public.
Larry Joseph, an indian forestry specialist who sits on the board of FSC Canada, calls the agreement nothing less than a betrayal of native rights by the environmentalists.
'First Nations have been pushing for conservation for years, we’re not against it at all,' he says. 'The problem is that the agreement leaves us completely out of the decision-making process on protection. We like FSC because it mandates that we’re consulted every step of the way.'
He says that if the social clauses of FSC aren’t added into the boreal agreement, and if native representatives aren’t brought into the conservation selection process, protests from native groups and their supporters will increase, buyers will stay away and the logging companies will lose whatever competitive advantage they were after.
That’s a view that the environmentalists – who have maintained publicly all along that the agreement should help FSC – heartily endorse.
Bruce Lourie, chairman of the Ivey Foundation, one of the key funders that helped FSC take root in Canada, says: 'FSC is now a world brand, and the CBFA will never replace it. And in Europe particularly, the human component is a huge part of the FSC standard.'
Arnold Bercov, a trade union official who is also a member of the FSC Canada board, says FSC certification makes a big difference in the way both communities and workers are treated by small to medium-sized logging companies, adding: 'I think the companies will come to their senses and realise they can’t get that competitive advantage without FSC.'
Brooks agrees that the companies that signed the agreement would be making a huge mistake if they thought that the boreal agreement will provide the same marketing advantages as FSC. 'We urge them to adopt FSC, because if they don’t they will invite controversy, and controversy is precisely what the buyers don’t want,' he says. 'But if they do both, they can advertise that not only do they harvest to the world’s best standards, but they also are actively conserving huge amounts of land.'
Still, the agreement’s staff has put together a Customer and Investor Update Group composed of a dozen entities that will receive regular briefings on the progress of the agreement. It brings together representatives of major pulp and lumber buyers (Kimberly-Clark, Office Depot), paper buyers (Axel Springer, Hearst) and investors (Batirente), and will hold its first meeting in November.
Mark Hubert, an official of FPAC, the loggers’ association, who has become co-chair of the CBFA, confirms that the agreement allows the 21 member companies to adopt FSC or not. Some, like West Fraser, have reportedly indicated that they have no intention of adopting FSC standards.
Tembec, arguably Canada’s most eco-friendly company and the largest in the world to use FSC, issued a statement on October 15 reacting to the mounting controversy by reaffirming its commitment to the standard.
In an interview, the company’s manager of aboriginal and environmental relations, Chris MacDonell, explained that while the environmental guidelines were relatively straightforward and easy to implement, the human ones were trickier.
Those providing for consultations with trappers, outfitters and other forest users were comparatively easy because their concerns tend to be the same everywhere. 'The more difficult requirements are the aboriginal ones, because their needs, their interests and their concerns vary a lot from place to place,' he said. 'We have about 30 First Nation bands in our tenures, and it's hard for a big company to work on a case-by-case basis, so we’ve had to learn to do that.'
But for Tembec, it was well worth it. In March 2008, its chairman, James Lopez, credited the just-finished conversion to FSC, which began in 2001, with saving the company from bankruptcy by keeping the orders coming from environmentally conscious buyers. Today, it still has 8,000 employees, down only 3,000 from early in the decade. The company goes beyond its FSC mandates to help aboriginal communities with training and education grants, which MacDonell says makes for smooth operations.
Commitment to FSC
The controversy over whether the boreal forest agreement will harm aboriginal rights swelled in October when a meeting was held to explain the benefits of the boreal agreement to indian leaders called 'The Canadian Boreal, our Home.' It took place in Prince George, British Columbia, which is not in the boreal forest region.
According to Joseph, the indian FSC board member, the meeting was by invitation only and he was not invited. Similarly, Algonquin Grand Chief Norman Young, in a press release condemning the boreal agreement, wrote: 'We were not even invited to the meeting in Prince George even though our Aboriginal Title Territory includes part of the boreal forest.' He called for 'a truly national meeting' to discuss how to react to the boreal agreement.
The next day, on October 20, the signers of the boreal forest agreement – minus the Nature Conservancy and the Ivey Foundation – issued a statement in which they strongly reaffirmed their 'ongoing commitment to FSC' and to 'the legal and customary rights of indigenous peoples to own, use and manage their lands, territories and resources'.
In apparent contradiction of the agreement and the May 14 memo, the environmental groups pledged to 'actively support and advocate for (FSC’s) requirements'.
But the statement said nothing about what these groups would do if most of the companies adopted a boreal standard that were to leave out the FSC social requirements and not adopt FSC. Nor did it commit to inviting local native leaders to participate in the process of selecting what forests to preserve and what forests to cut.
'The agreement is based on the understanding that it’s undertaken as a package,' says Hubert, the lumber association official who is co-chair of the agreement. 'The faster the progress we make together, the more comfortable all parties will grow, and the more the communications will reflect this.' While some companies may shun FSC, the environmental groups 'are also free to state a preference for a particular certification, which tends to be FSC. In practical terms, this means a distinction, for example, between stating a preference for one versus taking out attack ads against another.'
Antony Marcil, FSC Canada’s executive director, agrees. 'I think if the environmentalists have to choose between large-scale conservation and native rights, they’ll choose conservation.'
As for the companies, he says, 'Even if the buyers keep FSC companies at the top of their preferred suppliers’ list, I assume the non-FSC companies would gain some advantage over non-agreement companies since there aren’t enough FSC products available to satisfy the market. But the First Nations protests could also erase these gains, even if the environmentalists never restart their attack campaigns.'
Christopher Pala is a freelance journalist
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