Low-hanging Fruit and Offsets: The collaborative approach to conservation

Oct 13, 2009

Low-hanging Fruit and Offsets: The collaborative approach to conservation


Low-hanging Fruit and Offsets

The collaborative approach to conservation

from "Offsetting Resistance: The effects of foundation funding from the Great Bear Rainforest to the Athabasca River", a special report by Dru Oja Jay and Macdonald Stainsby.

Released September, 2009.


Groups like the Canadian Boreal Initiative and ForestEthics tout their method of finding consensus between corporations, First Nations and conservationists as a way of protecting huge areas of land. Critics call it the “low-hanging fruit” strategy. It’s a reference to the fact that land which corporate “partners” will agree to protect is usually land they do not want access to. The CBI, for example, plans to protect “at least 50 per cent” of Canada’s boreal forest. Critics say that since the boreal forest is largely untouched, this amounts to opening up of what remains of the first 50 per cent across all of Canada’s boreal forest with what the CBI calls “leading-edge sustainable practices”.

“It’s one thing,” CBI Director Larry Innes told the Dominion in an interview in 2007, “to walk in as an environmental group and another thing to walk in as an environmental group, shoulder to shoulder with First Nations and industry representatives and saying, ‘we’ve got a solution.’”

According to Fort McMurray Today, ForestEthics campaigner Gillian MacEachern “said her group is not saying stop oil sands development, just do it better in the transition. ‘We want to see government investing and building that shift very quickly, and decreasing the amount of fossil fuels we need to use while at the same time cleaning up the tar sands.’”

Land-use planner Petr Cizek argues that there is no scientific basis for protecting 50 per cent of the Boreal Forest across the board in northern Canada – some regions may require more land protection and some may require less land protection, depending on the circumstances. The David Suzuki Foundation, he points out, did not endorse the “Boreal Conservation Framework” promoted by the CBI specifically due to its lack of scientific foundation. The free-market environmentalist Larry Solomon has also noted that since resource extraction in the north is not currently economically viable, that future development of the 50 per cent left over would either rely on economic subsidies or on much higher commodity prices.

The Boreal Conservation Framework also mandates to “support the use of policy tools such as... conservation offsets to facilitate voluntary stewardship by industry.” This “offset” strategy has recently been elaborated in a 40-page document entitled “Catching Up: Conservation and Biodiversity Offsets in Alberta’s Boreal Forest,” sponsored by CBI, the Pembina Institute and the Alberta Research Council. After acknowledging the financial contribution of $44,000 from tar sands developer Nexen “to contribute to the costs of this document”, the authors of the document explain “the basic idea”:

“Impacts associated with the disturbance of ecosystems and habitat loss are mitigated through either restoration or conservation of substitute forest areas so that no net loss of critical habitat is maintained in perpetuity.”

Though never quite explained as such, the idea behind offsets is simple: if an oil company wants to strip mine or contaminate an area of a certain size, then it must buy an area of equal size and protect it. This is based on the premise that all land will eventually be developed if it is not protected. Therefore, when land is destroyed, and an equivalent amount of land is protected, there is “no net loss” of ecology. Critics observe that companies are unlikely to buy land that contain valuable resources for offset purposes, meaning that offsets end up protecting land that isn’t likely to be developed.

The authors of the report seem to acknowledge these concerns, noting, in a sidebar titled “CAUTION!,” that according to some “public perceptions,” offsets “are a licence to destroy habitat and avoid requirements to explore alternative options for mitigation.”

“In other cases there is a perception that offsets have been used to gain access to pristine or highly valued areas.” The report’s authors conclude that offsets are only “part of a package” that includes “effective land-use planning.” Stopping the development from happening is not mentioned as “part of the package”; mining and in-situ drilling are accepted as inevitable.

According to “Catching Up,” it is not just by preserving pristine land that offsets can be acquired. “Conservation banks,” which are one of the more strict types of offsets presented in the report and workshop, can also be created through “restoration or enhancement of disturbed habitat” or “creation of new habitat.” In other words, boreal forest which had been strip mined for tar sand could be “restored”, and then sold as an offset.

The permanence of offsets is also left in question by the report. “Duration of offset obligations and permanent versus temporary offsets” and “time lags between offset creation and benefits” are listed under “issues that must be resolved for successful program implementation.” In other words, it has not yet been decided whether land protected as an offset will be permanently protected. A possible scenario under anything but the most strict version of the offset program now on the table would be that an exploration company could offset strip mining by buying an unexplored area. After trees had been planted on the mined area, it could then be counted as an offset for the development of the land that was initially designated as “protected” to offset its destruction.

The report mentions that land in Alberta is “jurisdictionally complex,” with Treaty Lands overlapping with Crown Land and private land. However, a presumption of Alberta’s jurisdiction over traditional lands of Dene, Cree and Metis populations is upheld implicitly, and Treaty Rights are not explained or elaborated.

If previous deals made by ForestEthics and the Canadian Boreal Initiative are any indication, the final step of the “collaborative” strategy involves closed-door negotiations between government, industry, and representatives from the inside track of the “coalition.” First Nations and conservation organizations not self-selected as willing collaborators will likely be sidelined, along with the general public.

Cizek says that the endgame of closed-door negotiations is “exactly where they went with the Great Bear Rainforest in British Columbia, that’s exactly what’s been going with the Protected Areas Strategy in the Northwest Territories and it has likely been going on elsewhere.”

If we extrapolate from the previous behaviour of the same groups, says Cizek, “it would seem to be very clear that where they are going with the tar sands campaign is to bring about some sort of moderate reforms on tar sands expansion using conservation [boreal] offsets where they are exchanging protecting certain lands in exchange for developing certain lands along with their so-called greenhouse gas mitigation nonsense where they are saying that so much forest won’t be disturbed, and trying to find a way to get carbon credits for that. So basically, that’s what we can expect.”

“The added icing on the cake is that as corporate partners of CBI you have Nexen, Suncor... The tar sands companies that are corporate partners of CBI get a boost as sort of leading ‘green companies’ and gain greater social license and competitive advantage.”

Cizek argues that history, rather than personality, should be the guide to action. “Rather than hypothesizing about people’s motivations, why don’t we examine based on past experience what it is that they do?”