"Hi, I’m an environmentalist striving to save the boreal forest, and I would like to sell you some wood.” It doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue, but this counter-intuitive pitch, which turns environmentalist into salesperson, is the logical – and necessary – outcome if the Canadian Boreal Forest Agreement (CBFA) is to flourish, says leading forestry-policy expert Ben Cashore.

In many ways, the incongruity of that vision epitomizes the CBFA’s strength. After all, the process that created it was rife with oddities. It was forged by a union between environmentalists and forest-products companies, with the former promising to stop “do not buy” campaigns and the latter pledging to suspend logging on nearly 29 million hectares of forest, much of it prime caribou habitat.

As a result, the agreement quickly came under suspicion from people on both sides of the forest-use debate. The fact that it was agreed upon behind closed doors, and with little input from First Nations groups, didn’t help. But now, just over halfway through the three-year agreement, the CBFA stands out as a highly innovative and unique approach to a thorny problem. “[The CBFA] is laudable for trying to maintain this ecosystem in a collaborative way. It’s a model for other areas,” Cashore says, his voice pressing, but lively over the phone.

“The CBFA’s main strength is taking a management position towards the forest, as opposed to a conservation position. This agreement thinks about the long-term needs of other interests: the idea of where to preserve for conservation and where you can extract. That isn’t to say it’s perfect. We shouldn’t let this agreement downplay some people’s desire to protect the whole forest. [But] if you want to use the forest, it’s innovative.”

Even though Cashore is a professor of environmental governance and political science at Yale University, and serves as the director of that university’s Governance, Environment and Markets Initiative as well as its Program on Forest Policy and Governance, the expat Canadian is wary of being called an expert. In his line of work, he says, there is just a group of people trying to grapple with constant change.

And forestry is a field divided along many lines: conservation versus management, public versus private ownership, government versus industry regulation. All of these concerns coalesce in the CBFA, which covers 72 million hectares of forest from British Columbia to Newfoundland and Labrador.

On the conservation side, the boreal is one of the three largest intact forests in the world, but there has been strong debate recently among forestry scientists about whether it’s particularly important. The boreal is much less biodiverse than tropical forests. One part of the boreal is much like any other, whereas the tropical forest in Borneo is vastly different from that in Sumatra. Although Cashore doesn’t share the idea, some forestry scientists argue that because the boreal doesn’t hold as much  biological value, it should be logged instead of tropical and temperate forests.

“Wanting to save the forest by itself is enough,” he says. “There are very few forests of its size that have not been touched. The forest is important as a forest.”

Regarding the public-versus-private-regulation debate, the CBFA was only possible, and successful, due to Canada’s public forest ownership. “Many people argue that the way to protect forests is to privatize forestry. Our research shows this is not the case. The highest regulations governing environmental forest practices are found on government-owned land, regardless of country,” Cashore says. “Government has more capacity to require things on the lands it leases to corporations.… The firms would not do this if it was privately held.”

But for Cashore, regulation is the biggest issue because the self-regulating Canadian Standards Association certified the agreement instead of the independent and international Forest Stewardship Council (FSC).

“Industry might have a great program, but they’ll never be trusted to regulate themselves,” Cashore says. “I would have expected, and preferred as a citizen, that this agreement would have had FSC certification. If the agreement had FSC, it would have been an extraordinarily innovative response. By not having that, they missed an opportunity.”

While the process could have been better, and its certification would be stronger if it were at arm’s length, Cashore believes the CBFA stands as an excellent example of what can be achieved through collaboration, the genesis of which began 25 years ago in the great environmental battles at Clayoquot Sound and elsewhere. The polarization of those battles has softened in the years since, says Cashore, as each side learned to respect and understand the roles of industry, government and NGOs. “It’s a union, and that’s really important.”

For the CBFA to stand the test of time, Cashore says the same groups will have to not only learn each other’s roles, but trade them. “If you do that, the NGOs have to sell wood to maintain conservation, and the firms have to maintain conservation to sell wood. By switching the roles, you get durability,” Cashore says. “This is the missing ingredient. If you do that, the agreement will never die.”  

Tenille Bonoguore is a former managing editor for Alternatives Journal. She grew up Down Under singing “Rip Rip Woodchip” by John Williamson.



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