Taiga Rescue Network Conference - Final Draft

ENVIRONMENT: Indigenous rights highlighted at snow forest meet

An Inter Press Service Feature

By Pratap Chatterjee

EDMONTON, Aug 30 (IPS) - Indigenous peoples rights in the temperate and snow forests must be respected even if they appear to conflict with environmentalists concerns, concluded activists at a week-long conference that wound up in this Canadian city on Monday.

''The most significant achievement of the conference was bringing environmental activists and indigeneous people to the same table to recognise the importance of consulting with each other,'' said John McInnis, of the Western Canada Wilderness Committee, and the chairman of the conference that was sponsored by the Taiga Rescue Network (TRN).

''We have had to do a lot of healing. In the past environmental groups have hurt indigenous peoples in Canada. For example the Innu of Newfoundland were threatened when European groups campaigned to stop seal hunting,'' he explained.

He says the same issues exist in the temperate and snow forests that encircle the planet from Alaska to Siberia which are home to several dozen indigenous groups from the Canadian Cree to the Saami in Sweden and the Udege in Siberia.

These forests are the main focus of TRN's work. They make up a third of the world's forests like the Siberian taiga, which covers an area twice the size of the Brazilian Amazon. Some indigeneous groups use the forests for hunting and fish, while others practice selective logging.

Environmental groups like Greenpeace have been campaigning to stop many of the practices of timber companies, such as clear-cutting, which removes all the trees from an area, killing any chance of natural regeneration.

Greenpeace would like to see these practices changed to selection logging through which enough trees are left for the forests to continue evolving. Other environmental groups like Earth First! would like to see all logging stop, while yet others, like the World-Wide Fund for Nature (WWF), often emphasise the importance of setting aside park areas to protect endangered species.

But all of these approached must be subordinate to what the local indigenous people who live there want, says Mohawk activist Russell Diabo, who represents the Algonquin people of Quebec province.

For example the Haisla people of the Kitlope Valley on the Pacific coast of British Columbia do not want any logging on their land while the Nuu-chah-nulth people of Vancouver Island in the Pacific are willing to have selection logging.

Either way both the indigeneous groups and the environmental activists say that they need to unite to fight a common foe - the large timber and timber product companies like MacMillan Bloedel of Canada, Daishowa, Marubeni and Mitsbushi of Japan, and Stora of Sweden.

''It's not the loggers that we are fighting but the large companies whose mechanised equipment has put loggers out of jobs and is destroying the very forests that provides them with their profits,'' says Patrick Anderson, forests coordinator for Greenpeace International.

Earlier in the conference Bernard Ominayak, a Lubicon Cree chief joined the meeting with a plea for help from the other activists for his people, whose forests and streams are being destroyed by mining and logging activities.

''We are joining TRN to fight logging companies owned by Japanese multinationals like Daishowa and Mitsubishi who have got concessions to log on 40,000 square kilometres of our land. Most recently, Unocal, an American company has got permission to set up a sour gas plant on our lands which will also destroy them,'' he said.

These companies use the worlds snow forests to produce a third of the world's industrial roundwood production, 36 percent of the world's sawn wood production and19 percent of the world's paper production, according to Roger Olsson, editor of the Taiga Trade, a report on the production and consumption of products from these forests.

He points out that Canada alone harvested 163.8 million cubic metres of temperate and snow forest wood in 1990 most of which was used for products from paper to plywood. Unlike tropical forest timber, there is relatively little harvesting of this wood for fuel.

The emphasis on indigeneous issues was underlined tragically when one of the delegates died of a heart attack while dancing to a song about the indigenous people of Alberta, the province in which the conference was being held.

The TRN's closing ceremonies were marred when Lew Gurwitz, a 56 year old lawyer from Boston, collapsed after dancing to a song called ''The Spirit Sings'' about the Lubicon Cree indigenous people.

There was a certain irony in the way Gurwitz died because he was representing the Lubicon Cree over their demands for recognition of their lands 400 kilometres north-west of this city in the northern part of this province.

Gurwitz had defended several indigenous groups including Leonard Peltier, of the American Indian Movement, who was imprisoned after two U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation agents were killed at a stand-off at Wounded Knee, SouthDakota.