Haida Gwaii (R) evolution: First Nation’s Victory
by Jessica Bell

This is a David-and-Goliath story of a community fighting to regain control from multinational corporations and the "world's powerful elite. It's a story about the resurgence of sustainability. It's also a story about victory. Sometimes, we win.

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

This action was organized by the Haida First Nation community in response to Weyerhaeuser's plan to sell its logging rights to another corporation, Brascan. The Haida felt that the sale was in direct violation of a previous landmark legal victory, which required the government of British Columbia to consult the Haida and accommodate their needs before approving such transfers. This most recent offense came on top of a long list of grievances against Weyerhaeuser, including unsustainable logging and breaches of contract.

Enough was enough, and the Haida set about taking the next step in their long struggle to regain the land that they have always felt is rightfully theirs. On March 22, they launched their blockades, and within the week, they had seized several barges of timber as "payment" for the company's broken agreements.

Since the arrival of white people in 1776, the Haida have been under siege. In the 1880s, their population declined by 90 percent as a result of smallpox, venereal diseases and other maladies, such as alcohol. Settlers and church missionaries have spent the last two centuries undermining Haida culture—banning medicine men, totem poles and potlatches, while imposing an industrial lifestyle that denies the Haida's connection with the sea and the land.

Today, the Haida's future is also threatened by corporate logging. Both Weyerhaeuser and the Province of British Columbia have crippled the island community's long-term economic and environmental sustainability by consistently over-logging—especially high-value, old-growth cedar, Douglas fir and hemlock—and by using automated machinery instead of local loggers, then exporting the logs for processing. This process converts culturally, spiritually and ecologically valuable ecosystems that have sustained life for thousands of years into two-by-fours, decking and siding. It is estimated that more than 30 billion dollars worth of lumber has left the island. The vast majority of that money does not go toward providing Haida Gwaii with better schools, health care or sustainable economic development opportunities, but to the pockets of Weyerhaeuser's executives, who live in exclusive Seattle suburbs. Weyerhaeuser's CEO, Steve Rogel, earns more than six million dollars a year. Meanwhile, an underemployment rate of more than 60 percent is leading younger generations to abandon the misty island for the large cities of Prince Rupert and Vancouver.

The day I arrived on Haida Gwaii, I walked to the blockade site anticipating a melee of angry loggers, violent police and screaming, staunch activists. Instead, I found a group of a dozen people eating cake. A few Haida were whittling art out of wood from the "tree of life," the Western red cedar. Two policeman 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 that I had witnessed a community that, on the whole, was actively working toward a locally controlled, democratic and sustainable economy— a testament to years and years of organizing, a persistent, inclusive message and a small population. Of course, the island's residents have differences of opinion, and many are 'worried about how things might change if the Haida actually win their fight for legal title, thus securing the right to comanage the island. However, the trenchant ideological divide between First Nations, environmentalists and loggers — a conflict deliberately manufactured by the very corporations that blame environmentalists for job losses— is less noticeable here. As Bernie Lepage, a local logging contractor and chairman of the Industrial, Wood and Allied Workers of Canada says, "We are out of a job if the logging is not sustainable." The understanding that everyone benefits from a sustainable, locally controlled island comes, in part, from the fact that many of Haida Gwaii’s residents are committed to the region, and they want their children and grandchildren stay here as well.

As organizers working within the US, my coworkers and I brought the Haida's message to the North American public, organizing high-profile demonstrations in Toronto, New York and Weyerhaeuser's home town of Seattle, Washington. We attended Weyerhaeuser's annual general meeting in April and met the shareholders who control this company—rich, white, conservative, balding American men who spend their lives indoors in meetings, making decisions about their "bottom line" that affect all of our lives. The shareholders sat silently and uncomfortably as activist after activist—from steelworkers to environmentalists to human rights advocates and First Nations communities—stood up and demanded change.

On April 22, the day after the meeting, the government of British Columbia agreed to protect 40,000 acres of land that the Haida deem important. It is also expected that over time, islanders will see a significant drop in the amount of wood that is logged on the island, greater economic control over the island's operations, a cessation of bear hunting and a move toward eco-forestry.

It's one step in a series of many that the Haida are taking to reclaim their island. Haida Spokesperson Gilbert Parnell said, "We've had a responsibility toward Haida Gwaii, and we're never going to give up that responsibility—and we're never going to be assimilated so that we're a culture no more. We're not going anywhere; even though people had plans to get rid of us, we're getting stronger all the time. The writing is on the wall, change is in the air; it's going to happen."

The Haida Nation is one of many communities that is struggling to maintain its unique identity and sustainable way of life in the face of ruthless corporate interests. RAN supports these communities by running boycott campaigns against some of the world's largest companies, including Weyerhaeuser.

For example, RAN has discovered that Xerox is buying its paper from two Weyerhaeuser mills, which acquire their wood from two ecologically important, Canadian boreal regions. These regions contain endangered forests, and their logging is opposed by local First Nations, including the Mishkeegogamang/Saugeen community.

You can help us protect Canada's wilderness by participating in the international day of action to protect the boreal forest on November 3. In Canada's vast boreal forest, there are still places where packs of wild wolves roam free—filling the cold night air with the haunting sound of their primal howls. Here, when the snow is too deep to graze, the elusive woodland caribou use their wide hooves to float on the snow and snack on ancient lichens hanging from the limbs of old-growth spruce trees. Native peoples have thrived for millennia in this region, depending on the forest to sustain their culture, inspire their spirituality and support their livelihoods.

Please support these communities by applying pressure to the companies that are selling illegally logged wood in stores across the globe. We're targeting Xerox and Kimberly Clark. We're also targeting universities that have ties with these companies, such as the University of California, University of Arizona and Yale University, asking them to pass an endangered forests policy.

For more information, contact Rainforest Action Network, 221 Pine St, Ste 500, San Francisco, CA 94104; (415) 398-4404.

For information about Haida Gwaii, visit these two sites Spruceroots and Haida Nation. For information about Canadian indigenous struggles and how you can get involved, visit Friends of Grassy Narrows.

Jessica Bell is an old-growth campaigner with RAN.

© Earth First! Journal September-October 2005