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From Kenya to the Creek: it takes courage to save a forest

We might not live in Kenya, but we have something in Roberts Creek, BC unique to the world: 1,000-year-old yellow cedars in ancient coastal rainforest that has never been logged. Like Wangari Maathai, founder of Kenya’s Green Belt Movement, we face a challenge to stop logging of these untouched forests on local Crown land.


For more than 30 years, Maathai endured army-led beatings, police harassment, public humiliation, and condemnation as an enemy of her Kenyan government, all because she led a grassroots movement to plant trees in her native land. Founder of Kenya’s Green Belt Movement and 2004 winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, Maathai is inspirational proof of the impact that one courageous and determined woman can have.


Few people would imagine a link between this East African activist, who has saved Kenya’s dwindling forests and launched the planting there of more than three million trees a year, with a logging issue in upper Roberts Creek, BC. But on Dec. 3, about three dozen locals learned of the disturbing parallels between Maathai’s environmental struggle and our own here on the Sunshine Coast.


We watched the documentary Taking Root — the Vision of Wangari Maathai, thanks to the Green Team at Gibsons United Church. This excellent, award-winning film by Lisa Merton and Alan Dater highlights how Maathai’s efforts to teach Kenyan village women to plant trees grew into a nation-wide force to save the environment, defend democracy, and protect human rights.


In the film, Maathai recalls growing up amidst lush forest and mountains (sound familiar?), where a beloved “spirit tree” nearby, centuries old, is logged. Both the forest and the stream, where Maathai played as a kid, disappear. Decades later, when Kenya’s corrupt president Daniel Arap Moi decides to build a glossy skyscraper and four-storey statue of himself in Nairobi’s only park, Maathai and dozens of women, including many grandmothers, launch a hunger strike and sit-in at the park to prevent destruction of the area’s forest. Democracy activists join them, and soon the military move in with their batons, beating defenceless women.


We see Moi’s public shaming of Maathai and his legacy of brutal rule in a country where the average income is a dollar a day. We discover how the profits from sales of timber, logged on Kenya’s Crown land, go to his political cronies. Maathai and other women confront the loggers to prevent the cutting of forests, and again, Moi calls in soldiers to beat and disperse the group. Eventually, after 24 years in power in a country where he outlawed opposition, Moi leaves the presidency in 2004. In Maathai’s words: “It is the people who  must save the environment. It is the people who must make their leaders change. And we cannot be intimidated.”


By then, some of the same soldiers who had once challenged and beaten Maathai and her supporters are now planting trees on military property. As one soldier says, he sees these seedlings as brothers: the trees protect the environment, while the soldiers protect the people. Maathai, the first woman in East Africa to receive a PhD, becomes Kenya’s deputy minister of the environment. (Maathai’s success and Green Belt movement are cited as sources of tremendous hope in Hope’s Edge, written by Frances Moore Lappe and her daughter Anna. Click here to read my review of the book, published in Alive magazine.)


After the film screening, local activist Hans Penner explained how a British colonial system in both Kenya and our own province adopted the same practices and policies: exploit forests as much as possible for profit, ignore traditional, indigenous uses of the land, and don’t acknowledge the negative impact of logging on groundwater and watersheds. 


BC Timber Sales will soon be advertising to sell off chunks of our rare old-growth trees — 1,000-year-old yellow cedars — on Crown land in upper Roberts Creek to private bidders. They have slated three cutblocks on 44 hectares (109 acres) on Mount Elphinstone; in one of these areas, at least 30 families get their water. This never-logged area stands at about 900 metres (3,000 feet) altitude. Two of the cutblocks are within only about a kilometre of the road access to Dakota Ridge ski area.


“A thousand-year-old tree is a real treasure,” said Penner. “The forest that’s there is an irreplaceable heritage. There’s nothing like it on the planet. In this upper-elevation forest, there’s never been a forest there, it’s never been logged. The forest has been living since the last ice age.” He noted that most people have never even seen a forest like this one, which has no stumps.


Sometimes, forestry companies consider ancient trees a hazard and cut them down without even using the wood, said Penner. “They’re mowing the forest right down to the ground,” he told us.


When he and local Ross Muirhead recently snowshoed through two of the proposed cutblocks, they flagged 30 cedar trees, 300 to 400 years old, deemed “culturally modified” because local First Nations people have used their bark as part of their customs and heritage.


“We’re the closest people in the world to this,” said Penner. “We have a special responsibility. “We’re like witnesses to a crime, where we’re standing there.”


Who will take action and who will remain a silent bystander? Penner recommends writing to the following people in government: B.C.’s forestry deputy minister Dana Hayden forests.deputyministersoffice@gov.bc.ca, who has the authority to stop the timber sale ads, B.C. Minister of Forests Pat Bell (pat.bell.mla@leg.bc.ca), and Don Hudson at BC Timber Sales (don.hudson@gov.bc.ca).

You can also contact the deputy minister to the premier, Allan Sekel.  His phone number is 250-356-2209. The government website does not include his email address — how’s that for open government? — but his address is P.O. Box 9041, Stn. Prov. Gov’t, Victoria, BC V8W 9E1.


If you’re on Facebook, you can join the group Elphinstone Logging Focus and/or contact our MLA Nicholas Simons on Facebook. Nicholas is also available at 250-387-3655 or Nicholas.Simons.MLA@leg.bc.ca. For more information about this issue, you can call Ross Muirhead at 604-740-5654 or Hans Penner at 604-885-5730.

December 5, 2010 at 1:18 pm
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