The Rights of Trees

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The Rights of Trees

How can we better protect our precious forests? Carol Matthew writes about the importance of our ancient trees and questions our right to cut them down. She tells about the “Wildwood Ecoforest” on Vancouver Island, one man’s attempt to preserve old forests.

How can we better protect our precious forests? Carol Matthew writes about the importance of our ancient trees and questions our right to cut them down. She tells about the “Wildwood Ecoforest” on Vancouver Island, one man’s attempt to preserve old forests.

The ancient Sumerian word ama-gi is translated as “freedom.” Its origins are in the noun ama meaning “mother,” and the present participle gi, meaning “returning,” thus literally meaning “returning to mother.”

According to news reports, over 1,200 protesters have been arrested and the RCMP has spent over 6.8 million dollars in enforcing injunctions against the protest.

I think of this etymology as I look up at the spreading branches of the magnificent Mother Trees at Wildwood Ecoforest, a 73-acre forest in Yellowpoint on Vancouver Island. We hear a lot about the Mother Tree, since Suzanne Simard wrote her best-selling book “Finding the Mother Tree.”

Elsewhere on the Island there are ongoing protests over the clearcutting of old growth forests at Fairy Creek. According to news reports, over 1,200 protesters have been arrested and the RCMP has spent over 6.8 million dollars in enforcing injunctions against the protest.

The company has the right to log in this area, but questions have been raised about the limits to those rights. Fairy Creek is within the Pacheedaht First Nations’ territory, and the rights of First Nations to make decisions about forest resources in the territory must also be recognized. However, the community appears to be divided in their response to the protests. While protestors have been asked to leave, some elders have spoken out in support of the protesters. The situation is complex.

Art by Carol Matthews

In 1972, Christopher Stone, a law professor at the University of Southern California, published an article in the Southern California Law Review entitled, “Should Trees Have Standing?: Toward Legal Rights for Natural Objects.” In making his point he noted that, throughout history, rights have been granted to entities such as children, women and even corporations. The article helped to inspire a worldwide movement to grant nature the same rights enjoyed by humans. Since then, many countries have considered including the rights of nature in their constitutions and, in 2017, the New Zealand government enacted legislation recognizing the Whanganui River as holding rights and responsibilities equivalent to a person.

The situation at Fairy Creek involves the conflicting rights and responsibilities held by the Indigenous people on whose territory the logging is taking place, the logging company, the government and environmentalists. Perhaps a resolution would be facilitated if the rights of trees were considered as well.

I don’t know if Merve Wilkinson, founder of Wildwood,* was thinking of the rights of trees when he sustainably logged his property. It is said that he walked the land constantly and came to know every tree and that he considered the trees, the deer and the woodpeckers as his friends.

He harvested trees selectively and sustainably, selling timber and using it to build his house without damaging the ecosystem. He had lumber milled on site and used it for fencing and specialty goods like railing and decorative posts. His selective logging practices were based more on need than on greed. Wilkinson earned many honours for his life work, including the Order of British Columbia and the Order of Canada. Global celebrities such as Jane Goodall have visited Wildwood and many individuals such as Robert Bateman and David Suzuki have supported the work being done by the Ecoforestry Institute Society.

Wildwood is now known internationally as a learning centre which is a model of ecoforestry. The agreement that governs Wildwood states, as one of its inalienable principles, that Wildwood must be managed to protect ecosystem functioning. This is a solid step towards recognizing the rights of trees.

There are estimates that less than 1% of BC’s forests are productive old growth trees, and it’s easy to point out the value of these trees for the planet and its people: Surely it’s time for all of us to become vocal in supporting the rights of trees.

*Wildwood is managed by the Ecoforestry Institute Society. Learn more about the Ecoforestry Institute Society and the work of Merve Wilkinson at https://www.ecoforestry.ca.