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The need for community control of our forests

Peter Ewart
Peter Ewart

BY PETER EWART

As is well known, the state of the forest industry and the forests themselves in British Columbia has deteriorated in the last 20 years, a culmination of longstanding bad policies and practices.  Big corporations have shut down dozens of mills devastating workers and communities across the province.  And there are many other problems.

The forests are unhealthy, plagued by insect infestations, decimation of old growth trees, poor planting practices, environmental deregulation, and so on.

Tremendous productive forces are being squandered and destroyed.  However, despite these serious problems, forestry in B.C. still has great potential.  There is a talented and skilled workforce with many decades of experience, as well as supportive communities and institutes of higher learning.  In addition, the productive forests of B.C. can be brought back to health through appropriate policies and scientific practices.  The modern world needs renewable B.C. wood, not only for lumber, but also for the thousands of potential by-products and uses.

However, there is a longstanding roadblock.  The workers, Indigenous peoples, foresters, contractors,  scientists, and others who work in the field are alienated from having control or even having a say over the productive forces and what happens in the industry.  Instead, billionaire financiers and top government bureaucrats make the key decisions, too often at the expense of the workforce and communities.

To give an example, major Canfor shareholder and billionaire Jim Pattison has recently announced that he aims to take the company private and invest more in operations in the U.S. rather than Canada where Canfor was established.  This, of course, is happening at a time when Canfor is closing or curtailing mills across British Columbia.  Pattison neither founded nor built Canfor but rather is a global financier who, along with other financiers, took the company over some years ago and, since then, has reaped huge revenue from the workforce and the forests of the province.

But who actually built the company?  In reality, it has been the tens of thousands of workers, contractors, and other forestry personnel who have run its diverse operations and whose labour acting on nature has created huge added value for corporate and government coffers over many years.  In addition, communities in the province have provided infrastructure and services; universities and colleges have trained foresters and scientists; governments have provided all sorts of handouts, as well as access to the rich forest resource through the granting of lucrative timber rights.

Yet, despite of all this, billionaire financier Pattison gets to make major decisions that nullify this tremendous contribution and everyone else gets no say. How can it be that the revenue and profit generated from British Columbian communities is being ripped away and invested in other countries rather than being reinvested here to diversify and secure all-sided local economies? 

As Mackenzie Mayor Joan Atkinson has put it, “for one individual to have that much control … I’m not sure how that’s going to play out … Trees belong to the people of the province” (CBC News, Aug. 12, 2019).

To add insult to injury, after Canfor closed mills and curtailed operations across the Interior, Pattison chided the B.C. government for not doing enough to help the communities affected (The Globe and Mail, Sept. 30, 2019).

The workforce and communities are not only alienated from having any kind of control over the forest industry, but they are also alienated from the forest resource itself.  Workers work in the forests and mills, communities are surrounded by vast forests, and community members engage in recreation and other activities in the bush, yet we have little or no say about the health of the forests, wildlife and the environment as a whole.  It is an unnatural situation.  Communities should have the closest symbiotic relation with their forests.  But under current arrangements, they cannot.  

This double alienation from the forest industry and the forest resource itself is at the heart of the problems we face today. 

How can this alienation be overcome? There is a deep, longstanding desire by Indigenous and non-Indigenous communities to have more say and more control over the forest industry and the forests themselves.  

Indeed, this is the direction we, as a province, need to embark on.  Community control of our forests is the order of the day.  The community forest concept has been a step in that direction.  However, the types of community control needed are much broader and more extensive than that.  Communities, both Indigenous and non-Indigenous, must be in control of the forests in their regions, including timber rights.  And working people must have a say in what happens to the productive forces in the forest industry.

Yes, there remains an important role for the province in environmental and other types of regulation.  But control over the forests must shift from the near powerless state of communities today to one in which communities play the major role in decisions about forest planning and management, and can address their specific situations. 

Furthermore, we also need legislation that requires more reinvestment by corporations in local operations and communities and which enshrines rights for workers when these corporations decide to close operations or make other plans regarding the productive forces.

To accomplish these objectives, we need a new direction for forestry and new forms and mechanisms of democratic community governance.  There are various models in the world today and others that could be developed.  Let’s take the opportunity to discuss this new direction, end this double alienation, build thriving communities and healthy forests, and get more value out of the wood.

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