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BC biodiversity - watershed protection and Indigenous stewardship vs corporate profits

Will BC put watershed protection and Indigenous stewardship ahead of corporate profits?

The BC NDP government is finally getting serious about protecting the province’s precious ecosystems, watersheds, and endangered species. A new policy framework proposed in November 2023 could radically shift the province’s approach to conservation and reconciliation with Indigenous Nations. 

After decades of environmental devastation and the ongoing violation of Indigenous peoples’ rights , the government’s draft Biodiversity and Ecosystem Health framework offers the promise of a complete paradigm shift: putting long-term ecosystem health ahead of resource extraction and industry profits, protecting 30% of BC’s terrestrial ecosystems, and empowering Indigenous Nations and knowledge keepers as the rightful stewards of their lands.

If properly implemented, the framework could spell the end of a long era of putting corporate interests ahead of conservation and biodiversity. It would represent a major legislative achievement with United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) at its core, upholding the sovereignty of Indigenous Nations in BC and reining in corporate impunity. But to make a lasting impact, the legislation must have teeth – and there’s no doubt that industry lobbyists will be lining up to undermine its effectiveness.  

The real test of the government’s commitment will come when it’s time to implement the framework through the creation of enforceable laws and robust new institutions. The protections we currently have don’t go far enough, and they aren’t consistently enforced. We need a concrete plan outlining how this framework will be translated into legislation that includes funding for proactive enforcement.

The government is currently accepting public comments on the policy until January 31, 2024. This means that we have an important opportunity to shape the framework and encourage the government to hold firm in the face of industry pressure. 

As an organization with a long history of safeguarding clean water in BC and across the country, the Council of Canadians is particularly concerned with strengthening the provisions around protecting water and watersheds from industrial activity. Since our founding in 1985, water has been under worsening assault by industrial activity in BC’s watersheds: reckless clearcut logging, roadbuilding, fracking, mining, and over-extraction for bottling and export. Biodiversity has also been under attack.

The central flaw in this province’s approach to land-use planning and water management is the priority given to corporate profit over ecosystem health. It was this misplaced priority that caused previous BC governments to undermine the system of protected Watershed Reserves established under the BC Land Act, which originally prohibited logging inside watersheds supplying drinking water. Without robust legal protection, clearcut logging and other industrial activities have devastated drinking watersheds around the province. 

The Biodiversity and Ecosystem Health framework promises an important shift from “a land management system that prioritizes resource extraction” to a new paradigm in which the provincial government works together with First Nations to prioritize “conservation and management of ecosystem health and biodiversity.”  

But it is essential that this shift takes place via binding, enforceable regulations and not merely at the level of rhetoric. We cannot afford to continue the “talk and log” approach that characterized the Old Growth Strategic Review process. To fulfill its mandate and accomplish the promised shift to a new paradigm in conservation, the Office of Biodiversity and Ecosystem Health must be empowered to limit or restrict industrial activity, to protect the forests that are integral to maintaining a secure supply of clean drinking water.

Specifically, to ensure that further damage to drinking watersheds is halted while this new framework is in development, we are  calling for an immediate moratorium on logging inside community drinking watersheds. A moratorium would put a stop to the degradation of our water supply, ensuring that First Nations and all levels of government can take the necessary time to build robust mechanisms for land and water-use planning for the long term. 

We know that healthy, intact forests are the best guarantors of clean, reliable drinking water. Unlogged and undisturbed forests have a wide range of additional benefits, from preventing soil erosion to providing habitat for critically endangered animal species. Saving forests from destruction also saves money in the long term – money that would otherwise be spent on expensive water treatment plants, landslide cleanup, and other remedial actions needed to manage the unaccounted costs of clearcut logging.

Ultimately, protecting our drinking watersheds is only one element of the larger paradigm shift to prioritizing ecological health in this province, but it is a crucial one. For that larger shift to be successful, the BC government must establish a new regulatory framework that limits industrial activity, is backed up with robust enforcement measures, and empowers Indigenous stewardship of the land and water.

We’ve created a letter-writing tool that lays out some of our suggested demands. Click here to use the text provided or edit it to share your own take on the proposed framework.


David Ravensbergen

David is the Pacific Regional Organizer for the Council of Canadians.