Workshop calls for greater use of traditional forestry science

By Shayne Morrow, December 18, 2011

Keith Hunter of First Nations Wildcrafters conducts a webinar entitled The Myth of Emptiness Dec. 15.

First Nations Wildcrafters co-owner Keith Hunter called on officials from the provincial forest and agriculture ministries and on industry professionals to recognize and make use of aboriginal knowledge in the management of B.C.’s forests.

Hunter held a one-hour online seminar on Dec. 15 titled The Myth of Emptiness. The webinar focused on the lack of regard or respect for non-European science or forest practices. The session was sponsored by the Forum for Research and Extension in Natural Resources (FORREX) and was co-hosted by Ellen Simmons from her desk at the En’owkin Centre in Penticton.
A projector beamed the contents of Hunter’s desktop onto a screen, which was shared by participants, but there was no provision for participants to see each other in person.

“This is the first time I’ve ever done a conference where I can’t see the people,” Hunter said.
With the participants dialed in, Hunter explained that the Myth of Emptiness is best exemplified by the reaction of European explorers when they first arrived in North America. What they discovered was a vast territory with few permanent settlements in the European sense, a mainly nomadic population and no culture of private property.

Instead of concluding “there is nobody like us here,” Hunter said, the Europeans took it a step further and decided, “there is nobody here.” The vast New World was a blank slate to be used as they wished.

“The effect is that it tends to push local knowledge to the periphery,” Hunter explained.

That effect persists, he said. Conventional forestry, which is geared towards producing the maximum amount of commercial timber from any given area, places little emphasis on maintaining eco-systems in the understory, where a wide range of naturally occurring plants, animals and insects thrive. It is in the understory where traditional foods and medicines are gathered, and a whole new industry is evolving.
Hunter warned, however, that the Myth of Emptiness is fueled by confusing terminology.
“None of our customers call our products ‘non-timber forest products,’” he said. “We have to be careful when using jargon, because it can end up driving the discussion. We can create a misperception just by using terms.”

To illustrate, Hunter put a message on the screen asking participants to identify an “enhanced dwelling entry device.”

After a few moments, the screen changed to a picture of a doorknob. It’s a lesson on keeping the discussion on the facts and the objectives rather than on the language, Hunter said.

At its very heart, the challenge of planning a sustainable harvest is to be able to factor in all the specific site knowledge, Hunter said. As we move forward into the 21st century, that site knowledge must incorporate First Nations traditional knowledge, and even more importantly, First Nations consent in the decision-making process.

“If we have a cutblock planned, we could have someone say, ‘My family prayed there for generations,’ or ‘That’s where we harvest our berries,’” he said. “There is a need to include specific feedback, or the decisions are made in a vacuum. We need to help the decision makers by giving them better tools. And it has to be practical and cost effective.”

But in order to make equitable decisions, Hunter warned, we must give traditional science equal stature alongside conventional science.

Hunter’s company is in the forefront of incorporating traditional knowledge with 21st century technology. In order to comply with stringent federal regulations for forest foods, First Nations Wildcrafters must be able to trace wild mushrooms back to their origin on the forest floor.

While modern mushroom gatherers rely on their local knowledge to locate pines and chanterelles, they now track their daily harvest using hand-held global positioning systems.

Hunter said he records that data using a Google Earth platform. On the screen, he flashed an area map with this year’s chanterelle harvest highlighted.
“I don’t own Google stock, by the way,” he quipped, adding that there is a hazard to too much reliance on technology.

“As we go forward with more desktop decision-making, we start to lose that human contact, especially with the people on the ground who have the local traditional knowledge,” he warned.

Despite the new emphasis on non-timber resources and the recent renewal of Growing Forward funding for a local agriforestry pilot program, Hunter said the industry still flies under the radar.

“We’re one of the only sectors that doesn’t get treated like a sector,” he said. “Think of the tourism sector, agriculture, aquaculture… it isn’t recognized and therefore, can be marginalized, which perpetuates the Myth of Emptiness.”

In the discussion that followed, Hunter heard little disagreement from the ministry officials and academics on the other end of the telephone line, in his call for a “whole systems diversification model” incorporating government land-use planning, forest industry planning, First Nations traditional knowledge and economic development initiatives.

“I’ve been in discussions with most of these people for the past few years. I sort of felt like I was preaching to the choir,” Hunter said later.

He is encouraged, however, that many of the provincial officials he has worked with over the years have moved up the ladder of responsibility, and have been sensitized to the need for more First Nations involvement in the decision-making process.

In the end, it is economics and eco-awareness that will bring about the changes needed, Hunter believes, because existing forest management practices are bad business and bad for the environment.

“Forest companies are required to maintain a specific stand of one or two species,” he explained. “In today’s forestry you see single-age stands in a monoculture, with no understory, where you get the infill of naturally-occurring species.”

Once the company meets its silviculture responsibility to replace the trees it just harvested, the cutblock is free to grow, with no consideration for wildlife, forest foods, etc. But by bringing both conventional and traditional science to bear on forest operations it would promote a secondary revenue stream from new products while ensuring biodiversity and, as an added benefit, improved recreational values.

“I believe it can be done. We don’t have to stay stuck, if we look at this as a sub-set of forestry management,” Hunter said.