National Geographic explorer Wade Davis on Enbridge, First Nations and mining

Published in the Vancouver Observer | February 26, 2012 | Circulation 100,000 unique monthly visitors

National Geographic explorer-in-residence – and northern B.C. resident – Wade Davis has a modest proposal when asked about burgeoning mine and pipeline developments in northern B.C. such as the Enbridge Northern Gateway pipeline, which has come under widespread criticism and vigorous government defence.

For every drop of toxic waste dumped or leaked into northern First Nations’ water supply, he proposes, an equivalent drop is poured into the local swimming pool used by industry executives’ children. For every tree cut, a rose bush is severed in the executives’ home gardens. 

The world-renowned author and researcher, in an exclusive interview with the Vancouver Observer, insisted he is not anti-development. Currently nominated for the coveted Charles Taylor non-fiction prize for his recent book Into the Silence: The Great War, Mallory and the Conquest of Everest, Davis said the question is more about of balance – and priorities.

“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 havevoiced 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.
For Davis, the question of balancing industrial development and ecological protection is heavily linked to community benefit. Many large-scale mining projects, he argued, destroy the environment and still leave behind little but pollution for First Nations.
He cited the example of a gold and silver mine operated by a subsidiary ofBarrick Gold in northern B.C., which sold thousands of tonnes of precious metals abroad but invested little in the local Tahltan First Nationcommunity.
“After $25 billion of wealth was taken from Tahltan territory, that community which has suffered an epidemic of teen suicides,” Davis lamented. “It still has no hockey rink, still has no swimming pool, still has no funds for kids to go to college, no bank for low-interest loans for small enterprise, no place for elders to gather.
“Although some Tahltan got jobs as day labourers, and some contracts went to a (local) trucking company, the actual infrastructure for the local community didn’t change one bit in ten years.”
With Into the Silence short-listed for a Taylor prize, to be announced March 5, has Davis moved away from his tradition subject matter? The book documents British explorers’ fatal attempts to climb the world’s highest mountain, in the context of post-war culture. Driven by a desire to redeem the weakening British Empire’s fading scientific and exploration dreams, and unafraid of death after the bloody WWI killing fields, Mallory and his team represented a story both gripping and political.
“Most importantly, I’m a story-teller,” Davis said, when asked why Into the Silence is such a departure from his prior work. “I live by Marshall McLuhan’s adage, ‘If it works, it’s obsolete.’”
Davis recently spoke out against the Enbridge pipeline in Winnipeg, Manitoba.

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