Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Dispatch from the Field: Deciding the Fate of the Great Bear Rainforest

Photo courtesy Cristina Mittermeier, iLCP

Between now and September 14, the iLCP, a group of internationally renowned photographers, is taking part in a RAVE (Rapid Assessment Visual Expedition) in British Columbia's Great Bear Rainforest. Home to white spirit bears, ancient forests, and stunning marine biodiversity, it is one of the planet's most priceless treasures, but overseas oil interests wanting access to western Canada's tar sands, the second largest known oil reserves in the world, have put the region in threat, prompting the action of conservation groups and the iLCP. Throughout the expedition we'll be bringing you profiles, stories, statistics and photos to learn more about the region and why it's so crucial that we all work to protect it. Please follow along here on the iLCP blog, on Facebook and Twitter.

Cristina Mittermeier writes from Great Bear...

For the past few days I have been sitting in a magical corner of the planet. I know it is really special because I have traveled all over the world and seldom have I seen a place where nature and human cultures live in such exquisite harmony and where all the options for development are still available.

The wild coast of British Columbia, with all its whales, bears, wolves and extraordinarily abundant marine life, is one of the true natural treasures of our planet. This coast, home to hundreds of First Nations who have carved a sustainable living for millennia, is indeed a magical place. Sadly, its fate — like many of the world's special places — is not up to the people who live here. Instead, large corporations and government bureaucrats sitting thousands of miles away get to make that choice. One would hope that an enlightened nation, such as Canada is supposed to be, would come up with great ideas for how to turn this unique natural wonder into a sustainable economy for the people who live here and indeed, the whole nation.

One idea would be to do what California has done and opt to leave the coast wild, largely undeveloped, with the possible exception of a scenic highway with a few small enclaves where people could visit seasonally to enjoy the amazing scenery. This could quickly become a “must see” place in the same vein as Yellowstone or Yosemite and it could bring in an endless stream of jobs, revenue and prosperity. Another idea would be to demarcate the entire area as a World Heritage Site, which given its rich cultural and biological heritage, is a well-deserved designation. In this manner, it would become a benchmark for what civilized societies are supposed to do with places like this.

But neither of those options are on the table right now. The only idea that Canada has come up with is to develop this as an oil transit route. And so, this wild coast of northern British Columbia has become a battlefield. The First Nations and the conservation community are ready to fight the massive oil corporations determined to build a pipeline that transports dirty oil from the Alberta Tar Sands in one direction and toxic condensate in the other.

“We have drawn a line in the sand. There will be no Enbridge Pipeline and there will be no crude oil tankers in our waters. This is not a battle we intend to lose,” Gerald Amos from Kitamaat Village said at a protest last week.

Well, a pipeline is not such a big deal, is it? After all its footprint is not very large and its construction will generate a few thousand jobs. Problem is, once the pipeline reaches the coast, the jobs will go away. Worst-case scenario, the pipeline breaks and gushes oil into the pristine waters and land of the Great Bear Rainforest. And the oil will still need to be shipped, so enormous megatankers will then be called in to pick it up and then transport it to Asian markets.

“To me this coast is just this magnificent ecosystem where the terrestrial and marine interact,” Pat Freeny, as Seattle mariner helping the team navigate through Great Bear, said. “And when I think of tankers navigating these waters it sends shivers down my spine.”

Will the fate of this place include the constant threat of oil spills and tanker routes that displace whales and seals and fishermen? Or will we answer the question with foresight and vision, by protecting one of our planet’s jewels of sustainability?

We have the opportunity to set an example here. To show how we deal with the last few wild places on our planet and more importantly, for how we honor and respect the rights and traditions of First Nations and all indigenous people. So the question really is, will Canada do what is right for its people in the long turn or will it become just another petrostate?

Speak up! Tell your friends the story of the Great Bear Rainforest and take action to save it.

Above photo courtesy Ian McAllister, iLCP

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