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Will the Canandian agreement stand test of time?

Back before the oil sands became the environmental movement’s preferred symbol of Canadian delinquency, sparking Greenpeace demonstrations at our embassies in Europe and arrests outside the White House, it was our forest industry that got all the bad press abroad. Source: The Globe and Mail

The protection of old-growth forests in British Columbia’s Clayoquot Sound became an international cause célèbre two decades ago. And after that epic war in the woods, Canadian forest products were repeatedly hit by Greenpeace-led boycotts in Europe and the United States as environmentalists contested the timber-harvesting practices of companies here.

A few years ago, however, a combination of economic desperation and environmental enlightenment led to a new paradigm in the relationship between the forest industry and its critics.

Low-cost competition from China, Brazil, Indonesia and other countries with atrocious forestry practices convinced the Canadian industry that sustainability could be its global brand. And environmentalists decided they’d have more influence at the table than carrying placards.

The 2006 Great Bear Rainforest Agreement was a breakthrough in the recognition that industry and ecology are not mutually exclusive. The 2010 Canadian Boreal Forest Agreement followed, as nine environmental organizations agreed to stop pressing customers to boycott Canadian products in exchange for 19 companies’ agreeing to adopt “world leading” forestry practices, set aside more protected areas and draft plans to save woodland caribou herds.

The Canadian boreal region is a vast carbon sink and freshwater reservoir that stretches across the country between the 50th parallel and the Arctic. Its ubiquitous spruce and pine trees illuminate Group of Seven paintings that now fetch millions at art auctions. It’s also the source of livelihood for most of the 230,000 people who work in Canada’s $60-billion forest industry.

As such, the boreal agreement is the biggest test of whether the peace in the woods can hold. When it was signed, the forest industry was on its knees, battered by plummeting paper consumption in a digital world and a US housing collapse that slaughtered lumber prices. For companies, there was no opportunity cost in protecting trees they wouldn’t have cut anyway.

That dynamic has changed. Demand is rising again – softwood trees are still the world’s preferred source of lumber and newsprint – while ENGOs are bemoaning the failure to implement plans to protect caribou herds labelled as “threatened” under the federal Species at Risk Act.

Greenpeace has already repudiated its signature. In December, it pulled out of the accord, alleging that Montreal-based Resolute Forest Products was building logging roads in areas of Quebec considered off limits. The allegations were false, and Greenpeace withdrew them when Resolute exposed the group’s tactics as deceptive.

The incident reflected the perverse incentives faced by groups such as Greenpeace. They’re quick to claim “victories” when companies cower in the face of their demands. But they need villains to keep donations flowing in. Environmental progress can be bad for their bottom line.

Vancouver-based Canopy withdrew from the boreal pact this month, alleging that “not one hectare of forest has been protected.” It added a menacing promise: “Canopy works with over 700 large corporate consumers of forest products and we will be informing them about the logging reality in Canada.”

So far, the David Suzuki Foundation and ForestEthics are sticking it out. They still think collaboration beats confrontation. But they say they need to see more tangible results by the third anniversary of the accord in mid-May, or they could pull out, too. “I like to believe the old dichotomy of jobs versus nature no longer applies,” says the Suzuki Foundation’s Rachel Plotkin. “The third anniversary will be the test of the agreement’s mettle.”

“Though collaboration is excruciating at times, we believe it is still the best route to broad protection and economic sustainability in the boreal,” says Todd Paglia of ForestEthics. “But the agreement needs to produce results for us to continue with our collaboration.”

The coming weeks will reveal whether the peace in the woods was only temporary.