From the Field

Found in Translation

January 15, 2016

The forest meets the ocean in the Emerald Edge © Bryan Evans

I was in the Clayoqout Sound area of Canada’s Vancouver Island recently, and a new report caught my eye.

The Global Development Risk Assessment predicts that growing demand for energy, food, fuel and other resources is expected to put 20 percent of the world’s remaining natural landscapes at risk for conversion by 2050. Many of these places are landscapes that have been traditionally managed by local and indigenous communities.

I thought of that phrase “natural landscapes” while I was talking to Gisèle Martin, a member of the Tla-o-qui-aht First Nation. In her culture and language, the term Tla-o-qui-aht does not differentiate between people and place; it means her people and the land as indistinct from one another, and similarly it means the past, present and future. Tla-o-qhi-aht has been, is and will be. They are the land and the land is them.

It’s a concept that — to our loss — doesn’t always translate clearly into English where concepts of land and people tend to be inherently separate and distinct. But it is a concept that is the cultural foundation of the many First Nations along Canada’s West Coast.

The Tla-o-qui-aht territory is more than 250,000 acres and home to 2500 people in Clayoquot Sound on Vancouver Island. The road ends in Tofino, British Colombia, Canada, and across the sound sits Opitsat, one of the two Tla-o-qui-aht villages in the area.

Gisèle and I sat in the sun with her sister Tsimka and some other Nature Conservancy (TNC) and TNC Canada colleagues to discuss the Conservancy’s work in the Emerald Edge. Our sunglasses and squinting eyes belied the area’s reputation as one of the wettest places in the world.

The Emerald Edge

The Emerald Edge is the largest and last intact coastal temperate rainforest on Earth that stretches across coastal Washington, Alaska and British Columbia, including Tla-o-qui-aht. This 100-million-acres of ancient forests includes two of the top carbon stores in U.S. National Forests.

It’s a complex and dynamic system, comprising terrestrial, freshwater, estuarine and marine ecosystems that support 50 percent of the world’s Pacific salmon, which are a keystone species in the region that support the iconic bears and eagles as well as fertilize the forests when their predators discard their carcasses inland.

An aerial view of Clayoquot Sound, on the west coast of Vancouver Island in the Canadian province of British Columbia. © Bryan Evans
An aerial view of Clayoquot Sound, on the west coast of Vancouver Island in the Canadian province of British Columbia. © Bryan Evans

Despite harboring some of the largest unlogged watersheds of any forest type in the world the Emerald Edge region has a well-known history of unsustainable old growth timber harvests.

For the 35 First Nations and tribal communities living in Emerald Edge, the stakes are high, but so is the opportunity.

Erin Myers Madeira

Driven by the priorities and traditional knowledge of the First Nations, there is an opportunity to get community-led conservation right at an unprecedented scale. The Conservancy has been invited by First Nations partners to work with them to create a new sustainable development trajectory that breaks away from the boom-and-bust cycles that have eroded old-growth forests and diminished wild salmon runs.

First Nations Leadership

In Clayoqout Sound, the Conservancy is partnering with three indigenous groups — the Hesquiaht, Ahousaht, and Tla-o-qui-aht First Nations — to create new protected areas across more than 250,000 acres of old-growth forests and retire a conventional timber tenure to give full management authority to the three First Nations. This partnership has been driven by the First Nations interests in taking greater leadership in natural resource management decisions to shape a sustainable future for their territory and people.

For a conservation organization like the Conservancy, indigenous and local communities are some of our most important allies. Who Owns the World’s Land? a recent report by the Rights & Resources Initiative (RRI) explains why: Communities and Indigenous Peoples have formally recognized rights over 18% of the world’s land, which is believed to be only a fraction of the vast amount of land managed by local communities and indigenous people under customary practices.

The World Bank estimates that indigenous peoples steward an estimated 80% of the world’s biodiversity in their territories. Further, indigenous peoples and local communities have been shown to be the best stewards of natural landscapes, keeping the carbon in the trees and ground and thus slowing climate change, according to previous analyses by RRI and the World Resources Institute (WRI).

The First Nations People I met spoke with urgency about the need to create a healthy, thriving landscape. They have seen clearcutting of their forests and are concerned about fish farms’ impact on their waterways. They have invited The Conservancy to work with them to create a shared vision for 500 years of sustainable management that blends economy, nature and local stewardship. Through a loan to a First Nations-run timber harvest company that allowed them to start transitioning away from logging old growth forest and created the space to work together towards transforming a conventional timber tenure to one that meets community goals for conservation and sustainable livelihoods.

Research clearly shows that projects with the best likelihood of achieving sustainable development outcomes are aligned with cultural values, have strong community engagement in the projects, have clear tenure, are able to access technical capacity and have reliable access to capital. The partnership between the Conservancy and the First Nations in Clayoquot Sound brings all these ingredients in to play with the two having a shared agenda and complimentary strengths.

From a conservation perspective, the value of Emerald Edge and Clayoqout Sound is clear. And for the First Nations, its value is even clearer and more comprehensive. Their commitment to creating a sustainable future for their land is a commitment to creating a sustainable future for their people.

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