photo: Tony Bounsall
My Conversation With Zoe Blunt
Planet Green: For those unclear about the term, how do you define "direct action" and why do you feel it's the best way to save old-growth forests?
Zoe Blunt: Direct action for social change is the alternative to voting for politicians who won't represent us, or petitioning a biased justice system, or lobbying toxic executives who won't listen. It's DIY. Instead of asking for help, or for mercy, people are taking the means into our hands and creating the change that's needed. There are lots of examples—the Underground Railroad, the Freedom Riders, logging blockades, squats, guerrilla gardens, shutting down world trade meetings, and the first battered-women's shelters. It's often illegal, and sometimes it's so effective it forces a change to the laws!
PG: It seems most of us have been taught the opposite, to work only within the system.
ZB: There's a common delusion that we can stop environmental destruction by appealing to reason and common sense and the common good. But here on the West Coast of BC, the government and the logging industry work hand in hand to clearcut entire watersheds. Over 90% of our old-growth forests are gone and they are going after the last bits. Everyone knows the effect of clearcutting -- soil erosion, wrecked streams, blown-out roads, loss of biodiversity -- and it's just getting shipped out as raw logs. There's no reason or common sense or common good in this. It's just profit. So what do you do, when scientific reports and endangered species surveys and signed petitions and rallies and letter-writing can't force the powers-that-be to accept the obvious? What do you do, when voting doesn't change anything and the media don't care?
PG: Exactly what do you do?
ZB: People resort to illegal blockades, tree-sits, and even sabotage. We've seen tree-spiking here, and that's a serious crime, even though no one's ever been caught. The problem is that the destruction is going so fast that tactics like lawsuits and boycott campaigns -- which can go on for years -- end up as monuments to stumpfields and wrecked ecosystems. They can be effective, though, and absolutely every tactic should be used. The interesting thing about blockades and sabotage is that anyone can do it. No special training is needed, just some special gumption. Industrial logging is killing Mother Earth. We all know it. It's time we took that to heart and acted appropriately. There's no time left for negotiation.
PG: What does "no time left for negotiation" mean in practical terms?
ZB: It seems like whenever an empire begins to collapse from its center, there's a big surge outward at the fringes. Two hundred years ago, this continent was rich in resources and gaining political power as a result. The robber barons had easy access to oil, minerals, and millions of acres of forests. The days of easy access are over, and now there's a desperate surge to grab what's left before it's all gone. They're going after the "guts and feathers" of our ecosystems—remote patches of old-growth forests on steep slopes, places that were protected as community watersheds for decades, special "management areas" that are now on the chopping block. The profit margin is much tighter these days, and you know what that means—they have to take that much more to make the same profit.
Of course, the government is helping out every step of the way, by releasing public forest tenures for private development, handing out tax breaks to logging companies, and suspending export restrictions on raw logs, for example. Still, many of these companies are barely profitable, and this puts tremendous pressure on our forests and watersheds. In the past couple of years on Vancouver Island, logging companies have found it more profitable to exploit the land through real-estate sales and subdivisions. We call it the "log it and flog it" system. Rural forestlands that were managed to sustain local jobs and communities "in perpetuity" are being carved up into resorts and bedroom community 'burbs that demand new roads, services, and infrastructure—and this is all subsidized. We all pay for it, with new taxes and increased smog and greenhouse gases.
It's a gamble for land barons, though, and that means that a handful of people can make life very difficult for the big boys. The rising economy masked a wide range of incredibly incompetent and unsustainable business practices. Now, the logging companies all want to cash out and sell their land to developers, but development requires a hell of a lot of investment dollars up front. So competition for investor dollars is fierce. From the point of view of a venture capitalist, a potential development that has a bunch of angry tree-huggers swarming around it is just not as attractive as one that's not a conflict zone.
"Clear Cuts"PG: Can you give us an example?
ZB: Here on Vancouver Island, we're wrapping up a three-year campaign against an ethics-challenged development called Bear Mountain Resort. This ex-hockey player, Len Barrie, bought himself a mountain and proceeded to wreck part of a native burial ground and a sacred cave to build his golf resort. He would send his hundred-man construction crew around to threaten and rough up the native chiefs and environmentalists when they protested. The community was in an uproar, and a major of contingent of business interests and redneck bigots was on his side and baying for blood like a pack of hounds.
That was the situation in 2007, when the environmentalists found a choke-point. We started a tree-sit camp to stop a highway that was supposed to service his resort and destroy another cave and a wetland. The tree-sit lasted for ten months and it brought a lot of press coverage, and everybody with an interest came out to see us, from the local neighborhood and all over the region. It became a hub for direct action and discussions about direct action, and about taking back control of these insane land-use decisions from the equally insane zoning committees and their vested interests.
When they busted the tree-sit in 2008, it was an unprecedented show of force. But we didn't back down. We protested on the highway, we got together with all the people who'd visited, and we started a corporate campaign. We tracked down his investors and sent them letters to let them know exactly what was happening and what we were going to do about it. We named Len Barrie "Vancouver Island's Most Racist Developer" and gave him an award. We launched a boycott campaign and just kept on exposing the dirty underside of his business. The investors—most of them hockey players—were blinded by dollar signs. They ignored us. I mean, we were just an assortment of students and hippies and malcontents and native people. How could we hurt them? About a month ago, the court assigned Bear Mountain Resort into bankruptcy. Its assets are being seized for back taxes and unpaid debts. One investor, former hockey player Mike Vernon, lost his family trust, his savings, and his house -- almost $10 million. The bank is desperate to unload the half-built resort, or pieces of it, at any price. But there are no takers, despite the fact that the Vancouver Island real-estate bubble is still bubbling right along.
PG: It sounds like a powerful victory for the good guys.
ZB: We can't take credit for the economic downturn, or for the incompetence and alleged fraud that was rampant in the resort's management, but we made sure any potential investor could have all the damning facts about the project right at his fingertips with just a cursory Google search. Looking back, it seems like by the time the cops came to bust the tree-sitters, the damage was already done. The easy money was all spent and Len Barrie was already defaulting on his payments. All we did after that was shine a spotlight on the problems that followed.
In any case, the community of Langford will never be the same. The way we stood up to the bullies, and kept up our spirited defense of the land in spite of the fact that everyone said we'd lost, was a revelation to many of the people who witnessed it. I can guarantee it won't be the last tree-sit we'll see on the island.
PG: Is there anything you'd like to say directly to Planet Green reader?
ZB: All we have to do now to let the bad guys win is nothing. If we're serious about preserving natural heritage, we'd better start acting like it. Do something -- challenge a timber sale, join a grassroots group, go to your local planning and zoning meetings, write letters, pick up a picket sign, climb a tree -- everything is needed right now. There's a real temptation to keep our heads down out of self-preservation because the political dynamics are so out of control. But when the end result is going to be worldwide disaster, we'd better re-think what self-preservation means.
Connect: Save the Wild Coast