Last week, more than 100 world leaders made a pledge at COP26: They promised to end all deforestation by 2030. Pretty bold, huh? But what is deforestation, exactly? Well, it’s defined as the conversion of forested land to non-forested land. Deforestation includes the cutting of trees to make room for farms and urban areas.
So what about when an old growth forest is torn down—and replaced with tiny saplings? That’s the concern some advocates have in Canada, which has signed the COP26 pledge. That forest degradation isn’t technically considered deforestation. Canada is home to over 33 million acres of old growth forest in British Columbia. These are trees older than Canada itself, which is only 154 years old. And for over a year, land defenders in British Columbia have put their bodies on the frontline to protect the trees.
Welcome to The Frontline, where hugging trees is encouraged. I’m Yessenia Funes, climate director of Atmos. On the southwestern coast of Vancouver Island, B.C., an ancient forest sits not far from a series of creeks that eventually feed out into the Pacific Ocean. Among them is Fairy Creek, where land defenders have been setting up blockades in an attempt to stop further logging of these towering giants. What began as a fight for the trees has evolved into a fight for Indigenous sovereignty and freedom as police respond to the blockades the only way they seem to know how—brutally.
Just over a year ago, in October 2020, Joseph Martin visited the resistance camps set up near Fairy Creek on Vancouver Island. As a 68-year-old member of the Tla-o-qui-aht First Nation, Martin was invited to offer his wisdom and guidance to the frontline activists attempting to block logging in the old growth forest. This was his duty; his traditional name Tuu-tah-qwees-nup-sheetl means he has a responsibility to teach the laws of the land.
“Right at Fairy Creek, I walked that forest,” Martin said. “It’s beautiful—beautiful—there. Oh, my God, it’s beautiful.”
The resistance to protect the centuries-old trees that surround the area has continued since Martin’s visit. It’s critical work as these forests are some of the world’s last remaining carbon sinks: Each acre of B.C. old growth forest can store more than 2,700 tons of carbon. Some advocates have taken their message to Glasgow, Scotland, where climate negotiations go until Friday. There, world leaders have made a promise to stop deforestation by 2030, but not everyone is buying it. After all, the forest sector contributes more than $20 billion a year to Canada’s economy. Will it really just end overnight?
Musician and land defender Luke Wallace knows the lengths the government will take to protect the logging industry. Since the spring, he’s been helping to organize blockades around Fairy Creek—which may involve chaining yourself to a pipe cemented into the ground or sitting atop a 20-foot-tall tripod. Wallace has also seen the police response. The blockades were initially set up to prevent road construction and forest destruction, but they quickly evolved to slow down the police, which Wallace said lacked concern for public safety when removing people from these blockades with chainsaws or pepper spray. In fact, police have arrested more than 1,000 people—making the Fairy Creek blockades the largest act of civil disobedience in Canadian history.
“It was frightening,” Wallace said.
Their protests seem to have resonated, though. Last week, the B.C. government put forth a plan to defer the logging of some 10,000 square miles of old growth forest for two years. The forest industry and even some First Nations that are dependent on logging for income and jobs were not happy. To be fair, advocates aren’t exactly thrilled, either. They argue the province isn’t protecting enough land—and certainly not for very long. The deferral is better than nothing, but the forest remains at risk.
“That announcement has not resulted in a single hectare actually being deferred at this point,” said Nicole Rycroft, the executive director of Canopy, a Vancouver-based nonprofit dedicated to protecting forests by working with brands that rely on wood-based products. “The first stage in solving a problem is actually admitting you have a problem, but they need to move forward to immediately defer logging in all of B.C.’s remaining at-risk old growth forest and ensure that there’s appropriate resourcing for First Nations to not only meaningfully engage in the decision-making process, but also to have the economic options to choose a different path.”
That engagement with Indigenous people is key, agreed Ken Wu, the executive director of the Endangered Ecosystems Alliance, a Canadian conservation group founded by Wu that wants to see 50% of all ecosystems protected by 2030. Though many individual Indigenous people support the work to stop logging in these ancient forests, tribal leadership is sometimes torn due to the economic dependence on the industry. First Nations need adequate financial support from the government if they’re going to walk away from their revenue source—even if it’s for the health of the environment. They’ll need help to develop a new sustainable industry, instead. You can blame colonialism for that.
The loss of these forests runs deep for Jonathan Ferrier, an assistant biology professor at Dalhousie University who’s also a member of the Credit First Nation. He sees the clear cutting as the removal of elders from the land. “These are our family,” Ferrier said. He’s also concerned about the biodiversity lost with the trees and their carbon potential. The woods, mountains, and geology of Fairy Creek make the freshwater that runs through the creek possible. They also feed the medicines that grow in the forest—the plants used in ceremony.
“These relatives are sources of life,” Ferrier said. “They are not resources to be mined and extracted. These are sources of life.”
The future of these life sources remains in limbo. World leaders have made us a promise, but haven’t they broken promises before? As long as these old growth forests remain under threat, the land defenders will be there with blockades ready. Not even a brutal police force can stop them.