Maintain Biodiversity

From the Foundation's 1994 Annual Report


The fundamental human benefits from biodiversity are clear: it provides medicines with which to combat disease. From it stem the immense variety of seeds that are the core of our agricultural sustenance. Biodiversity furnishes raw materials for industry and foodstuffs of great value, from shrimp harvested off of coastal Louisiana to salmon in the Pacific Northwest to tambaquí and other fish in the Amazon, which provide over 60% of protein consumed by people within the Amazon basin. Perhaps above all else, the myriad parts of biodiversity combine to provide ecosystem services -- clean air, clean water, flood control, fertile soils -- upon which virtually all life, including human life, is dependent.

Learning to live within limits that sustain biodiversity is a challenge, for we benefit both directly and indirectly from its bounty. The direct benefits, unfortunately, invite rapid exploitation. Too often, short-term uses have won out over long-term balance. The people of Easter Island learned too late that the forests they ravaged were essential for their survival.

The Foundation has chosen to focus its investments in biodiversity on three ecosystems and three watersheds in different regions around the world. Grants in each emphasize the central role of biodiversity in supporting human prosperity, with the goal of finding ways to achieve balance between immediate economic aspirations and the long-term need to maintain biotic resources.

This year's report will focus on one of these areas, the forests of the U.S. Pacific northwest and of southwest Canada, and in particular upon one island archipelago, Haida Gwaii, where the challenges are inescapable even as the opportunities beckon.

Haida Gwaii -- also known as the Queen Charlotte Islands -- is an archipelago of several hundred islands large and small, seventy miles west of the British Columbia mainland and thirty miles south of Canada's border with Alaska. The islands' wet climate, tempered by the surrounding ocean and enveloped by moist air off the Pacific, sustains a temperate rainforest of immense proportions. Huge Sitka spruce, red and yellow cedar and western hemlock blanket Haida Gwaii with some of the most productive temperate rainforest in the world. The archipelago's remoteness, moreover, has protected much of the forests from industrial logging, at least until recently.

In the language of the Haida, the aboriginal hunter-gatherers who began to populate the archipelago over 10,000 years ago, Haida Gwaii means "People Islands." According to archælogical evidence, the Haida population at the time of first contact with European explorers numbered 15,000-30,000 people. After suffering from plagues of European origin in the 19th and early 20th Centuries, their numbers plummeted to a mere several hundred. Today there are over 3,000 members of the Haida Nation, about half of whom live in two villages on Haida Gwaii, sharing their islands home with 3,800 Canadians who live in four small towns, scattered rural areas and remote logging camps. Some of the families descended from European settlers have now lived on the islands for five generations.

The islands' economy derives from two natural resources, the forests on land and the fish in the rivers and surrounding sea. In the memories of Haida elders, these resources were once abundant at a scale difficult even to imagine today. Indeed, the number of Haida sustained by these resources prior to the arrival of Europeans was three to six times the current total population.

Haida Gwaii rose to international prominence in 1987 when the Haida, after working for thirteen years with local environmentalists, succeeded in stopping logging in the southern end of the archipelago, known at the time as South Moresby, but today called Gwaii Haanas -- literally, "Place so beautiful it inspires wonder and awe." At the time, it was the hardest fought and most significant challenge to Canada's logging industry.

Even with this effort, over the last half-century the archipelago's land and water have been plundered in ways that have brought few economic benefits to the people who live there. Today many resource-related jobs are held by off-islanders, flown in for temporary duty. For example, only one in five of the jobs generated by the islands' forests are held by long-term island residents. Little of the money generated by logging flows through the local economy. Still fewer of the profits remain.

If fishing and logging continue at their current pace, the residents of Haida Gwaii will soon be left with small fragments of forest, degraded habitat, dwindling fish stocks, and few economic alternatives other than leaving their homeland.

While many communities with economies so strongly dependent upon local natural resources face similar challenges, the island nature of Haida Gwaii frames choices with stark clarity. The limits of the island are inescapable. There is land. Then there is ocean. The forest does not extend endlessly beyond the last ridge. It goes no further than the edge of the sea. New jobs can't be found simply by moving another 50 miles down the road. The choice is either to stay and manage resources for the long-term, or to leave the islands.

The Foundation's 1994 support in Haida Gwaii emphasized three approaches: to slow the current pace of destruction, to develop analytical capacity on the islands so that plausible economic alternatives could be identified and examined, and to engage the community in a discussion of its future.
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