December 3, 2003
Four environmental groups and four resource companies yesterday endorsed the giveaway of half of Canada’s great boreal forests to industrial interests. The CEOs of the resource companies deserve credit, of sorts, for actions designed to enrich their shareholders. The CEOs of the environmental groups deserve only censure.
The four companies – tar sand company Suncor, timber company Tembec, and pulp and paper companies Domtar and Alberta-Pacific Forest Industries – all have good reason to sign on to the deal, called the Canadian Boreal Initiative. Canadian governments have been considering the proposal, and are good bets to ultimately join in. The companies, merely by putting their names to the document, are effectively creating claims to share in the plunder of some one million square miles of Crown land, all of it the property of the people of Canada. Even better, the Boreal Initiative promises them a host of subsidies needed to exploit these boreal resources, covering everything from infrastructure to research and development to labour costs to regulatory relief. Without subsidies, few, if any, of the far-flung resources in Canada’s great northern regions would have commercial value.
What did the companies give up to put themselves first in line for these one million square miles – stretching from the Atlantic to the Pacific Oceans – to which they would otherwise have no claims? They promised to forgo exploiting the other half of Canada’s boreal region – another one million square miles, to which they also have no claims. “If this works, man, oh, man, what a model it will be for the world,” enthused Bill Hunter, president and CEO of Alberta-Pacific, one of the continent’s largest pulp producers and a company whose welfare is utterly dependent on government subsidies.
Only a fool in the business of exploiting natural resources could turn down such a deal, which would bring some 10% of the world’s remaining intact forests into immediate play. And only a fool in the business of protecting natural resources could propose converting pristine lands that have no commercial value to loggers and miners into candidates ripe for ruin. Thanks to the four environmental groups – Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society, Ducks Unlimited, San Francisco-based Forest Ethics and especially Canada’s World Wildlife Fund – lands that support some of the continent’s largest populations of grizzly bears, wolves and other mammals, and that provides breeding grounds for about one-third of the continent’s land birds and waterfowl, have suddenly become prey to the profit motive.
|The environmental groups fear that doing nothing could lead to a worse fate for the forests. “We’re not waiting to have our backs to the wall and have a crisis,” explained the World Wildlife Fund’s Monte Hummel, not understanding that Canada’s great boreal region has remained intact only because the private sector values its bottom line, and that the past crises almost all arose where governments were pressured into providing subsidies. To the corporate economic bottom line, environmentalists thus propose adding two others – a social and an environmental bottom line – with government picking up the resulting tab.||
Under this enlightened “triple-bottom line,” remote resource exploitation becomes profitable. From the environmentalists’ point of view, they are accelerating the exploitation of some parts of the environment in order to spare other, more valuable parts. From the companies’ point of view, they are taking the bird in the hand because they know they may never get a shot at the birds in the bush. As a bonus, they can paint themselves green, and let the World Wildlife Fund silence the local grassroots environmental opposition that would otherwise rise up to counter new resource projects.
In fact, the environmentalists pushing the Boreal Initiative are not only giving up the bird in the hand, they are maximizing the chances of losing the birds in the bush. Politicians provide subsidies to resource industries for one reason above all others: to maintain jobs for remote resource towns, and thus to maintain themselves in office. Every future unsustainable resource community that will spring up as a result of the Boreal Initiative will become a powerful lobby for more and more resource extraction. Politicians will have no compunctions about tearing up the old agreement and imposing a new one.
We already have a precedent. In 1999, several environmental groups negotiated the Ontario Forest Accord, which effectively delivered most of northern Ontario’s Crown forests to mining and logging interests. Under the accord, the environmentalists promised to help sawmills and pulp and paper mills step up their logging and endorsed the taxpayer subsidies needed to maintain uneconomic resource operations. The very day the groups signed the accord with the industry and with Ontario’s Mike Harris government, the government declared that the mining industry would be free to prospect in protected areas, and then mine in protected areas should ore be found. “We were duped,” the environmentalists protested. The lead negotiator on the duped side: Monte Hummel, president of the World Wildlife Fund.