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Witnessing A First Nations (R)evolution Printable Version PRINTABLE VERSION
by Jessica Bell, United States Jul 3, 2005
Environment , Human Rights   Opinions
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This is a story about local communities regaining control over global multinational corporations and the world's powerful elite. This is a story about the resurgence of sustainability. And this is a story about victory.

I visited Haida Gwaii, an island off Canada's west coast, in March 2005 after our organization, the Rainforest Action Network, received reports that the community had effectively shut down the island's logging operations by setting up round-the-clock blockades on the island's main logging roads.

This action was organized by the Haida First Nations indigenous community in response to one corporation, logging company, Weyerhaeuser, selling its rights to unsustainably log their island to other corporation, Brascan. The Haida felt the sale was in direct violation of a previous landmark legal victory of theirs, which required the government of British Columbia - the entity responsible for managing logging rights on their island - to consult and accommodate their needs.

"Enough was enough" basically, and the Haida set about taking the next step in the long struggle to regain what they have always felt was rightfully theirs.

Since white people arrived in 1776, the Haida have been under siege. In the 1880s, their population declined to 90 percent of its original number of about 7000 as a result of small pox, venereal diseases, and other maladies, such as alcoholism. Settlers and church missionaries have spent the last two centuries undermining the culture of the Haida people, banning customs, such as the building of totem poles, medicine men and large communal feasts, and forcing a modern day industrial-society lifestyle that denied the Haida's connection with the sea, the forests and the land.

Today, the Haida's future is also threatened by corporate logging. With an underemployment rate of over 60 percent, younger generations are living the misty island for the large cities of Prince Rupert and Vancouver. Both Weyerhaeuser and the Province of British Columbia have failed to respect the long-term economic and environmental sustainability of the island community by consistently over-logging, prioritizing high-value old growth and reducing island employment by favoring logging with automated machinery and exporting the logs for processing. This process converts culturally, spiritually and ecologically valuable ecosystems that sustained life for thousands of years into 2 by 4s, decking and siding. It's estimated that over $30 billion worth of wood has left the island. The vast majority of that money does not go towards providing Haida Gwaii with better schools, health care or sustainable economic development opportunities, but to line the pockets of Weyerhaeuser's executives who live in exclusive suburbs around Seattle. Weyerhaeuser's Chief Executive Officer, Steve Rogel, earns over $6 million a year.

This is a tale that has parallels with the struggle of indigenous people around the world, from the Australian Aborigines to the 600 First Nations communities in the Canadian Boreal.

The day I arrived on Haida Gwaii, I walked to the blockade site, anticipating melee of angry loggers, violent police and screaming staunch activists. Instead, I found a group of 10 or so people eating cake. A few Haida were whittling away on the tree they call the "tree of life" or the western red cedar, creating art objects. The two policeman present were standing around drinking tea, and some loggers were staffing the blockade, stopping and identifying cars that were driving up to the line.

I was floored. This was the first time I had witnessed a community that, on the whole, was actively working towards a goal of adopting locally controlled democratic and sustainable economic practices - a testament to years and years of organizing, a persistent inclusive message and a small population. (There is less people to convince.) Of course, the island's residents have differences of opinion, and many are worried about how things might change if the Haida succeeds in winning its legal fight for title and thus securing the right to co-manage the island. But the trenchant ideological divide between first nations communities, environmentalists and loggers - a false dichotomy that is deliberately created and manufactured by the very corporations who blame environmentalists for job losses - is less noticeable here.

Bernie Lepage, a local logging contractor and chairman of the Industrial, Wood and Allied Workers of Canada summarized it neatly when he said, "We are out of a job if the logging is not sustainable." The understanding that everyone benefits in the long-run from a sustainable locally controlled island comes, in part, from the fact that many of the island's residents are committed to the region, and they want their future generations to stay here as well.

It's an idea that should be applied to a global context. One hopes that the very corporations that are cutting and running across our globe - from the temperate forests in the United States, to the rainforests of Borneo, to the sweatshops of Cambodia, India and China - will begin to understand that we too are inhabiting a fragile island with vulnerabilities and breaking points.

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