Indigenous people maintained a responsible, gratitude-filled and reciprocal relationship with nature. It’s past time for settlers to use observation-based and precautionary knowledge to shape a new relationship with forests.
THE FOREST IS IN TROUBLE, which means that we are all in trouble. The problems in the forest have little or nothing to do with natural disturbances or other natural forest processes.
We are the trouble with forests. We are the forest’s pest. From climate disruption, floods, and droughts to insect outbreaks, degradation of water and soil, and loss of biodiversity, human manipulation of forests is the root cause.
Our activities have been carried out under the guise of “sustainable forestry.” However there is little about our management that protects forests, and a lot about our management that protects the financial well-being of a few privileged individuals and companies engaged in timber exploitation.
Management means to “control things or people.” Forestry in BC, indeed across Canada, has been firmly entrenched in a colonial paradigm, a way of thinking that started about 150 years ago in this country. That way of thinking by colonial settlers conveniently defined all the land and water as “terra nullis,” or “legally unoccupied or uninhabited.” This gave way to the subjugation and genocide, both overt and covert, of the Indigenous people, the rightful owners and inhabitants of all of Canada.
The colonial paradigm quickly led to an extractive, exploitive view of nature. Indigenous people maintained a responsible, gratitude-filled, and reciprocal relationship with nature. However, settlers ignored this wisdom and adopted an irresponsible, one-way relationship where nature was renamed to be “natural resources” that had no value until extracted and made into human stuff. From what Robin Wall Kimmerer beautifully describes as a living “basket of benefits” that furnishes the full spectrum of the needs for all life, colonial settlers and governments relegated nature to inanimate “things” that only had value if they served human wants and greed.
Our current relationship with forests, as defined by forestry or forest management, follows the colonial paradigm. We have ignored our hearts and common sense as we reduced complex forests—nature—to timber, allowable annual cuts, rotation ages, dimensional lumber, tree planting, excessive corporate profit taking, and far fewer jobs in forest communities than warranted by the high levels of logging. To add insult to injury, our assault on forests has been, and continues to be, massively subsidized by government.
We need to give voice to this story of our past to understand why and how, as just one small part of nature, we have arrived at this ominous now. Our short-sighted unfeeling treatment of Earth, often propped up by misdirected, dogmatic science leaves us on the brink of runaway climate disturbances, biodiversity collapse, and social and economic inequities that threaten the future of settler and Indigenous societies, alike.
In his poignant book, Change the Story, Change the Future: A Living Economy for a Living Earth, economist David Korten reminds us that the current framing story—the dominant ethic for society—is the sacred money and markets story. Under this story, our efforts for meaningful change are constrained. Colonial attitudes toward nature, and more recently the omnipresent corporate control of land and governments, keep this story alive. Based on his decades of experience working with communities around the world, Korten urges us to shift to a sacred life, living Earth story. He defines “sacred” as “what is most important, most essential to the well-being of the community and its members, and therefore most worthy of special respect and care.”
To solve the problems that beset our forests, from old-growth, biodiversity, and water protection to equitable sharing of benefits and meaningful employment, we need a new story to guide our relationship with forests. That story, that new relationship with forests is grounded in protection of natural ecological integrity and resilience and made manifest through nature-based planning. The priority for protection of nature is publicly established through an overriding law that requires compliance from all other laws, regulations, and policies that affect forests—that affect all of nature.
A hierarchical relationship underpins nature-based plans and facilitates ecologically and culturally sustainable protection and use of forests—of ecosystems in total. Economies are part of human cultures, and human cultures are part of ecosystems. Therefore, first protecting ecosystem parts and processes provides for healthy human cultures and the economies that are part of these cultures. This understanding is the foundation for what Indigenous people refer to as a kincentric relationship with nature where human beings see themselves as related to all beings and as dependent upon the ongoing integrity of all aspects of ecosystems, i.e. home systems.
Moving to nature-based planning and living may be achieved through a short transition period where human activities shift from exploitation to restoration and regeneration. Transition provides redistribution of wealth to fund restorative and regenerative activities. Transition shifts perverse subsidies that facilitate ecosystem exploitation, to ecologically and socially responsible subsidies that promote protection, restoration and regeneration. The cornerstone of an effective transition period and beyond is the development of diverse, inclusive community-based economies founded upon nature-based plans.
From the knowledge learned from many Indigenous mentors and Western science, I have developed more than 25 nature-based plans (NBPs) across Canada, and have facilitated NBPs in other parts of the world. Without fail these plans inspire and empower communities to embrace a new relationship with nature—a relationship that has always been in their hearts. Where communities have access to forests and choose forestry as one way of relating to forests, application of nature-based approaches produces 3-5 times the number of jobs per tree cut compared to most industrial forestry. If this approach was followed across BC, we could reduce the volume of timber cut by 60 to 80 percent.
If politicians denounce this new relationship as “not politically achievable,” we need to remind them that the electorate defines what is politically achievable. If we are told a new relationship is not realistic, we need to explain that there is more than one reality and the reality we advocate is inclusive for a very wide range of people and all forest beings.
We know enough to change. Indigenous, observation-based knowledge, particularly that gained through extensive times living as part of ecosystems—not apart from them—needs to be embraced as a holistic basis for decisions. And, linear, reductionist western scientific methods may be used in appropriate places to complement observation-based knowledge. The time is way past due for Indigenous, observation-based, and precautionary knowledge to shape our relationship with forests—with nature. The use of “a lack of science,” “a lack of understanding” to justify aggressive relationships with forest, often through assumptions of convenience, needs to stop.
Herb Hammond is a Registered Professional Forester and forest ecologist with 30 years of experience in research, industry, teaching and consulting. Together with his wife Susan, he founded the Silva Forest Foundation, a charitable society dedicated to research and education in ecosystem-based conservation planning. Herb has worked cooperatively with Indigenous Nations and rural communities to develop more than 20 ecosystem-based plans across Canada, and in Russia, the United States, and Indonesia.
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