Thursday, May 27, 2010

Boreal forest agreement - It's even worse than it looked

What were you thinking, dude?
The David Suzuki Foundation is a signatory to the Canadian Boreal Forest Agreement.

A few days ago, I reported here on the questionable agreement signed by environmental NGOs and logging companies over the "joint management" of the Canadian boreal forest.

As it turns out, this agreement is considerably worse than I had initially realized.

One aspect of the agreement which has received particular media attention in recent days is the claim that 29 million hectares of caribou habitat will be preserved from logging for the next three years until a management plan is finalized. "An area the size of New Zealand!" ForestEthics, an NGO which is signatory to the agreement, emphatically proclaimed on its website.

But the Wilderness Committee has investigated that claim and the results are bleak. A close examination of the agreement reveals that this 29 million hectare figure is bogus. Indeed, only 2.5% of that total area (or about 760,000 hectares) had actually been slated for logging prior to the agreement.

Furthermore, the Wilderness Committee reveals that only a tiny fraction of those 760,000 hectares are to be preserved under the agreement, i.e. 72,000 hectares. The other 685,000 hectares - 9 times the amount of the land being allegedly "protected" - will be logged effective immediately.

In addition, the "protection" is really only a 2-year moratorium, meaning that the preserved 72,000 hectares can be logged out of existence as early as April 2012 if a joint management plan is not agreed upon. But as I made clear in my previous post, the agreement is structured in such a way as to give logging companies a virtual monopoly of bargaining power in the upcoming negotiations. The management plan, if it even materializes, will be a mere emanation of corporate will. If those 72,000 hectares are still in the deal two years from now, the free lunch is on me.

But there's more. The Wilderness Committee also found that, of those 72,000 hectares, 40,000 are coming out of the tenure of a logging corporation named Tolko which had already agreed not to log that tenure several years ago, pursuant to a separate agreement with the province of Manitoba.

Once the Wilderness Committee had finished crunching the numbers, 32,000 hectares - not 29 million! - emerged as the actual area of forest that this agreement will "save" from logging companies for the next 2 years.

And that, ladies and gentlemen, is how you do it. Whenever you need to clearcut 700,000 hectares of pristine boreal forest, announce that you're going to save 30 million hectares of it (make it 29 so it looks more real), get some sold-out rotten NGOs on board, and then sit back and listen to the oohs and aahs and bravos emanating from the official corporate media outlets.

The Wilderness Committee has masterfully exposed this boreal forest agreement for what it is: a despicable phony greenwash masquerade which will considerably accelerate - not reduce - the destruction of caribou habitat over the next couple years. A farce of an agreement really, in which some of this country's most reputable environmental NGOs have cynically chosen to play a deceptive and destructive, as well as critically important role - all for a fistful of dollars.

Once again, I am posting FYI and for your action the list of environmental NGOs which have chosen to associate their names to this nauseating deal:

Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society
David Suzuki Foundation
The Nature Conservancy
Pew Environment Group International Boreal Conservation Campaign
Ivey Foundation
Canadian Boreal Initiative / Ducks Unlimited


Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Environmental NGOs sign lousy forest agreement – But why?

Camping in Canada's boreal forest. Photo A Little Mo'.

On May 18, leading environmental NGOs and logging companies announced the Canadian Boreal Forest Agreement. This agreement may appear as a genuine attempt by environmentalists and loggers to cooperate over the future of boreal forests. Sadly, a closer inspection reveals an agreement which is very detrimental to the forest. But why would ENGOs want to get involved in such a bad deal?


On May 18, some of Canada’s most prominent environmental NGOs and leading logging companies announced the signature of the Canadian Boreal Forest Agreement. On the surface, this agreement is a genuine attempt to move beyond the decades-long warfare which has opposed environmentalists and loggers over the fate of Canada's northern forests.

The shared challenge”, according to a joint statement released by the signatory ENGOs and logging companies, “is to address sometimes conflicting social, economic, and environmental imperatives” by having “both parties committed to working together in the marketplace and on the ground to support governments in the realization of a stronger, more competitive forestry industry and a better protected, more sustainably managed Boreal Forest.

I had to read that statement several times before I was able to reach its meaning, but once I did, it struck me as being rather contradictory. A more competitive forestry industry and a better protected forest? What does it mean, and how is it done? Unfortunately the details of the signed agreement were kept secret, and the official information released to the public was too vague and sanitized to provide much assistance.

Leaked agreement

But thankfully, on the same day that the agreement was announced, Vancouver Media Co-op published a leaked draft of the actual agreement. The document, dated May 12, is a 39-page Memorandum of Understanding marked Confidential and co-signed by pretty much every environmental household name in Canada, such as the David Suzuki Foundation, Greenpeace, ForestEthics, CPAWS, the Nature Conservancy, Pew Environment Group, etc., as well as most logging companies which are still left standing in this lousy economy.

The leaked agreement's preamble confirms that the parties are seeking to reconcile two contradictory goals – the protection of the boreal forest, and its commercial logging. In its Whereas section, the agreement states that Canada's boreal forests are “ecologically significant” in a “local, regional, national, and global context”, as well as “economically significant” in a “local, regional, national, and international context”. The symmetry of the two statements is clearly meant to convey the notion that a complete equality of rights exists between those two colliding worldviews. Such balanced language is used throughout the rest of the agreement, reinforcing the subtext that ENGOs and logging companies are equal partners here, working cooperatively in the best interest of the parties involved as well as the forest itself.

The form of the agreement is definitely egalitarian, but sadly the same cannot be said about its substance. In particular, section 28 reveals the true nature of the deal. In it, we learn that whenever a signatory logging company sells its logging rights over a section of the forest – a tenure – to a third party, “such tenure will no longer fall within the scope of the [agreement]”. In other words, any restrictions to logging-as-usual that this agreement may manage to secure over a given tenure are automatically voided as soon as that tenure is being transferred from Company A to Company B. This is a devastating loophole for at least three reasons:

Unequal terms
  • 1. This section establishes that private property has absolute precedence over the protection of the forest’s biodiversity. The underlying contradiction between the rights of the forest and that of the market, the decades-long conflict between environmentalists and loggers are indeed brought to a resolution here, but under the following unequal terms: markets have rights, forests do not. Indeed, all it takes to cancel the hard-fought conservation measures obtained by environmentalists over time is the effectuation of the most basic and mundane transaction in a market economy, the sale of a land title.
  • 2. The entire biodiversity protection scheme envisioned by the environmental groups is thrown into irrelevance by this section 28. Indeed, according to the agreement, one of the strategic goals championed by the signatory ENGOs is “the completion of a network of protected areas”, in other terms the constitution of a coherent regional biodiversity management plan involving key areas such as species migration corridors, etc. But as soon as Company A decides to sell one of its tenures to Company B, the entire coherence of the management plan falls apart. What is the value, for example, of a migration corridor if one of its central sections has been sold to a third party and subsequently clearcut to the ground?
  • 3. Thanks to this fateful clause 28, logging companies have secured the bulk of bargaining power for future negotiations over the joint management of the boreal forest. Said bluntly, they can bully and blackmail their ENGO partners as they see fit. Oh, you don’t like the amendments to the agreement that I am introducing today? says Company A to its enviro friends. Well okay then, I want out of this deal and so I’m selling my tenure to Company B, and oh – that company does not give a damn about our little forest management pet project here, so good luck with them. Faced with such power-play tactics, ENGOs will have little choice but to accept the demands emanating from logging companies.
Toothless dragon

But this is where it becomes interesting. In exchange for the logging companies’ benevolence for joining the agreement, the signatory ENGOs have contractually agreed to lay down their arms forever. As stated in the agreement’s strategic goal number 6, “ENGOs will suspend all activities” that seek to discourage customers from purchasing the products of the signatory logging companies “effective immediately”. Even though the conservation efforts under the agreement have not even been planned in much detail let alone implemented on the ground, NGOs have already taken a solemn pledge: from this day on, no more boycotting campaigns, no more direct action to alert consumers over “partner” logging companies’ unsustainable practices.

This part of the agreement is particularly targeted at Greenpeace, which has made consumer product boycotting campaigns an effective and feared instrument to force logging companies to the negotiation table. Well, no more. The Greenpeace dragon has lost its teeth. I was personally disheartened to learn that Richard Brooks, a Greenpeace forest campaigner who had managed the anti-Kleenex campaign in Vancouver a few years ago and with whom I had done some volunteer work on that campaign, is now one of the official spokespeople publicly championing the new agreement. Times have changed.

Adding insult to injury, strategic goal number 6 further states that “ENGOs will not, in any of their communications, cite forestry operations of [partner logging companies] as negative examples of certified practices”. In other terms, signatory environmental groups forego not only their freedom of action, but also their freedom of speech. They are contractually agreeing to refrain from criticizing their corporate partners even if their logging practices in the boreal forest do not actually meet the environmental standards envisioned in the agreement. If, for example, the logging companies use their position of force to subsequently water down the plan’s implementation, well tough luck. NGOs are still not going to bad mouth them.

Not only that, but whenever third party environmental groups who are not signatories to the agreement will do (what is after all) their job of denouncing bad logging practices in the boreal forest, the agreement expressly states that the signatory ENGOs are to publicly oppose those bad-ass groups by using any appropriate method, such as “responding publicly” to their attacks through campaigns “in the marketplace” or lobbying efforts “in political circles”.

Signatory ENGOs are also contractually committing themselves to – get this – “securing market place recognition” for the products sold by partner companies by using their “advocacy work and other communications” to “expressly acknowledge forestry operations of [partner logging companies] as positive examples of boreal forest management”. Since when has it become the mandate of environmental organizations to commit their limited resources to advertizing forestry products to the individual consumers shopping at Rona and Home Depot? Well, it appears, since May 19.

Let’s recap the type of agreement that we are dealing with here:

  • Domination of market logic over environmental concerns;
  • A vulnerable biodiversity management plan susceptible to being sabotaged by individual logging companies;
  • Corporations ideally positioned to force ENGOs into accepting their future demands;
  • ENGOs contractually renouncing their highly effective consumer boycotting tactics and, which is even more troubling, giving up their freedom of speech;
  • ENGOs committing themselves to actively fighting non-signatory third party NGOs which may object to bad forestry practices;
  • ENGOs actively promoting and advertizing partner company products to consumers.
Why do it?

Why would ENGOs even want to be involved in such a rotten deal? The short answer is, for the money.  I have already referred here to a groundbreaking  PBS/Frontline documentary called “The Money Tree” which dissects how large transnational corporations are using carbon offsets to privatize large swaths of the Amazon rainforest through complex financial montages, with the active complicity of large ENGOs. The mechanics of such schemes are simple to understand. In the case reported by Frontline, three large corporations – GM, Chevron and American Electric Power – invest in 50,000 acres of rainforest as a way to offset their carbon emissions and improve their public image. To that effect, they make a $20 million donation to American NGO Nature Conservancy who works with a Brazilian environmental group to purchase the land and manage the project on behalf of the companies, and helps them obtain the required carbon certificates from the United Nations. In exchange, the corporations earn carbon offsets which they can trade on the carbon markets. In order to ensure that local villagers don’t enter the newly enclosed lands, the corporations demand that the Brazilian government provide a Green Police whose primary mission is to harass and brutalize the locals out of their traditional lands.

In the case of the Canadian Boreal Forest Agreement, the main motivation of the logging companies is obviously logging rather than merely obtaining carbon offsets. The certificate that they need the most is not about carbon but the one provided by the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) – and having heavyweight ENGOs on board to vouch for their “good logging practices” is a virtual guarantee that they will indeed obtain it. However, the carbon market would represent a tremendous bonus for those companies, especially in this bad economy where they may not even be able to log their forest tenures for lack of a lumber market. If you believe that the logging companies don't care much about carbon offsets, then read carefully the leaked agreement's strategic goal number 4, called “Climate Friendly Practices”. Deep buried in there is a reference to carbon trading in the following terms: “if the federal or provincial governments proceed to include forest management and protection in carbon offset programs”, then the partners of the agreement are to work together on obtaining certification and determining the eligible projects.

This boreal forest agreement vividly illustrates the strategic role played by some of the largest environmental NGOs in the advent of “green” capitalism. The ENGOs whose names are on the agreement are altogether the brokers, guarantors, and underwriters of corporate environmental goodwill in the eyes of the public. In particular, they are the ones which will secure the required certifications. They will receive hefty compensation for their services in the form of corporate grants which will allow them to meet their payroll and continue to grow, which is no small feat in the current context of a rapidly shrinking charitable donation market. In that sense, they are inhabited by the same internal logic as the corporations which they serve – growth for growth's sake.

Those environmental NGOs are enablers of capitalism's nascent environmental-industrial complex, and as such they have become a liability to the environmental movement. Personal donation choices should be adjusted accordingly, which is why I am posting below the complete list of ENGOs which are signatories to this boreal agreement.

Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society
David Suzuki Foundation
The Nature Conservancy
Pew Environment Group International Boreal Conservation Campaign
Ivey Foundation
Canadian Boreal Initiative / Ducks Unlimited

UPDATE: Boreal forest agreement - It's even worse than it looked


Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Salmon Migration - Untangling the spin wheel of "crowd estimates"

Sorry folks, but you were not sitting at this fountain. Photo Reegee Bee.

I could not fathom how the Times Colonist daily paper could have seen "nearly 1,000" people at Alexandra Morton's salmon migration rally in Victoria last Saturday, when I had seen many thousands. I really needed to understand.

So when last Monday, Times Colonist editor Stephanie Coombs kindly responded to my complaint letter about the event's coverage, I seized the opportunity.

"Reporter Katie DeRosa, who attended the rally," Coombs had written in her response to me, "spoke to two different Victoria police officers, as well as two rally helpers, who all estimated about 1,000 people."

Strange. That same day, I had received a message from Rafe Mair who quoted Global News reporter Holly Adams saying that "I spoke with Police outside the Legislature and they estimated just over 4,000 people, and that was just before 5:00."

The Globe and Mail had reported 4,000 people as well. So it appeared as if police officers had been mischievously telling 4,000+ to Global News and the Globe and Mail, and "nearly 1,000" to the Times Colonist.

So I wrote back to Stephanie Coombs asking her if she would care to comment about the Global News reporter's account of 4,000.

Her response: "We have spoken again with Victoria police today, and their official report on the rally indicates a crowd estimate of 1,000 to 2,000 at the legislature."

One to two thousand? But that was already double the number that her paper had initially reported. What was going on here? I figured that if I was going to understand those numbers, I'd better go to the source.

So on Tuesday morning, I called the Victoria Police Department's main line and asked to talk to someone about their attendance estimates for Saturday's rally. The switchboard operator connected me to Kathy Jorgensen from Operational Planning. Let me get back to you on that one, she kindly said when I explained the purpose of my call.

About an hour later, she left a message on my voicemail saying: "Our police estimated the count at maximum 1,500 once it got down to the Legislature Building."

Yet a different estimate. It was the fourth one I had received already. I called her right back. How did the police department go about determining that number, I asked, what's the methodology used? We just ask police officers who were there to give us their estimate; it's a casual count, we don't use a specific method, she explained.

I told her about what the Global News reporter had said - that police officers who were there had told her 4,000. I don't know who told her that, she responded, so I cannot comment.

Do you use photos of the crowd to help you refine your estimates? I ventured to ask. No, was the answer. Then she became a little nervous and told me: I don't know where you are going with this, so you need to call Sgt. Hamilton who is our media person.

Which I did right away. But he never returned my calls, so I was left spinning my wheels about Ms. Jorgensen's responses. No specific methodology to count the crowds... But why not? What's wrong with introducing a little bit of objectivity in estimating a number which is so critical to so many different stakeholders? With modern technology and a bit of planning and brain power, you would think that something could be done.

So I decided to give it a try.

What we saw.

I downloaded the above sample picture (courtesy Don Staniford) which I found among hundreds on the web. I took a snapshot of the BC legislature's lawn in Google Earth and imported it into Google Sketchup. I then plotted a polygon representing the approximate location of the crowd according to the picture. Some distinct features allow you to situate the crowd in the picture fairly easily, such as the fountain, the statue of the Queen, the trees, the flagpole, the stairs where the photographer was standing, etc. Here is what it looked like:

What we saw (continued).

Google Sketchup calculated the area of my polygon: approximately 6,000 square meters. The lawn itself is a 100 by 100 square, or about 10,000 square meters. My polygon therefore occupied about 60% of the lawn.

I then proceeded to estimate how many people could be standing in that polygon according to the picture. Densities vary: people closer to the stairs are clearly shoulder to shoulder, while people towards the statue were able to sit in the grass. Your typical "cocktail party" average density is about 0.5 square meter per person. People close to the stairs were probably using less than that, while people in the back were using more.

I took a very conservative guess: I assumed - which is very unrealistic, based on what the photo shows - that each person used 2 square meters on an exclusive basis. That's a rectangle of one meter by two meters with no one else but its sole occupier on it. Measure that at home, and you will realize that it's a very, very conservative assumption indeed. I also assumed that not a single person was standing to the left or the right of the frame of the photo, and I further assumed that the columns of people still moving toward the lawn in the photo's far background were actually not going to the rally.

In spite of that, I still found that approximately 3,000 people were occupying my polygon. Once you add more realistic estimations that other people must have been standing outside of the picture, that some people in the far background are actually going to the rally, etc. you easily find yourself in that 4,000+ range which was given to Global News on that day by several on-site police officers.

Let's continue my little experiment. Let's assume that the Times Colonist got it right and that "almost 1,000" people attended the rally. At 2 square meters per person, that's a 2,000 square-meter polygon. Here is what the Times Colonist "saw" happening on the lawn of the Legislature last Saturday:   

 What the Times Colonist "saw".

Notice how the Times Colonist's polygon does not even extend to the fountain, which was in actuality covered with people. Does it look to you like they got their numbers right? Well yes, me too.

Now just to be clear - I am not claiming to have discovered a new "methodology"! My point is simply that some methodology would not have hurt. If I was able to hack those estimates in a couple of hours on my home computer using some free software and a publicly available picture, imagine what a trained staff could do with sophisticated software and pictures that were taken with that purpose in mind.

After spending the past three days chasing phantoms in spinland, my head was hurting a little. But then suddenly today, out of nowhere, someone - finally! - made some sense. Sgt. Matt Waterman from Victoria PD Operational Planning returned one of my many calls. He told me that the Department's official estimate was 1,500 to 2,000 people (yes, a fifth different estimate!), and he confirmed what Kathy Jorgensen had already told me - that the Police Department does not use any particular methodology to come up with the number. We just guessed it, he said. Well sure, we could have used pictures and fancy methodologies to come up with a number, he explained quite candidly, but we had no reason to do that! We didn't know it was important. After all, our job is not to count, but to escort and protect people.

I explained to him that it was actually very important to many people, starting with the 5,000 or so people who were at the Legislature, because media used those Police estimates and presented them as reliable hard numbers, rather than the subjective wild guesses that they really were. I told him how the Times Colonist's editor had pointed the finger to the Police Department as soon as I started asking her some hard questions. He was clearly not pleased to hear that. Well, lesson learned! he commented. I will recommend that the Police refrain from making any more such estimates in the future.

Halleluia, brother! I am totally with you on that one. Stop counting, just focus on your job of protecting. Let other spinmeisters trip all over themselves with ridiculously low-balled estimates.

So, two lessons learned here, as the good Sargent Waterman would have said:

1. The Victoria Police crowd estimates for Saturday's event are worthless, according to people working in that very Department.

2. Times Colonist, you have hereby been put on notice. Next time you publish absurdly inaccurate crowd estimates that get people mad at you, don't run to the Police for cover because they will kick your butt.


Monday, May 10, 2010

RE: Victoria Times Colonist's incorrect reporting on Saturday's wild salmon migration

To: Victoria Times Colonist

Dear editor,

The statement in the Times Colonist’s columns that “nearly 1,000 people crowded Government Street on Saturday” to support Alexandra Morton’s wild salmon migration is outrageous.

I have seen first hand that between half and three quarters of the Legislature’s lawn was packed solid with people. This amounts to at least 4,000 to 5,000 people. The Globe and Mail agrees with my assessment.

By printing such incorrect statements in your columns, your paper is tampering – whether intentionally or not, I leave that to you – with the democratic process.

It also contributes to ruining the Times Colonist’s long-term reputation as a trustworthy source of information. Let me explain you why.

4,000 to 5,000 thousand people can directly attest that you got your numbers wrong. Those people are angry at you right now, because they feel at a personal level that their efforts to show up on Saturday to support Ms. Morton’s cause have not been recognized.

They are now talking or writing to perhaps 10 other people about their sentiment of frustration. [I, for example, am posting this letter on my Facebook which has 150 friends].

That’s 40,000 to 50,000 people who have heard first-hand from a source which they trust that the Times Colonist has either lied, or does not know how to report a story. They, in turn, will tell other people what they have heard from someone they know.

Also, tens of thousands of other people will have read both your report and that of the Globe and Mail, and will be left wondering why there is such a blatant difference in your two papers’ assessments of the numbers.

Finally, as we speak, tens of thousands of people are reading, hearing, or watching on the Internet reports from independent media and blogs about Saturday’s event which all confirm that several thousands of people – not “nearly 1,000” – were standing on that lawn on Saturday.

Perhaps you don’t realize that the format of media has changed. People (this may come as a shock to you) don’t need to rely on the Times Colonist for their news as much as they did a decade or two ago. For one thing, they can now cross-reference any of your statements.

By allowing such sub-standard reporting to seep into your columns, you are accelerating the decline of your industry. A correction in tomorrow morning’s edition of the Times Colonist may be a first step in restoring your paper’s compromised reputation.

Yours truly,

Ivan Doumenc

(PS: I realize that my letter is over 200 words, but I don’t expect you to publish it either. Consider it "for your internal use" only.)


Sunday, May 9, 2010

Along Migration, small trickles turn into mighty river

Parliament Building, Victoria, 8 May 2010. Photo Salmon Are Sacred.

As my friend Andrew Teasdale and I got off the Vancouver ferry on Friday around 4:30 PM, we didn't know what to expect.

Like many others, we had received the call from Alexandra Morton to join the Get Out Migration to save BC's wild salmon. We had decided to show up for the last 27km leg of the trek, from Sidney to Victoria. I was hoping that the number of walkers would be high. But having participated in many other environmental actions, I had learned to temper my optimism in order to avoid heartbreak.

But then again, this one stood out of the ordinary. Alex had asked us literally to get off our butts and walk with her on a 500-kilometer journey as a message to the politicians in Victoria. I liked the simplicity of that action, and I was sure hoping that many others would like it too.

As we walked off the ferry, a car stopped to offer us a ride to Sidney and we jumped in. Oh yeah, the young man told us after knowing the purpose of our visit, count me in for Saturday in Victoria, I was definitely planning to be there. Cool, we thought, he already knows. As we drove on, a portion of the road was in repair and had one of those digital signs that usually say something like Slow Down Next 500 Meters. That one, however, said: “Save Our Wild Salmon”. We were blown away. Something was clearly happening on this side of the water.

We arrived in Sidney on time to greet the flotilla which had paddled down the Fraser River and then across the Georgia Strait, and was now connecting with Alex's group of walkers. I had read reports from earlier days of the migration which said that on average a core group of 20 people or so had been walking along with Alex since the beginning. A respectable number, no doubt, given the magnitude of the physical effort involved, but not an overwhelming one either. Not the kind that you need to force politicians into action. But on the beach where the flotilla's largest canoe had just landed, there was now twice that initial number – about 40 people.

The general mood was relaxed and cheerful, with walkers and paddlers greeting each other, cracking jokes and taking group pictures, some playing music, some just stretching out and enjoying the sunny sky. “Our first entirely dry day!” one of the walkers confided to me with a big happy smile. At the same time, there was some perceptible nervousness about the next day. What if people didn't show up in Victoria, what if we were it? Well of course, they knew that many more would be at the Parliament Building the next day, but you know the feeling. They had gone through that incredible journey for the past two weeks, and now, as the canoe was being hauled out of the water, they were thinking that it all better have been for something.

The group gathered around Alex and slowly proceeded with the canoe, which was now on wheels, towards Sidney's Mary Winspear Theatre for a public presentation. Along the way, I hooked up with a woman who had been walking from Quadra Island, and she broke me the wonderful news that the Klinaklini private power mega-project, which had menaced Knight Inlet for so many years, was dead in the water. Incredible. As if joining this migration had not been sufficient to make my day.

At the Theatre, the atmosphere was electric. The hall, which was packed solid with over 400 people, greeted Alex's group with thundering applause. As kids were cutting out, decorating, and stapling together salmon paper figures in preparation for the next day's final walk, speakers energized the audience. I am not exceptional, Alex Morton told the room. I have just put one foot in front of the other and not given up. There is nothing to negotiate, she continued. We are here to get our fish back and that's that. We have walked away from large sums of money, First Nations chief Bob Chamberlin said, and by doing so we are telling the fish farm industry that we and our resources are not for sale, because we are one with our territory.

The next morning, a large crowd gathered in downtown Sidney and filled the Shaw centre for a brief kick-off breakfast. At 8, backpacks and tents were loaded on the support trucks, safety instructions were given out, a horse carriage full of small kids took the lead, and off we went. About half an hour out of Sidney, my friend Andrew did a quick head count and found that there were about 200 walkers, or five times the number I had seen on the beach the night before. Encouraging. The numbers were solid, the sun was out, the cause was clear. People were visibly happy to be here.

As we were walking, I had a chat with a mother and her extraordinary 12-year old daughter who had walked all the way from Tofino to join the migration. The kid was slightly limping and supporting herself on her mom as she walked, visibly impacted by the grueling days on the road. She has absolutely refused to use the support vehicle, her mother explained, and so she has walked every single kilometer all the way to here. As I and other walkers around us were wowed by the exploit and warmly congratulating the young girl (who for her part remained silently focused on the task at hand), her mom added: Oh, and today is her birthday. Holy cow, I commented, talk about a birthday party. Thousands of people gathered on a legislature lawn to wish you a happy birthday. Well, you earned it.

At around 10:00 AM we definitely felt that there were more of us than when we set off, so Andrew did another count. Yep, a solid 250 now. From that point on, the numbers just kept swelling. Cars would catch up with us on the highway and drop off some walkers, people would arrive on their bikes or literally out of nowhere and blend into the march. The ferry people from Vancouver were starting to arrive en masse. I later learned from friends who were joining us in Victoria, that bus drivers were actually making calls on their PA systems when they were reaching us, saying “if there are any salmon people on board, this is your stop” and would drop off people on the highway, in complete violation I assume of the most basic safety regulations. As for the cars honking and motorists waving their support as they drove by, it was overwhelming. Do we have a single person in this province still in favor of fish farms, I wondered as I walked, apart from corporate vested interests and our politicians in Victoria?

We helped Alex's dog (who'd also been on the road for two straight weeks) hop into the canoe-on-wheels where he gratefully settled for a lazy nap, and then at one point we got off the highway into Saanich to join a group of supporters who had gathered at NDP MLA Lana Popham's constituency office. A crowd of hundreds were waiting for us there. We mingled, had some food and refreshments, and hit the road again, now walking in a city which was a nice change from the motorway. But whatever had happened to our numbers? There were many, many more of us. I quickly did another count: 500 walkers!

Finally, we arrived at Centennial Square in Victoria where I connected with my friends who had arrived on the bus and I retrieved my seven-year old daughter. She tucked on the “Salmon Are Sacred” t-shirt which I had secured for her the night before, and off we went to Parliament Building. Wow! I had already seen large protests and demonstrations in my home country of France, but never that large a number in obedient British Columbia. Now that's what I call a crowd. About three quarters of the Parliament's front lawn was packed solid with people, with more people roaming on the remaining unoccupied quarter, and many more columns of people still swarming towards it. We were at the tail of the walk, and so the speeches had already started on the stairs of Parliament when we arrived. Whatever, I thought, I'm tired. I dropped my backpack on an unoccupied patch of lawn outside of megaphone range and settled in the grass with my friends and daughter. 3,000 to 5,000 people was our collegial assessment of the attendance.

As we were resting, a young man approached us asking if we would write a letter to Fisheries Minister Gail Shea. You mean – now? Yes, and we'll take care of sending it for you. I was more in the mood for a nap than for letter writing, so I jokingly handed over the paper to my daughter. Here, you write it dear, I laughed. Okay, she said very seriously and grabbed the pen. Uh oh. But she wrote a marvelous letter explaining how she really wished that she could save the salmon and simply asking the Minister to close the fish farms, without forgetting to write down her age. When she handed the sheet of paper back to me, I was speechless and simply added: “Dear Ms. Shea. If a seven-year old can get it, then no doubt so can you. Close the fish farms” and I signed.

What Alex Morton has realized here, in the face of the corporate assault, is to enable us. Enable us to formulate a coordinated response. A response which is guided by simple principles, yet is irresistible once set in motion. A small trickle becomes a stream, the stream turns into a creek, creeks join together, and suddenly you have a mighty river gushing against the walls of Parliament Building. That is what I have witnessed first hand during those two extraordinary days, as my buddy Andrew's and my own meaningless little trickle grew from 2 people to 40, then 200, then 500, then 3 to 5,000 people celebrating the wild salmon on the front lawn of Parliament Building.

As Alex herself told the walkers during our short stop in Saanich: “Well, it appears that we are living in a democracy after all.”


Thursday, May 6, 2010

On the Congo, hydropower colonialism is called "development"

Inga falls, Democratic Republic of Congo.

On paper, few hydro projects in the world make more sense than Inga [1]. The Congo is the second largest river in the world and is also the world's best river for hydropower due to its remarkably constant flow. [2] Inga is a 15-kilometer rapids section on the Congo river, and arguably the largest waterfall in the world. It is situated halfway between the DRC's capital Kinshasa and the Atlantic Ocean, making it an ideal site for building dams. It is also located in a country where 94% of the population is still not connected to the grid [3] and it is centrally positioned on the African continent, thus making it feasible to serve a large population which is in dire need of electric power. What could possibly be wrong with harnessing Inga's electricity to serve Africa's rural poor?

A perfect site

No doubt, there would be some environmental damage if new dams were built at Inga. But when one realizes that the primary source of domestic energy for the Congolese population today is the cutting down of trees, a couple of dams in order to save the African tropical rainforest appears to be a very reasonable compromise. [4] With a staggering potential generation capacity of 100,000 MW, the Inga site could literally turn the lights on for tens of millions of Africans – that is, if only Inga could be developed with the Africans in mind.

Being one of the poorest and most indebted countries in the world, the DRC couldn't possibly develop such a pharaonic site on its own. And so over the years many partners have stepped forward to offer their help. The World Bank, as part of its Africa development program, is currently in the process of refurbishing two existing older dams which were built in the seventies and eighties, Inga 1 and Inga 2. More significantly, in 2004 a group of neighboring countries – South Africa, Botswana, Angola, and Namibia – have formed a consortium with the DRC to develop a new $8bn ‘run-of-river’ project called Inga 3. Initially planned to produce a relatively modest output of 3,500 MW (at least on the gargantuan scale of Inga projects), Inga 3 was seen as an essential stepping stone towards the realization of a fourth and much bigger development, “Grand Inga”, which was to produce 40,000 MW and cost $80bn, and would have become by far the greatest hydropower facility in the world. [5]

All about export

Inga 3 and Grand Inga have been designed since their inception as export-driven projects. Something to which many social justice activists have voiced their opposition. What is the point of developing the Congolese energy capacity, they asked, if it is mostly going to benefit other countries? [6]

They had a point. The main thrust behind Grand Inga was the European Union, anxious to obtain access to Inga's colossal energy capacity as a way of both increasing and diversifying its supply of electricity. For the smaller Inga 3, the main champion was regional economic giant South Africa. So much so, that initially the DRC was to receive only about 1,000 MW of Inga 3's total production, while South Africa would have got the lion’s share of 2,000 MW and the other small signatory countries the remaining 500. [7] The DRC cringed, but South Africa insisted, and since the European Union was carefully observing the progress being made on Inga 3 with the much bigger Grand Inga project on its radar screen, everyone decided to move ahead in a spirit of pan-African regional cooperation and friendship.

New deal

But in February 2010, plans for Inga 3 brutally collapsed and the pan-African consortium dissolved. [8] The cordial entente made way for an acrimonious and very public fight over which government should take the blame. The Grand Inga project itself was thrown in a state of permanent limbo. What had happened?

Another key player acting in the background is what had happened.

Australian mining giant BHP Billiton had been coveting Inga’s energy for many years. In particular, it needed a staggering amount of energy – 2,000 MW – to power up an aluminum smelter which it planned to open in the Bas-Congo region to process the gigantic bauxite deposits of neighboring Guinea.

And so in 2007, BHP made to the Congolese officials a deal they could not refuse. [9] Forget regional cooperation they said, those are only vain words used by South Africa to screw you and steal your energy. You don’t need a consortium, we will build a new Inga for you in the form of a public-private partnership. (They called it “Inga X” figuring that with the endless suite of stillborn Inga projects, they would soon run out of numbers.) [10] It will be a more modest project, they explained, – a mere 2,500 to 3,000 MW – but 100% Congolese.  Granted, we will use up 2,000 MW of it for our smelter but the rest will be all yours, and our smelter will provide badly needed jobs to Congolese workers. And –oh, [this is Ivan here speculating groundlessly] here is a little something pour vous to help you make the right decision…

BHP’s intention to consume two-thirds of Inga 3’s output was met with consternation by the other partnering African countries. They tried to save the deal by artificially bumping up the project’s output from 3,500 to 5,000 MW and increased the DRC’s share to 2,000 to be on par with South Africa’s, but those new projections were technically unrealistic. And the damage was done anyways: the DRC had already gotten itself a better deal.

Well at least, the DRC officials had gotten themselves a better deal. Because as far as the Congolese people were concerned, they were getting exactly as much out of BHP’s new project than they would have obtained from the pan-African one: zip.

No energy. Inga's local populations will receive no energy from BHP Billiton’s new “Inga X” project, which is no more no less than they would have received from Inga 3. Indeed, expensive substations are required to transform energy from high to low voltage before they can power up a local community. [11] But since none exist nor are being planned for Inga, BHP’s surplus energy will simply pass over the neighboring villages on their way to remote export markets such as South Africa. [12] And so, local populations will remain off-grid and continue to cut down the rainforest as a substitute to electricity.

Displacement. For many of Inga's local residents the question of access to energy is irrelevant anyways, since they likely won’t be around in a few months to worry about it. Approximately 9,000 residents have been put on eviction notice to make room for the Inga 3 and Grand Inga projects. [13] It is likely that those displacement plans will proceed unchanged with BHP’s Inga X. Since those residents are deemed “illegal” by both the DRC government and the World Bank, it is extremely unlikely that they will receive any form of compensation. [14] Uprooted from their traditional lands and means of livelihood, those people will likely end up in large urban centers such as Kinshasa or Matadi where BHP’s aluminium smelter is to be located.

No jobs. Will the displaced populations at least benefit from the jobs provided by BHP's power plant and aluminium smelter? Very unlikely. The Inga X station will create at most 100 highly qualified jobs, when those populations desperately need large numbers of unqualified jobs. [15] The 1000 jobs of BHP's smelter located in the city of Matadi are also mostly out of reach for the same reasons, unless BHP makes a special commitment to specifically employ people displaced from Inga, which it has failed to do so far. Many of those qualified jobs are likely be given out to expats and skilled immigrants brought in for that purpose, and so at best a few hundred jobs may be what the Congolese people will get.

Less revenue, higher debt. Okay but the energy exports and smelter operation royalties will increase the revenue of the DRC’s public utility company, as well as enrich the public treasury, will they not? Um, no. The public utility is in the process of being privatized (as of April 2009), so any revenues that it receives will go to enrich international shareholders rather than the Congolese population. [16] As for the government, it is one of the most corrupt in the world. A considerable portion of all tax revenues simply vanish in thin air every year, siphoned by bureaucrats at every level of the state apparatus. Even if corruption and looting of the state were not an issue, Inga revenues would still be largely offset by the considerable debt burden that the state will have to take with development banks to co-finance the project with its “partner” BHP. Finally, the bulk of the energy produced will be used internally by BHP, going directly from the power plant to the smelter, without producing any sales revenue for the state along the way.

Environmental devastation. I pointed out earlier that maybe a couple of dams on the Inga could be ecologically worth it if they would reduce the number of trees felled every year by the Congolese population to produce domestic energy. Well yes, but only if the population actually has access to some of Inga’s energy. As it stands, the planned Inga projects will not save a single tree and will instead cut down many more, as the transmission lines to South Africa, and later perhaps to Europe via Sudan and Egypt, will have to run through hundreds and hundreds of kilometers of rainforest. WWF representative Peet du Plooy, however, did not appear to lose any sleep over it, as he recently commented that the transmission lines “won't be that big … a cost”. [17] Says what?!

Okay but what about climate change? More low-carbon hydropower surely amounts to something. Yes indeed. it amounts to a lot for BHP Billiton, which will earn lucrative carbon credits for its Inga project. In actuality, however, BHP’s Inga X project will increase, not reduce, carbon emissions in the atmosphere. Indeed, according to Bloomberg, after the collapse of Inga 3 the other partnering African countries started seeking substitute sources of energy, “including nuclear, thermal power plants and natural gas”. [18] And BHP is going to get carbon credits for enabling that?

Privatization, enclosure of the commons. I already mentioned that the privatization of the DRC’s public utility is well under way. But also, more fundamentally, the exceptional site of Inga is being itself rendered private. Once BHP builds its project, not only does the hydro facility become private but so does the country’s ability to produce incredibly cheap energy. There is only one Inga site, and the formidable natural wealth that it provides is not easily replicable elsewhere. The hydrology conditions are so perfect here, that experts have estimated that energy could be produced at 5 cents/kWh. Compare this with Africa’s 18 cents/kWh average, and you will understand the full extent of the plundering of Congo’s natural wealth. [19] No wonder BHP was so eager to get its hands on that site. This is perhaps Africa’s cheapest energy ever produced, but it is now being turned into private property for virtually no compensation to the public, and will be exported out of the country in the shape of aluminium.

Quite the deal!

Sounds like a great deal for the Congolese people? Well that’s because, according to the World Bank, it is! “The sale of power abroad”, the Bank wrote in a recent report on Inga,  “could provide… the DRC with more resources with which to implement its policies and therefore enable it to implement its work plan for the Congolese population.” [20]  Hahaha! Grand.

What we are seeing at Inga is a prime example of what Karl Marx called primitive accumulation of capital, [21] and which contemporary Marxist scholar David Harvey [22] refers to as accumulation by dispossession. At its simplest, primitive accumulation is the act of divorcing people from their means of production and livelihood through the privatization and enclosure of a public land or resource. The classical example is the enclosure of the English commons by the nobility in  the 16th and 17th centuries, which in turn provided England’s nascent capitalist industry with the labor power of the populations being dispossessed. But primitive accumulation is not just a historical event, it is happening today in every part of the world. In my own province of British Columbia, for example, primitive accumulation is happening on a gigantic scale as private corporations attempt to privatize our rivers with the assistance of a subdued banana republic government.

Sounds familiar?

Many manifestations of Inga’s primitive accumulation are specific to the DRC and cannot be compared to the situation in British Columbia. For one thing, we are on average an incredibly wealthy people, when most Congolese have nothing. Most of us are connected to the grid and don’t need any more power, when the Congolese are in desperate need of it. More significantly, Canada is a neo-colonial power and as such, we largely benefit in our daily lives from the organized looting of the south by the global Empire, whereas the Congolese people are being systematically raped by it.

Nonetheless, some of the similarities between Congo’s Inga and BC’s ‘run-of-river’ power grab are worth noting:
  • High-voltage lines (think Northwest Transmission Line) [23] passing over the heads of off-grid remote and aboriginal communities on their way to large mining complexes.
  • Export-driven schemes entering in direct conflict with energy-thirsty mining schemes; in other words, rival capitalist factions fighting one another and local government constantly bouncing from one faction to the other.
  • Lack of any meaningful job or wealth creation for local populations.
  • Public utility under the looming threat of being privatized.
  • Increased public debt incurred to finance private ventures.
  • Irreparable ecological devastation; environmental protection bodies and NGOs failing to fulfill even their most basic conservation mandates.
  • Enclosure of the commons, permanent loss of irreplaceable public wealth to the benefit of private interests.
  • Oh yeah. And insufferable corporate bullshit about doing all of this in the name of “saving the planet” from the threat of climate change…

    Troubling similarities indeed. To be continued with another somewhat familiar river far, far away.


    Monday, May 3, 2010

    Alexandra Morton: "This is about much more than fish"

    The Get Out migration in motion. Photo Teresa Bird.
    On the 11th day of her migration to Victoria, Alex Morton has filed the following report. She has struck the exact right tone here.

    "An entirely unexpected thing is happening", she writes. "People are coming up to me and holding me - crying.  They are speaking about schools without children, independent livelihoods lost, communities dying. This is about much more than fish."

    She adds:

     "Our ranks swell as we enter the towns, white doves have been released, First Nation canoes parallel us, songs have been written, feasts laid out, flotillas surround us, people are awakening.

    Do we still live in a democracy?  Our essential rights and freedoms are being lost as foreign shareholders decide our fate, what happens on our land, dividing our communities, in an equation where they get more as we get less."

    As long as the ranks around you swell Alex, and people continue to awake, yes we still live in a democracy. A direct democracy that is, one where people, as you are doing right now, vote with their feet. One which like this migration you have initiated, rapidly swells to occupy the void left by the empty shell of the long dead "representative" democracy.

    I am deeply moved by Alex's latest report. Like those local residents who cross her path every day on the Island, I am empowered, aroused, and personally engaged by that extraordinary ongoing migration. And yes, I perhaps did cry a little myself as I was reading Alex's lines. I am fortunate that I will be able to join the trek in its last 25 kilometers this coming Friday and Saturday from Sidney to Victoria. Anyone care to join, drop me a line.

    Alex, with my heart - thank you for showing us the way, and for not just talking the talk but walking the walk.


    Walking through the communities of Vancouver Island on the Get Out Migration has been a powerfully emotional experience. We are walking to tell people that if they simply stand up and make themselves visible to government, there is no reason we have to lose our wild salmon.  But as we walk into towns with our flags flying, brilliant salmon signs, singing “we are walking to Victoria to save our fish,” an entirely unexpected thing is happening.  People are coming up to me and holding me - crying.  They are speaking about schools without children, independent livelihoods lost, communities dying. This is about much more than fish.

    This is about the independent way of life that built these communities going extinct. As we walk I see a land of beautiful clear streams, fertile soil green with life, air sweet with flowers and then I enter towns so burdened by global corporate markets that they can no longer thrive on the richness of this land.  There is something very wrong here, it is painful to witness and people are sad.

    Somehow we have become blind to our public resource - millions of salmon flowing annually to our doorstep, feeding people and our economy province wide. We have somehow been convinced that Atlantic salmon, dyed pink, vaccinated, fed Chilean fish, in pens where we cannot catch them, infesting our fish with lice - are better. We believe there are jobs even as the Norwegian companies are mechanizing as fast as they can to reduce the number of jobs.  When people see us they know we have been duped and they don’t know how to turn this around.  The Get Out Migration has been protected, blessed, gifted and honored by the First Nations who know best what has been lost. Everyday more people are joining our trek - weathering storms in tents, waving at thousand honking motorists on the road to Victoria.  Our ranks swell as we enter the towns, white doves have been released, First Nation canoes parallel us, songs have been written, feasts laid out, flotillas surround us, people are awakening.

    Do we still live in a democracy?  Our essential rights and freedoms are being lost as foreign shareholders decide our fate, what happens on our land, dividing our communities, in an equation where they get more as we get less.  As our salmon go so we go, they are a lifeline to the powerful natural world that gave birth to us.  We must lead our governments back to where we can survive.  Walk with us.  Be there for our salmon, our towns, our children for yourself. If you want to be represented you must represent yourself.

    Alexandra Morton

    May 4  12:30 Costco Nanaimo, 4pm Maffeo Sutton Park, 7pm Agi Hall, Gabriola

    May 5 Ladysmith 6pm Legion

    May 6 LadySmith to Duncan City Square 5pm

    May 7 Mary Winspear Theatre 7:30pm

    May 8 Sidney to Victoria - 8am start Shaw Ocean Discovery Centre
                                                 2pm Centennial Square
                                                 4pm Rally for Wild Salmon BC Legislature (Parliament Buildings)