Can Indigenous Conserved Areas work on Canada’s Pacific coast? – More questions than answers

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By Julie Gardner, Dovetail Consulting, jgardner [at]

The closer our connection to special places, the bigger our stake in their future. But the ability to ensure these special places are protected is often vested in far away powers. As Saya Masso, a Councillor in the Tla-o-qui-aht First Nation said recently, “We’re the ones who have to bathe in the river and eat the fish in it.”

Masso was explaining why his people oppose the BC Government’s issuance of a mining permit in a Tribal Park in Clayoquot Sound, on Vancouver Island’s spectacular Pacific coast. Tribal Parks, Wild Spirit Places, Cultural and Natural Areas – these are all First Nations designations for lands and waters that they are striving to protect in their traditional territories. The First Nations want to shelter these areas from developments that threaten both ecosystems and customary ways of life, while (usually) keeping them open to sustainable economic activities such as wilderness tourism.

But if the provincial government is issuing development permits in these treasured lands and waters rather than respecting the conservation designations, how can pressures like mining be kept at bay?

I looked more closely at the case of the Hul’qumi’num Treaty Group, a cluster of First Nations on Southeast Vancouver Island. Their Chief Negotiator and lawyer, Robert Morales, helped me understand the potential for, and barriers confronting, Hul’qumi’num Management and Harvest Areas (HMHAs). The intent of the designation is to reflect the tradition and culture of the indigenous people and ensure that members of the tribes regain access to marine resources. A conservation ethic would be built into the management and harvest zoning for the area. Ecosystems would likely benefit from management that prevents industrial development while allowing an artisanal-style food, social, and ceremonial fishery.

The International Conservation Union (IUCN)’s decision to give this kind of protected area its own official category contributes legitimacy and encouragement. The category is "Indigenous and Community Conserved Area". One of the characteristics of an ICCA is that the people or community is the primary player in decision-making and has de facto and/or de jure (including according to both customary and state law) capacity to enforce regulations. Since the federal and provincial governments here seem unlikely to apply their laws to protect ICCAs, the future of the areas might depend on Canada’s recognizing the existence of an Aboriginal right to access the resources and participate in the management of the resources. In BC, such recognition largely hinges on the settlement of treaties, and progress has been slow. So slow, the Hul’qumi’num have sought justice at the Inter-American Commission of Human Rights.

The frequency of academic discussions and international NGO or government meetings about ICCAs seems to be increasing exponentially. But I haven’t run into clear paths forward, at least ones that will work in developed countries with strong central governments. As I reflect on the numerous “paper” ICCAs in First Nation-generated plans and observe ongoing marine spatial planning in BC waters that may result in new designations, I see a pressing need for mechanisms that put teeth into conservation arrangements initiated by coastal peoples. Support from the international conservation community (e.g. via the Convention on Biodiversity) is not enough to make this form of conservation happen here.

So how can Indigenous Conserved Areas work on Canada’s Pacific coast? Must supporters of this conservation initiative wait out the interminable process of treaty negotiations? In the meantime, will push come to shove?

Twenty years ago, hundreds of protestors supporting the Tla-o-qui-aht people were arrested for blockading logging in Clayoquot Sound to save old growth forest ecosystems – the largest act of civil disobedience in Canadian history. Today, conflict over a massive proposal to ship fossil fuels through marine ecosystems on our north-central coast is coming to a head (here and here). What does a road block look like in the ocean?