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The Great Bear and the big snap

External Reference/Copyright
Issue date: 
29 September 2010
Publisher Name: 
BBC Blogs
Richard Black
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Can a bunch of green snappers save the Great Bear?

The International League of Conservation Photographers hopes so.

For a few weeks now, its snappers have been deploying themselves across Canada's Great Bear Rainforest, documenting its wild nature and the people who live in, and sometimes off, the forest.

I had the privilege of visiting the Great Bear, on the coast of British Columbia, about four years ago, for a radio series on sustainable forestry.

It is vast, still, full of understated life; simply, one of the most beautiful places I have ever seen. "Privilege"? Absolutely.

The League's members clearly feel the same way; but they have a purpose in saying so.

They're documenting it because they think that doing so may lead to it being protected from a project with the potential to shatter the great still wilderness.

The project is the Northern Gateway pipeline that would bring oil from the tar sands of Alberta to a proposed tanker terminal at the coast - an initiative supported by China, which could end up the main beneficiary of the oil.

Alberta is developing its tar sands as an alternative source of oil, as output from the world's wells shows signs of peaking. But getting it out of Alberta isn't straightforward given the geography; and the most obvious route to the burgeoning economies of Asia lies westward, through the Great Bear.

The Northern Gateway Pipeline would be built by the company Enbridge, which already operates a number of oil and gas pipelines and stores across North America.

But this would clearly be one of its biggest projects. It holds that:

"The people who make up Northern Gateway have a deep concern for the natural environment, a commitment to safety, and a passion for minimizing any potential negative impact that pipeline construction and operation might bring.

"They’re also excited about the economic and employment benefits the pipeline will bring to northern communities."

As they point out, the issue isn't only ecological.

Huge swathes of the forest come under the jurisdiction of indigenous peoples - First Nations, in Canadian terminology - who can have right of veto over development.

On my forestry trip, I was told by a local environmentalist that the First Nations were strictly opposed to logging.

But when I tackled a councillor for the Heiltsuk Nation on the question, he said a bit of logging was ok - desirable, in fact - so long as it brought money and employment to his community.

So the interests of local people and environmental activists are not always aligned.

But in the case of the pipeline, they appear to be.

"The bountiful and globally significant coastline cannot bear an oil spill... we declare that oil tankers carrying crude oil from the Alberta Tar Sands will not be allowed to transit our lands and waters."

So declared the Coastal First Nations back in March.

Enter the snappers.

To bolster the case against the pipeline - or more particular the terminal that would bring supertankers into the pristine coastal lands - the International League of Conservation Photographers (iLCP) has embarked on what it calls a Rapid Assessment Visual Expedition, or RAVE.

It hopes that the powerful imagery captured - and can there be any image of wild nature more totemic than a bear plucking a salmon from a mountain stream? - will help the First Nations, and other opponents, make their case.

It's emotive, for sure. But why not? When you ask "why do we value nature?", one of the answers is surely because it moves us. This is even recognised formally by the UN, which lists "cultural, intellectual and spiritual inspiration" among the "services" that natural ecosystems provide to humankind.

Whether the iLCP and its fellows will succeed is another matter. There are powerful arguments and powerful interests in favour of the pipeline; yet the First Nations are politically empowered in British Columbia.

What the snappers have definitely succeeded in doing is capturing some of the essence of the Great Bear Rainforest - its wildlife, its vastness, and its people. Worth a look, for that alone.



Extpub | by Dr. Radut