MONGABAY: The inside story of how Great Bear Rainforest went from a ‘War In The Woods’ to an unprecedented environmental and human rights agreement

February 22, 2016. Originally published in Mongabay by Mike Gaworecki


When the final Great Bear Rainforest Agreement was announced earlier this month, it was not only a historic moment in forest conservation but also represented a significant shift in how conservation efforts support human well-being and sustainable economies in local forest communities.

Eighty-five percent of one of the largest remaining tracts of intact temperate rainforest left in the world is now permanently off-limits to industrial logging.

That’s a huge victory for forests as well as for the fight to slow down global warming, given that the ancient trees in the Great Bear Rainforest store a lot of carbon in their towering trunks — as much as 1,000 metric tons per hectare (or about 2.5 acres), according to some estimates.

It’s also great news for the wildlife that call Great Bear Rainforest, including cougars, salmon, wolves, and the Kermode or spirit bear, the subspecies of black bear that can sometimes have a white coat for which the forest is named.

Just as importantly, the agreement enshrines First Nations’ rights as co-decision makers in their traditional territories, along with the provincial government. A number of measures were also agreed to that will protect areas of cultural and ecological significance for First Nations as well as provide a variety of economic opportunities, such as revenue sharing and access to conservation funds.

The agreement was finalized with a formal legislative package announced on February 1, 2016 by the Province of British Columbia together with Coastal First Nations, an alliance of First Nations from B.C.’s North and Central Coast, and Nanwakolas Council, comprised of six First Nations whose traditional territories are on Northern Vancouver Island and B.C.’s South Central Coast.

Nicole Rycroft, executive director of Canopy, a Vancouver-based NGO, said that the agreement could be a model for places like the Leuser Ecosystem in Indonesia and other global conservation hotspots.

“They really set a global precedent for large-scale conservation,” Rycroft told Mongabay. “It really does provide a model, or beacon of hope, to other regions and landscapes. The fact that it’s human well-being alongside large landscape conservation means it can be applied to places like Leuser where millions of people live on the land and depend on it.”

But a key part of the story that has so far received little attention, according to Rycroft, is the role of global customers in moving things from a “War in the Woods” to a collaborative process that ultimately led to a landmark forest conservation and human rights agreement.

From conflict to collaboration

The “War in the Woods” refers to a period that saw some of the largest environmental protests in Canada’s history. What began in the early 1990s as a large-scale mobilization to protect the Clayoquot Sound region of Vancouver morphed into a movement to save all of the Central and North Coast forests of British Columbia, dubbed the “Great Bear Rainforest” in 1997 by environmentalists.

There were blockades, boycotts, and banner hangs, mass protests followed by hundreds of arrests. But public pressure wasn’t stopping the logging — at least, until consumer companies like Home Depot and Lowe’s started getting singled out for selling products tied to destruction of ancient forests by high-profile, media-savvy campaigns.

Old-growth forests around the world were (and are) being logged and made into products ranging from t-shirts and jeans to copy paper and cardboard packaging. Environmental groups like ForestEthics, Greenpeace, Rainforest Action Network, and Sierra Club BC targeted the logging industry in British Columbia by focusing on its biggest customers, and it worked.

Once these large customer companies started to voice their concerns — and in many cases insisted their contracts be contingent on how the forestry industry conducted its business on the ground — there was finally motivation for the industry and B.C.’s government to come to the table.

“When the customers got involved because our campaigns compelled them to take a position and bear responsibility for what their buying habits were doing to rainforests, everything started to change, valleys we identified were put into a [logging] moratorium, real negotiations began,” Todd Paglia, executive director of ForestEthics, told Mongabay.

ForestEthics was founded in 2000, the same year the logging companies and environmental groups agreed to a truce. The companies agreed to stop logging in over 100 intact areas in the Great Bear Rainforest and the forest advocates ended their “do not buy” market campaigns targeting the logging companies’ customers.

Meanwhile, First Nations had been fighting their own battles to assert their rights to make decisions over their traditional lands and ensure the health and well-being of their communities. In 2004, the B.C. government and 24 First Nations began formal government-to-government negotiations.

The Great Bear Rainforest Agreements were first announced in 2006, designating 5 million acres of permanently protected areas in addition to other conservation measures and increasing First Nations’ decision-making power.

Full implementation of the Agreements was to take place in 2009, but new interim logging rules were issued instead, this time conserving 50 percent of old-growth forest and setting a 5-year timeline for full implementation of a model known asEcosystem Based Management, which requires 70 percent of old-growth to be conserved and a high level of human well-being in local forest communities.

Throughout the negotiations, the big consumer brands met for roundtables discussions, first in 2008 and again in 2013, in which they would get progress updates from First Nations, government, and industry representatives. These meetings were critical in forcing the industry and government to meet their deadlines, Kristi Chester Vance, ForestEthics’ deputy director, told Mongabay.

“The customer is always right and when the customers were saying, ‘get your act together — we’re ready to buy but you can’t confirm that the logging is ethical — the controversy is not resolved,’ that provided key leverage,” Vance said.

But March 2014, the deadline for full implementation of the initial Great Bear Rainforest Agreements, came and went with no announcement.

Then, just 24 hours before the start of a Canopy-hosted roundtable in June 2015 that would convene investors and customers worth nearly $300 billion in forestry industry revenue, the B.C. government issued a draft of the Great Bear Rainforest Land Use Order, the official legislative package that would codify the Great Bear Rainforest Agreements into law.

Canada’s Minister of Forests personally announced the milestone to customers and investors assembled for the roundtable.

“It was just such a show of force, having $300 billion worth of revenues, representing that sheer amount of the market and the broader expectation of the marketplace, rather than letting it be diminished as one company here or there,” Canopy’s Rycroft said. “I don’t think it’s a coincidence that a legislative draft had been shaken loose.”

Aside from the immediate effects of protecting such a vast area of old-growth temperate rainforest and setting a conservation model for other at-risk forest landscapes, the impacts of the final Great Bear Rainforest Agreement are likely to ripple through the entire global forest product industry.

“The conservation success of Great Bear Rainforest is a testament to the tenacity of all involved, including major customers of forest products,” Shona Barton Quinn, Sustainability Leader for clothing brand EILEEN FISHER, one of the companies that had representatives attending the 2015 roundtable, said in a statement.

“We’ll be carrying that knowledge forward as we assess our forest product sourcing in other parts of the globe and explore our company’s leadership in forwarding environmental solutions.”