Direct Action: The Antidote to Despair
Alex Patterson unbuckles the harness he’s been wearing since breakfast. The young man’s khaki pants are smeared with dirt and his hair is festooned with moss and bits of bark. He shakes out the straps of the harness and untangles the dangling ropes and clips. A second tree-climber steps out of the woods, sweaty but smiling, and gives Patterson a pat on the back. “Thanks for the lesson, man. That was awesome,” the young woman says as she turns toward the kitchen tent. “Right on. Come back tomorrow if you want to learn stirruping,” Patterson calls after her.
In front of the kitchen, a large yellow signboard proclaims, “Welcome to Wild Earth.” A second board lists the day’s workshops and ferry schedule. Three people are chopping potatoes and onions for dinner. Another strums a guitar. Two youngsters chase each other around the picnic table. On the other side of the meadow, a crowd of people mills around before forming into two lines. On a signal from the non-violence trainer, one group moves forward, shouting, waving fists, and even pushing members of the second group, who say little but hold the line by keeping their arms linked together. After a couple of minutes, the trainer calls a halt and the two groups switch roles.
The Wild Earth gathering at Newcastle Island Provincial Park in June 2006 marked seven years of training and networking for eco-action in BC. Since 1999, organizers say eight hundred people have attended seventy-five workshops on topics ranging from civil disobedience to indigenous rights. The annual “boot camp” is hosted by an independent, ad hoc group of volunteers. A grant from Rainforest Action Network covered the cost of climbing gear and transportation in 2006. Most of the food and supplies are donated by the community.
After hearing about the gathering for the first time in 2006, Patterson decided to hitchhike from Ontario to British Columbia to teach others how to climb trees. Patterson is a veteran of the Red Hill tree sits that blocked a highway project near Hamilton, and he believes more forest activists should embrace non-violent action.
“Direct action is the first and last line of defense,” Patterson says. “It’s the only way people at the grassroots level can really affect things. It sidesteps all the layers of bureaucracy and legal barriers created by people in power in order to keep themselves in power and prevent us from creating meaningful change.”
When the situation requires blockades and tree sits, forest activists need to know which strategies work. That’s why training is so crucial, Patterson says. “Whatever the moral and ethical issues of direct action, there’s very important tactical issues. If people don’t know how to do this stuff, they come to confrontations unprepared. And if we’re not prepared, the police take us to jail.”
Chief Qwatsinas (Ed Moody), of the Nuxalk Nation’s House of Smayusta, is traveling from Bella Coola to Vancouver Island to deliver a Wild Earth keynote address on problems with the Great Bear Rainforest agreement. Qwatsinas has spent more than thirteen years fighting to protect the coast, starting in 1994 when the Nuxalk invited Greenpeace to their traditional territory to witness large-scale clearcut logging. The following year, Greenpeace teamed up with the Nuxalk and other environmental groups to launch the Great Bear Rainforest campaign.
“I still remember back quite a while ago when Greenpeace was first developing; they were really brave and believed in what they’re doing,” Qwatsinas recalls. “And then it slowly began to change. The centre has shifted.”
In 1997, Nuxalk members and their allies – Greenpeace, Forest Action Network, Bear Watch and People’s Action for Threatened Habitat – blocked logging operations on Roderick Island, King Island and Ista, which is sacred to the Nuxalk as the place where the first woman came to earth. Two dozen Nuxalk people were arrested that year, including Qwatsinas.
Now, he says, the protests are more timid. “A lot of people are scared of tactics from the other side, arresting tactics and reporting tactics. You develop a criminal record from being a part of the action.“
But Qwatsinas is not intimidated. “If that’s what it takes, to be labeled a terrorist, then let’s save the trees.”
Qwatsinas and the House of Smayusta did not sign on to the Great Bear Rainforest agreement, which was announced in February 2006. He feels the compromise gives away too much of the forest, and he says the rate of logging has on the coast has increased dramatically in the past year.
“It’s talk and log,” says Qwatsinas. “It’s not a victory. Everyone loses.”
In the past few years, BC’s long tradition of non-violent resistance to forest destruction has virtually disappeared. Qwatsinas blames Greenpeace for pulling the plug on the blockades during the Great Bear negotiations.
“They made the Central Coast an environmental-protest-free zone,” Qwatsinas says. “We can’t go out and blockade or protest. We’re neutralized, really. They’re handcuffed. How are you going to set forth your demands at the table when your will is broken?”
But compromise is not an option when defending sacred land, and Qwatsinas predicts the recent lull in peaceful resistance won’t last. “I think people will start to realize what’s going on and start to create those movements. I think direct action will start to blow back into the picture again. There’s only so much abuse and sacrifice the wildlife and the environment can take.”
Vancouver Island activist and Wild Earth presenter Ingmar Lee agrees that grassroots action is crucial when it comes to real change. “The successes have come from individual grassroots efforts that have basically bypassed the entrenched bureaucratic environmental institutions that have been sucking up the enviro-buck and just not getting the kind of accomplishments we need,” Lee says. “In the Gordon Campbell world, we have to confront – directly confront – and go out there and take it on ourselves to defend the forests.”
Lee understands the need for no-compromise action. As a key member of the campaign to save Cathedral Grove from a misguided parking lot, he spent over two years helping to coordinate a campaign of road-blocking and tree-sitting that ultimately forced the province to back off.
Wild Earth organizer Tim Dobbyn has committed a big part of his life to the training camp. “I think direct action works because it is immediate,” the 23-year old North Vancouver resident explains. “Indirect methods can work, but they take more time; time forests and people don’t have, in some cases. Direct actions also raise the consciousness about issues, bringing more attention and more hands to help.”
Dobbyn attended the first Wild Earth gathering in 1999, when he was 15. Now the campout is a family event, with his partner Fern and his two small children. He says, “Wild Earth 1999 was the first environmentalist event I ever went to, also the first time I ever skipped school for more than one class, the first time I went camping without my parents—a major formative event in my life.”
For Dobbyn, the training camp teaches more than just protest tactics. “We’re here to strengthen bonds with friends, make new friends, learn new skills and ideas, and build radical community.”
The Wild Earth Rendezvous takes place June 1 – 7 at a backcountry forest camp southwest of Cowichan Lake on Vancouver Island. More than two dozen workshops are scheduled. Admission is by donation and includes meals, snacks, and childcare for the week. More information and directions are available online at the Wild Earth Blog.