Old-growth forests in British Columbia are under attack. With the forestry industry facing a crisis, the capitalists have turned to lucrative logging of old growth to make a quick buck. In response, environmentalists and Indigenous activists have set up blockades to protect the Fairy Creek watershed. The police have clamped down, arresting hundreds. The labour movement must mobilize the working class to defeat the repression from the government and protect old-growth forests.
Why the attack on old growth?
Vancouver Island is home to some of the oldest forests in Canada. Some trees are over 1,000 years old, including the largest tree in Canada which is around 2,000 years old. Within these ancient forests are unique ecosystems that are found nowhere else, with 1,680 species either endangered or of special concern struggling to survive. The Fairy Creek watershed is one of Vancouver Island’s last remaining unprotected old-growth coastal rainforests. But these forests are becoming highly endangered, and Vancouver Island is known as the “white rhino of old-growth forests.”
There are plenty of things to value about old growth, particularly its biodiversity and beauty. But for the capitalists, value is only a matter of what profits can be extracted. And old-growth forests present a convenient, but one-time-only alternative to second-growth forests. A second-growth forest is an area which has regrown after previously being logged. This means that logging companies have to wait until the trees have grown big enough to profitably cut. But, with their mind set on quick profits and slash-and-sell, the logging company bosses have made themselves dependent on old-growth logging and say they expect to be for another 10 to 20 years.
The general backdrop to this lust for old-growth logging is the crisis in the forestry industry. As we described previously, the B.C. forestry industry has been struggling for some time and recently the crisis has only gotten worse. This provoked an eight-month-long forestry workers’ strike which paralyzed the industry. Faced with this situation, the lumber capitalists are looking for any way to maintain profits and lower costs and logging old-growth forests provides just such an opportunity.
But logging old growth is no solution to the struggling industry or the plight of thousands of forestry workers. Even the capitalists know that, one way or another, old-growth logging will end in B.C. some day. At one point there will be no more to chop down. And were that to truly be the end of old growth in B.C. the very next thing to happen would be the laying off of tens of thousands of forestry workers. Once the trees are gone the profits are gone and so the jobs are gone. Capitalism isn’t a charity, after all.
Beginning back in August of 2020, activists put up blockades against the construction of logging roads by Teal-Jones Group into the Fairy Creek watershed on southern Vancouver Island near Port Renfrew. This was first initiated by the Rainforest Flying Squad, a group made up largely of environmental activists and youth. Blockades were put in place on important roads to make movement impossible for the lumber company. The blockades were aided by the support and initiative of the local Pacheedaht First Nation youth and several elders, including their hereditary chief, Victor Peter.
As time wore on, delays began eating into the bosses’ profits. This was more than enough to obtain the injunction against the blockaders by the B.C. Supreme Court on April 1. In an effort to quickly put an end to the blockade, the B.C. NDP government sent swarms of police into the forest to root out the blockades and encampments by force. All this is not new. For many, this is a repetition of the Clayoquot protests, otherwise known as the “War in the Woods.” This was a series of blockades against clear-cutting in Clayoquot Sound, another proposed old-growth logging site located much further north on Vancouver Island. The War in the Woods went on from 1984 to 1994. The “war” would eventually culminate in mid-1993, when 900 people were arrested.
However, it’s not just the self-sacrifice of environmental activists that’s repeating itself. Even the government’s playbook is much the same. During the War in the Woods the B.C. government (at that time under the Social Credit Party, or Socreds, and later in the ’90s the NDP) would lean on blockade injunctions and mass arrests at certain points or deferred logging and environmental reviews at others. Their goal was simply to exhaust the movement and defuse the situation. In either case, the government was (and today is) representing the interests of the logging company owners and capitalism over the interests of environmentalists and workers.
More recently, we saw this same crass hypocrisy and brutality in the struggle against the Coastal GasLink pipeline in eastern B.C. in 2020. As soon as the water defenders and blockaders showed their refusal to capitulate to the bosses and the state, along came the RCMP to impose the interests of the company bosses. These forests are not immune to capitalism’s unquenchable thirst for profits, and they have now turned into a new battleground for the future of old-growth forests in B.C.
Whither the B.C. NDP?
The B.C. New Democratic Party opportunistically called an election last year in order to secure a majority government. They promised many of the usual things, such as affordable housing, improved public transport, and the severe limitation of old-growth forest logging. But where is the B.C. NDP now that there’s no election and their promises matter?
The B.C. NDP’s 2020 program stated that “In early September, we moved to protect nearly 353,000 hectares of old growth forests. But that’s just the beginning … A re-elected BC NDP will implement the full slate of proposals from the Old Growth Strategic Review Panel. We will act on all fourteen recommendations and work with Indigenous leaders and organizations, industry, labour and environmental organizations on the steps that will take us there.” Even this is weak: 353,000 hectares of old-growth forest is only 2.7 per cent of the 13 million hectares of old-growth forest currently endangered in B.C.—far from what is necessary.
This promise to implement recommendations by the Old Growth Strategic Review has now been pushed to the far-off future. While Horgan’s government has agreed to implement all 14 recommendations, it will be years before anything is actually done. Horgan is quoted in The Globe and Mail as saying that “I believe we’re on track and that if we’re going to make systemic change, that has to be thoughtful, it has to include everyone, or it won’t stick… We need to do it in a way that will not disrupt our relationships with the first peoples whose territory these trees are on.” But who does Horgan need to convince to stop old-growth logging? Even the First Nations communities that rely on logging for survival don’t call for old-growth logging but second-growth logging.
What Horgan really means by “everyone” is not First Nations nor the working class, but companies like Teal-Jones. These companies are reliant on the old-growth forests for easy profits and don’t see any reason to stop cutting them down until it is not profitable to do so. Unfortunately, it’s terribly profitable today. So, for all the talk from the B.C. NDP and John Horgan about protecting the environment, the capitalist state, regardless of what promises Horgan makes, has a duty to defend those profits.
As usual, the NDP finds itself stuck in the classic puzzle of reformism. On the one side are the environmentalists, First Nations, and majority of British Columbians and on the other side the financial interests of a tiny number of capitalists. Likewise, in classic fashion, faced with a “difficult” choice the B.C. NDP opted to defer and delay.
After another round of blockades and arrests in June of 2021 the B.C. NDP under John Horgan promised to defer further logging in Fairy Creek for two years. This victory was only a temporary ceasefire over a limited area of old-growth forest. The attempt to find some classic “middle ground” compromise by the B.C. NDP is hopeless. Either the province puts an end to logging in this area for good or it continues. The feeble attempts by the B.C. NDP to kick the can down the road haven’t dulled the outrage activists feel at the prospect of the loss of even more old growth. If anything, the protests have escalated beyond where they were at in 2020. In August 2021, the RCMP arrested approximately 300 protesters blocking logging roads going into the Fairy Creek watershed. This is approaching the arrest record set by the War in the Woods in the 1990s.
Only the working class can save old growth
Correctly, activists have not been fooled by Horgan’s maneuvers and are not only continuing the struggle throughout South Vancouver Island against the lumber companies, but escalating the struggle with protests in Victoria and Vancouver. But this, on its own, is not enough to win. The key factor missing from the entire situation is the participation of the working class—the only force capable of definitively paralyzing and ceasing the continual logging of our endangered forests. Just as during the Clayoquot Sound protests, no one can deny the bravery and self-sacrifice of the Rainforest Flying Squad. However, the problem is that the environmentalist movement, on its own, has consigned itself to defensive maneuvers and fighting retreats. Sometimes we win and old growth is preserved for a time, and sometimes we lose and old growth is lost forever. Without the direct involvement of the working class, i.e. without the turning of the environmentalist movement into a working class movement, no forest is truly preserved, no land truly protected.
While B.C. workers by and large support protecting old growth, the B.C. environmentalist movement has not been able to connect that general sentiment with any concrete program that would actively enthuse workers. In order to achieve this, the environmentalist movement needs to abandon any shaming of forestry workers and instead adopt a strategy that can bring them on board. This means creating demands that resonate with the working class as a whole in order to draw them into the struggle against the forestry capitalists and the bosses in general. Fundamentally, environmentalism needs to be connected to the broader fight against job losses, austerity and capitalism.
Decades of propaganda by the capitalists and honest mistakes by some environmentalists have convinced many workers that, in fact, they and the bosses do have something in common. After all, what’s the average forestry worker supposed to think when what they hear from the environmentalists is that the whole forestry industry should be done away with? Instead the demand needs to be the democratic control by the forestry workers of their own industry: to take it out of the hands of the bosses and put it into our hands to run as we see fit. The average forestry worker wants a decent job that’ll be there tomorrow and the simple fact is that old-growth logging can never achieve that. But the industry bosses don’t care about long-term thinking and want to suck as much profit as quickly as possible through raw log exports instead of value-added products. It is fundamentally unsustainable. But, there is a future for the forestry industry in B.C. through careful use of managed forests. All the other options have been dead ends; capitalism has failed. Only a democratically planned economy, controlled by the working class, can meet the need for environmental sustainability.
If we succeed in making this connection between the working class and the environmentalist movement, it won’t require a decade of running battles with the RCMP out in the woods to protect old growth, but the decisive matter of bringing to bear the power of the B.C. working class. If the forestry workers themselves were organized to oppose Teal-Jones’s plans for Fairy Creek, we would have a power that could seriously threaten the capitalist class and save the planet from environmental destruction.
Because of all this we cannot reduce our goals to what is acceptable to the capitalists. By doing so we only embolden the capitalists and isolate ourselves. We must boldly make the point within the environmentalist movement that capitalism has failed in protecting old growth. A socialist planned economy could have state-of-the-art logging and mills that would make second-growth logging and forest conservation unbelievably more productive and sustainable. With this socialist program in hand and the working class behind it, we can protect Fairy Creek as well as protect forestry jobs.
For an end to all old-growth logging!
For a democratic socialist plan for the forestry industry!