The sudden decision by AbitibiBowater to stop cutting in northwestern Ontario’s Whiskey Jack forest has got enviros popping the champagne. But don’t expect the Grassy Narrows First Nation to take down its roadblock any time soon.
Five and a half years into Canada’s longest-running Aboriginal blockade, AbitibiBowater finally threw in the towel on June 5, announcing that it’s handing back its licence to manage the 10,000-square-kilometre forest north of Kenora to the provincial government.
But while forest protectors savour the victory, the question for many becomes, will another company be allowed to come in?The minister of natural resources tells NOW there will be no more logging in Whiskey Jack for now. The Grassy community is not so sure.
“We have come to mistrust the companies and the government,” says trapper Roberta Keesick of the Grassy Narrows Environmental Group. “The fact that the company is giving up the licence is a big accomplishment for us and our supporters. But is there another multinational waiting to grab the licence?”
The answer to that has a lot to do with identifying the chief reason for AbitibiBowater’s pullout – a difficult task given widespread pressures on the company.
On the one hand, it’s clear the firm is in financial difficulties. The decision to hand over the licence came with the surprise resignation of executive chair John Weaver, on whose watch Abitibi-Bowater lost hundreds of millions of dollars, closed plants and witnessed its share price plunge amid falling sales.
The world’s largest newsprint maker, the company was formed by the merger of Abitibi-Consolidated Inc. and Bowater Inc. last October.
Coinciding with the fiscal tailspin was the ongoing campaigning of Grassy blockaders and their backers. In fact, the company announced its pullout decision just days after 60 protesters camped out at Queen’s Park and a few weeks before a July 1 deadline set by Boise Inc. to stop accepting pulp from AbitibiBowater’s Fort Frances mill originating from the Whiskey Jack wood.
Boise’s decision came in the wake of shaming tactics by eco-activists. The company, which runs a paper mill in International Falls, Minnesota, announced the deadline within a month of protests organized in January by the Rainforest Action Network at Boise-owned Grand & Toy and OfficeMax stores in more than 30 cities across North America, including Toronto.
“The mill was the largest purchaser of fibre from the Whiskey Jack,” says Rainforest Action Network campaigner David Sone.
Photo By Michael Hollett
In making its decision, Boise cited an Amnesty International report released in September that decried clear-cut logging on traditional Grassy Narrows lands without the community’s consent as a violation of human rights.
Last winter, Greenpeace also persuaded several large German newspaper publishers to stop or scale back buying paper from AbitibiBowater. “They are the kind of customers that don’t want to be associated with any controversy,” says Richard Brooks, Greenpeace forest coordinator.
AbitibiBowater spokesperson Jean-Philippe Côté declines to comment on whether pressure from corporate customers shaped the decision. He says his company quit the forest because of uncertainty stemming from protracted negotiations over the area.
In May, Grassy Narrows First Nation and the province signed a memorandum of understanding to begin formal talks and establish joint study groups in a process expected to take up to four years.
“We respect that decision and wish them well, but we just can’t wait another four more years,” says Côté. Once a settlement is reached, he adds, “if they agree to a specific forest management structure and there is a role for industry, we will be there.” In the meantime, says Côté, Abitibi’s merger with Bowater gives the mill in Fort Frances access to wood from other locations, while a downturn throughout the industry has reduced demand.
Grassy Narrows chief Simon Fobister thinks one aspect of the agreement with the province might have been critical for the company. The MOU calls for establishing a working group to identify 75,000 to 115,000 hectares of relatively intact forest to serve as a pilot for a new management model – one where no commercial cutting would take place.
“The company must have concluded that the part of the forest assigned to us, along with other protected areas [another 8 per cent], would mean there are just not enough trees left to make it viable,” says Fobister.
But local activists are taking no chances in case another company tries to take the licence, which was slated to last until 2023. Keesick says there are no plans yet to remove the logging road blockade, maintained mostly by women and youth, that has kept cutting operations away from the area near the 11-hectare reserve.
One candidate in the area, Weyerhaeuser Co., operates a large lumber mill in Kenora that has been getting birch and poplar from Whiskey Jack supplied by AbitibiBowater contractors. But its role has also made it a target of the Rainforest Action Network, which has approached homebuyers and lumber retailers in the U.S. Sone doubts Weyerhaeuser will wade in. “Whoever took the licence would be stepping into the same controversy. The probable destinations for wood from Grassy Narrows are severely limited,” he says.
In fact, Ontario’s minister of natural resources, Donna Cansfield, tells NOW that in the wake of AbitibiBowater’s withdrawal, no more wood will be taken out of Whiskey Jack until a final agreement is reached with Grassy Narrows. “We all have a vested interest in resolving this,” she says.
Cansfield points to several other areas in Ontario where new cooperative sustainable forest licences have been negotiated to make First Nations and local communities direct partners in forest management. Meanwhile, she says her ministry will help ensure sources for area mills. “Obviously, we need to continue to provide the wood supply for the economy.”
Fobister is optimistic that management principles can be developed that would prohibit clear-cutting, protect trapping, hunting and other traditional values and possibly foster selective harvesting for community-run enterprises such as producing log cabins and snowshoes.
He remains wary, however, of the unrelenting industrial appetite for more wood in the boreal. “There will probably be external political pressures for something to take place in the Whiskey Jack forest,” he says.