National Geographic explorer Wade Davis on Enbridge, First Nations and mining
Speaking out on the Enbridge Northern Gateway pipeline and mining near his home, the author of Sacred Headwaters spoke with VO on nature, industry and First Nations.
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“The bigger issue for all Canadians to ask ourselves is, 'What kind of country will we be?'” Davis said from his National Geographic office in Washington, D.C. “All of this is all interconnected. It's a time for thoughtful planning and cautious implementation of economic and industrial possibilities.
“Enbridge is all about whether or not Canada is prepared to drain the tar sands and export the oil to China. That's what it's all about: fuelling the tar sands. If we had some way to recognize the land itself has an inherent value, which it obviously does, it might mitigate some of our decisions.”
Davis, who lives in the Stikine Valley of northern B.C. when he is not in the U.S., spoke at length about mining and pipeline development in the Pacific Northwest, and warned of “a kind of tsunami of industrial development proposed for all corners of the country,” most especially in that region. He criticized what he characterized as a lax provincial environmental review process which is jeopardizing fragile, pristine ecosystems.
And, although he has many criticisms of the Northern Gateway pipeline – which will carry bitumen from the Alberta oil sands to tanker ports on the Pacific coast – he cautioned against tunnel vision on that single project when many others, particularly mining projects, also threaten wilderness areas across the province.
In the region of his family's home, for example, Imperial Metals plans to dig an open-pit copper and gold mine – the Red Chris mine – which Davis warned could destroy the pristine mountain home of one of the world's largest wild sheep herds. In another northern B.C. project, Royal Dutch Shell plans to extract methane gas from a million-acre swathe of wilderness.
“The issue with mines really has to be where, at what pace, at what consequence to the land, and at whose benefit,” Davis said. “If a mine that, by its very design, will destroy a mountain that's home to the largest population of charismatic ungulate species in the world – a mine that by its very design will bury pristine alpine lakes with tailings, the toxicity of which eventually will leak into the headwaters – what exactly would it take to fail an environmental assessment?”
“This is very personal, but not in the sense of a NIMBY (Not-in-my-back-yard) issue. I'm fighting because it's in my backyard – of course I am – if those of us whose lives and homes and places where we raise our kids don't fight for those places, where else are we supposed to fight for?”
His community's fight to save the pristine Stikine, Skeena and Hass river valleys took him and other residents to the Supreme Court of Canada, where they challenged B.C.'s environmental assessment process. Although that case was defeated, Davis published another book last year, Sacred Headwaters, to make an impassioned plea for the wilderness areas he loves.
When asked about the connective link between his two most recent books – the most well-known about George Mallory's ascent of Mount Everest and the waning of the British Empire post-World War I – and his earlier, celebrated research on Indigenous cultures, Davis said that the connection is broad.
“All of the work I do is driven by a desire to celebrate the wonder of the natural world and the wonder of the human imagination and culture,” Davis said. “I've spent much of my time writing about the impact on culture of various projects and policies throughout the world.
“And yet now I find myself defending my own homeland because these projects are where I am raising my children.”
With the fight in northern B.C., however, his work to support Indigenous cultures' survival worldwide came full circle. Hundreds of First Nations have voiced their opposition to the Northern Gateway pipeline, as well as a number of other industrial projects – although some nations have offered tentative support at times when jobs and community investment have been offered.