For thousands of years, Indigenous peoples in Haida Gwaii have been stewards of the land they have lived on. Their marine ecosystems are finally being protected and restored, led by the First Nations, who know best how to do so.
How did we get here?
The coastlines of Haida Gwaii have long been a source of spiritual nourishment, sustenance, and cultural meaning for the First Nations inhabiting the region for nearly 14,000 years. This knowledge of how to properly tend to the land has been passed down from generation to generation, culminating in a robust and coherent understanding of how to coexist with nature.
This changed in the late 18th century when the first European colonizers came to British Columbia and destroyed the local populations of Indigenous Canadians while setting up an economy and model of resource extraction whose legacy continues on into the present day. This widespread damage to the people and land has only recently been addressed, and it remains to be seen how much will be done to remedy these crimes.
A new model for how things can be done in the temperate rainforests of British Columbia has been successfully implemented in Haida Gwaii, however, showing that ecological restoration and cultural healing can be accomplished when long-term funding and indigenous leadership take priority in the governance and stewardship of the land.
This model is known as the Great Bear Rainforest Agreements, and they are setting the stage for a new program to protect the marine ecosystems of Haida Gwaii, this new program is called the Great Bear Sea Marine Protected Areas Network.
The fight to protect the land and water
Logging and mining have been the mainstays of the British Columbian economy for decades. These extractive industries rely on the natural resources present in the land for their continued success, so it seems ironic that environmental awareness is severely lacking in those industries. Due to the destruction of large rainforests and environmental contamination from mines, First Nations and environmental activists have been campaigning for years to block the cutting down of trees.
These clashes came to a head in 1985 when First Nations groups erected blockades stopping harvesting old-growth trees on Lyell Island. This proved to be a decisive victory, as it showed that the Canadian government, in collusion with industry, could no longer ignore the demands of the local population who rely on the forest as a part of their cultural heritage and identity.
In the years to follow, more clashes continued to occur, with the RCMP being sent in more than once to break up protests and allow the loggers to continue on through. However, the federal government began to recognize their wrongs and, in 2007, signed a landmark agreement providing long-term funding and leadership for First Nations to restore the environment of Haida Gwaii and the communities living there.
This program is the Great Bear Rainforest Agreements. As a result, the program has led to an expansion in environmental stewardship, indigenous-led research, and the preservation and restoration of ecosystems and communities on the island. These agreements have helped the area immensely and have had influence worldwide as one of the first successful stories of environmental and indigenous justice.
These agreements are now the model for a new program, the Great Bear Sea Marine Protected Area Network (GBS MPA Network). The program aims to expand the protection of the environment to marine ecosystems and expand sustainably eco-tourism and indigenous-led conservation. This program aims to cover 30,000 square kilometres of water, restore critically important marine habitats, enhance resilience against climate change, and benefit local communities socially, culturally, and economically.
Moving forward in conservation
Programs like the GBR Agreements and the GBS MPA Network showcase that these initiatives are morally crucial and in our best interest. Far from the colonial stereotypes, Indigenous knowledge is advanced compared to the mainstream Western understandings of our environment.
While only recently have Western nations begun to take account of the major flaws in our mindset, Indigenous peoples have been known to live in harmony with nature for thousands of years. Demonstrating that initiatives like the GBS MPA Network are successful opens the door to similar programs being implemented worldwide.
The damage that has been done to our environment ultimately comes right down to our mindset, and by changing that, we can change our world.