Forests are the air filters for the planet, absorbing noxious carbon gases and releasing precious oxygen for the benefit of all life on Earth. The destruction of forests has resulted in disaster for farmland, wildlife, and the ecological health of all. The Forest Stewardship Council [FSC] is an international not-for-profit organisation that supports environmentally appropriate, socially beneficial, and economically viable management of the world’s forests. The FSC has developed a set of Standards, based on 10 core principles and criteria, that ensure sustainable forest management. This past year, the FSC introduced a new national standard for responsible forest management – a commitment to ensuring Canada’s forests meet the social, ecological and economic needs of present and future generations. And one groundbreaking element of this new standard is an acknowledgment of the role that indigenous communities can play in this work.
Indigenous peoples in Canada have historically lived with and on the land, adapting to their environment, moving with the seasons, respecting the animals, fish, and crops the land provided for their existence. They were, and could yet be, the natural stewards of our forests.
With 70% of indigenous communities in Canada living in, or beside, forests, they are in a position to play an important role in the future of forest management in this country, and FSC have recognised that fact with their initiative. The history of Canada has too many examples of First Nations being officially excluded from commercial forestry activities, denied timber licences, even fined and imprisoned for cutting timber on their own reserves in order to trade for food. Indigenous Peoples have been largely relegated to the margins in underpaid, labour-intensive forestry roles, unable to establish mills and harvesting companies or organize to obtain tenure of the land. “It’s been a slow change from policies of extinguishment and exclusion to coexistence approaches for Indigenous interests in forest enterprise,” says David Flood, a member of Matachewan First Nation in Ontario and board chair of FSC Canada.
“Historically, provinces have simply failed to take on responsibility in consultations and negotiations with Indigenous groups.”
This history of ignoring indigenous approaches to forest management is thrown into sharp relief by the way in which the settler population cleared forests without restraint to make room for farms. But, in their ignorance, this only resulted in top soil being blown away without the protection of the tree cover. Limerick Forest is a local example of what that meant for farms and farming families. Now, the FSC is encouraging indigenous communities to join as partners in managing forests and the harvesting of trees.
“Yet the reality is that our communities haven’t had the resources and infrastructure to enter the discussions they’ve been left out of for decades,” says Lorraine Rekmans, local resident and an FSC board member of Algonquin descent who is highly engaged in political and social activism. “Most communities simply don’t have a forestry unit or technician. So they have no avenue to engage in forest management decisions.”
FSC has achieved unified Canada-wide expectations on forestry management. Along with clear guidance around Free, Prior and Informed Consent, it features indicators that are building blocks to show how industry can specifically uphold Indigenous rights, compelling industry to treat nations with respect in the direct agreement process.
This is a time of change for all, and both indigenous communities and the forestry industry need to work together to benefit fully from the new approach. In North Grenville, with the Ferguson Forest Centre and the Eastern Ontario Model Forest, both FSC-certified, this is an issue that is close to home.
There exists today an urgent opportunity for all forestry stakeholders to raise awareness of Indigenous Peoples rights and interest in forest policy. Lorraine says that begins with listening to these communities, understanding their history with the land and inherent respect for the environment. “By doing so, by always having an open door to the Indigenous Peoples, we all benefit in the long run,” she says. While it’s a promising start, there is a lot of work to be done, as only about 40 communities – out of more than 630 across Canada – currently have an actual lands and resource department. Lorraine is encouraged that civil society is working together to champion Principle 3 and Indigenous rights in this area. “It’s not only the right thing to do, but it’s a necessary thing to do,” she says. “We have hundreds of years to catch up on.”