B.C. Indigenous leaders say the government is falling short in its efforts to protect old growth forests.
At a press conference Wednesay, Dec. 1, members of Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs called the current process inadequate, specifically pointing to a 30-day limit to respond in relation to old growth logging deferrals. Grand Chief Stewart Phillip, UBCIC president, said it was a “critically important discussion.”
“The issue of old growth is, in many ways, the metaphor for the absolute neglect of the forest lands in B.C. for the last 50 years,” said Phillip. “If anyone has the opportunity to fly over B.C., you will see a massive wasteland of clearcut and recently, within the context of flooding in Merritt … it’s absolutely shocking, the amount of timber that’s been removed from the hills around the Merritt area. We all know once you remove timber, most lands are vulnerable to mudslides and rockslides and flooding and so on, and so forth.”
Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond, a lawyer and expert on the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, said there have been long-standing issues with excluding First Nations and recognizing forests as part of their traditional territories. The government’s actions are contrary to the UN resolution, she said.
“The province has tools at its disposal, including free, prior, informed consent,” said Turpel-Lafond. “It doesn’t come with an expiration and an arbitrary time limit, particularly a time limit that is not reasonable given how significant these issues are … also there is an unclear policy on the part of the province in terms of compensating and ensuring there is proper economic opportunity for First Nations to protect their economies, but also to protect old growth and the relationship between First Nations and the forest as an Indigenous relationship that is unique, not just an economic engine that is used and disposed of.”
When asked about next steps, Phillip said it is important to understand the “deplorable state of affairs within B.C. forest lands.”
“The forest industry itself has traditionally been the piggy bank for the provincial government, no matter what political stripe, they may be,” said Phillip. “In that regard, they’ve absolutely permitted the clearcutting of this entire province, without any kind of oversight … There hasn’t been a forest inventory in British Columbia for like 40 years. The governments have no idea what’s out there. They just keep issuing permits.
“What we need is a complete inventory, a comprehensive inventory of the forest lands and the water systems and fisheries and wildlife. And then we need to move out from there, to begin to develop legislation and a policy framework.”
A committee of experts mapped 26,000 square kilometres of old growth forests at risk of loss of biodiversity and in November, the province asked Indigenous peoples to respond on whether they were in favour of deferrals within 30 days.
The province also said First Nations may say if they need more time and consultation in order to allow for local knowledge to be included in deferral plans.
The Ministry of Forests was contacted for comment, but did not immediately respond.
– With files from the Canadian Press