Defending Life: The Importance of Civil Disobedience

Old-growth Trees.

Their ancientness, embodied knowledge, and powerful presence elicits profound reverence. Walking in the forests of Vancouver Island has literally had me falling to my knees, from awe and respect. Some of the oldest DNA on Earth is found in trees, given that they are some of the oldest beings on Earth. When you walk among giants whom 10 people linking hands cannot encircle, you realize that these trees are living beings, elders who have survived incredible natural events as well as human machinations. Some are called witness trees…witness not just to some catastrophe, bearing the scars in their bodies, but witness to much of earth and human history.

Vancouver Island is part of the Pacific Northwest temperate rainforest ecosystem. Trees naturally cover the rugged, deep, and isolated valleys of rolling mists during months of rain. Red and yellow cedar, Douglas fir, Sitka spruce, and hemlock to name a few. Here these trees are considered “old-growth” from 250 years old. They, however, can live to 1500 years and beyond. Some trees soar 330 feet (nearly 100 metres) into the sky, impossible to see the growing tip from the ground. The Cheewhat Giant is a Western red cedar, bordering the Carmanah and Pacific Rim Reserves, considered to be about 2000 years old, the oldest in Canada. Imagine…its life started at the end of the Ancient Roman Empire!

The oldest tree is south of us, located in California, a bristlecone pine almost 5000 years old. It began its life during the Ancient Egyptian civilization. The biggest tree, by girth and volume, is a giant 2000-year-old sequoia, also south of us in California. So, the west coast of North America is a special series of ecosystems.

Clearcutting trees increases the temperature of water, which disrupts salmon spawning and reduces rainfall, leaving remaining trees vulnerable to drought and “blow down”. It enables landslides which destroy salmon spawning creeks. And we know, in this dance of life, salmon feed the trees as well as mammals and other life forms…in an ancient yet fragile life cycle.

While many believe that old-growth logging is a thing of the past in Canada, this is definitely not the case! On Vancouver Island, at least one third of all logging is from productive old-growth forests…as, of course, they net the most profit for their effort. Many important forests in the province of British Columbia have now been protected, but only after significant public outcry. That said, only 20% of the original forest on Vancouver Island is left. Today, of this 20%, only 3 to 7% are the productive old-growth forests with the biggest, oldest trees and intact ecosystems. The current protest at Fairy Creek is focused on preserving one of the last untouched watersheds of ancient trees, 2000 incredible hectares within the 60,000 hectares within this timber forest license. Using civil disobedience to protect forests has had many forerunners, both in Canada and globally.

In 1985, a Haida blockade on Lyell island, in their traditional territory of Haida Gwaii, helped save an old-growth forest after 13 years of failed negotiations with Macmillan Bloedel forestry company. Out of this protest came a national park called Gwaii Haanas and a Haida heritage site. It also helped to bring treaty recognition to First Nations within Canada. Only in taking their forest protection movement global—appealing to the UN as part of Indigenous rights as well as asking Europeans to boycott BC forest company products—were the Haida successful. Still, there have been blockades as recently as last year to protect the overcutting and clear cutting of red cedar outside the park, the tree so pivotal to their identity, survival, and sense of place.

In 1988, the Carmanah Giant, a Sitka spruce 95 metres tall…the tallest in Canada, was found. The Western Canada Wilderness Committee was successful in lobbying for the eventual protection of the whole Carmanah Valley as a provincial park. However, further north, it took the largest mass arrest in Canadian history—of 932 people—to protect forests in Clayoquot Sound in 1993. The original plan was to log 75% of the old-growth forest on Meares Island, where simply amazing trees—by age, height, and girth—grow, as well as elsewhere in Clayoquot Sound. Local residents, First Nations, and environmental groups worked together to stop the logging despite police aggression, intimidation by loggers, and criminal charges. Called the War in the Woods, the Peace Camp had over 11,000 people visit in support of the protest and the trials clogged the courts for months. Once again, national and international media coverage swung the tide as public opinion focused on the unfair arrests, jail sentences, and fines of peaceful protestors. Once again, a boycott of BC forest products, a scientific panel, high profile voices, and turning over the logging rights and control of forest resources to First Nations as well as establishing the Meares Island Tribal Park ended the protest.

On the global scale, think of the Chipko movement in the Indian Himalayas in the 1970s. Chipko means “to hug” from which the phrase “tree hugger” comes. Primarily women stood with their backs to trees holding hands, to impede foreign logging companies. They knew that cutting the trees would lead to soil erosion and significant flooding, which it did.

Then there is Chico Mendes, a Brazilian rubber tapper in the Amazon rainforest who led the blockades in the 1980s. The movement asserted protection for Indigenous peoples who had been using the forest for their livelihoods in perpetuity over generations.

Similarly, over the last 50 years, many Indonesian locals have lost their lives protecting their lush forests, plundered for teak, mahogany, and other wood you might see in the furniture around you. Today, forests are lost for oil palm plantations, paper mills, acacia timber, and corporate agriculture. says that Indonesia’s forests contain: 10% of the world’s mammal species, 16% of our planet’s bird species and 11% of earth’s plant species as well as containing large swaths of peatland…some areas 10 feet deep…needed as carbon sinks in a climate change world. Some of the large-scale logging is illegal, not adhering to international agreements, as it is destined for international timber markets which have no tracing.

In 1996, Julia “Butterfly” Hill carried out a “tree sit” in a 1500-yr-old California redwood called “Luna” for nearly 2 years. Her book The Legacy of Luna beautifully describes her experience trying to prevent the Pacific Lumber Company from cutting this tree and the forest around it, bringing attention to how the California forestry industry works, with multiple vested and complicit interests.

Sweden, usually considered a model of sustainable forestry, has seen a recent increase in deforestation intensity. In the 2000s, only about 3-4 per cent of the Swedish forests were formally protected from logging. As a result of rising global neoliberal politics and economics, logging has increased 35% since 1990. The Sami Peoples, biologists, and now the Fridays for Future movement inspired by Greta Thunberg, continue to call for protection of old-growth trees. Covered in lichens, these trees host the primary food of the reindeer, pivotal to the life and identity of the Sami.

Considered to have a special relationship with their forests, Germans have mobilized over the last decades as

forests have been threatened for highways, mining, factories, hotels, parking lots and the like. Called the Forest Occupation Movement, activists have built climate camps including barricades, platforms in trees, and tree houses where they reside, as a method of protection. As they are illegal, eviction notices give power to the police to remove them. In response, they charge the powers-that-be with “committing ecocide”. These occupations are spreading not only in Germany but in Poland, Switzerland, Belgium, and France.

All this as new research continues to emerge about the hidden life of trees (see Peter Wohlleben), about mother trees (see Susan Simard), and about medicinal and cultural regard for trees and biodiverse forests (see Diana Beresford-Kroeger). The Wood Wide Web (mycelium network) that connects trees and other plants underground is their collective source of resilience, says German forest ranger Peter Wohlleben. In Eiffel, he set aside part of a forest as a “burial woods” (cemetery), which brings in revenue without cutting. Then he was hired to manage the forest as a community forest, still bringing in revenue through selective cutting while allowing the forest to rewild.

Forests are critical to climate policy and biodiversity preservation as well as the lungs of the planet and wildlife habitat. Trees are carbon sinks who are needed for their cooling and rainmaking capacities. Healthy, intact, hydrated forests are less vulnerable, important in so many places suffering from devastating drought, record heat waves, and the ravages of fire and flooding.

As the World Wildlife Fund asserts, a healthy planet begins with healthy forests and people. For example, forest degradation is a major driver of zoonotic diseases like COVID-19, while healthy forests offer countless medicinal benefits. The WWF has been tracking all the deforestation fronts, lending their support to all the movements defending forests. In their 2015 Living Forests Report, they identify 24 deforestation fronts. Yet, in the last dozen years, another 10% of these vital forests have been lost. They have clearly identified the multiple drivers of deforestation and thus how responses on multiple fronts are most effective.

In many places, tree protection protests have been led by Indigenous Land Defenders, given the importance of forests to their very identity. Their long presence in many forests and their forest knowledge is becoming critically endangered. Land Defenders (and Water Defenders) understand themselves as carrying forward their ancient traditions and within this, their sacred duties of protecting all life forms. They do not consider themselves as “protestors” to extractive industry as settlers do, but rather as standing their ground against colonialism and all its extractive, dehumanizing, and destructive forms. They are continuing their demand for a return of land, water, and other ancient rights within their territorial kinships of relation. There is a very long list of Indigenous Land Defenders who have lost their lives in the defense of life, especially in the last 100 years, from Latin America to Africa to Asia. The organization Global Witness determined that 164 land defenders lost their lives in 2018 alone. Amnesty International considers Latin American the most dangerous for Land Defenders, particularly those facing Big Oil. The Environmental Defence Fund say few deaths ever see justice.

An Inside Look at Forest Civil Disobedience

The following is a brief inside look at the Fairy Creek ancient forest protection movement and the complex nuances of vested interests.

One year ago, August 9, 2020, when clear cutting began creeping toward the ecologically sensitive Fairy Creek, aptly named for its large trees and magical watershed system, a small group of motivated young people, calling themselves Forest Defenders, established the first protest camp. They notified the Pacheedhat Chief, Council, and Elder Bill Jones of their intentions to block logging within their territory.

They lived in the forest during the wet winter…monitoring the cutting through satellite photos. They established a blockade, later called Ridge Camp, to prevent road making then logging, particularly the roadmaking inching toward the crest of the ridge which would breach the Fairy Creek watershed. Other blockades were set up strategically on logging roads, such as River Camp, Eden Camp, Waterfall Camp, etc…dependent on forestry activities.

One month into the blockades, a Pacheedaht hereditary leader, Elder Bill Jones, age 81, came out in support of the young protestors, calling for more careful stewardship of Ada’itsx/Fairy Creek and adjacent forests. Together, they called their action “The Last Stand” for and of ancient temperate rainforests.

With great ingenuity, they blockaded in front of road-building graters, front end loaders, skidders, and all manner of highly mechanized equipment that clear cut Canadian forests every year. Learning from earlier movements, they began building complex structures on tripods or dangling over canyons or chaining themselves into PVC pipe cemented in logging roads, which they cannot easily be extracted from. The goal is to blockade in such a way that the loggers are delayed…and trees saved…each and every day.

In April, a court injunction was granted to the forestry company which enabled the provincial RCMP (Royal Canadian Mounted Police) the right to arrest protestors to clear the way for the logging company Teal Jones. From this point on, the movement intensified, as the peaceful protestors were now participating in a civil disobedience campaign.

Civil disobedience has a long history in the 20th century, from the suffragettes demanding the vote for women, to Gandhi protesting British colonialism in India, to Martin Luther King advocating for the civil rights of Black Americans. Civil disobedience is defined as a “public, nonviolent, and conscientious breach of law undertaken with the aim of bringing about a change in laws or government policies” (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy).

In general, street protests are legal as they register their plans and may be aided by traffic police when streets are filled with pedestrians. On the other end of the spectrum is militant protest, revolutionary action with weapons, or rioting which uses violence and property destruction, to obtain their ends. Civil disobedience falls in the middle by either undertaking an illegal act or not cooperating with the law, such as refusing to pay taxes, boycotts, occupations, or conscientious objection. Civil disobedience is resolutely nonviolent. Indirect civil disobedience can include sit-ins and teach-ins in public places to protest a law. Direct civil disobedience is breaking a law knowingly. Often, civil disobedience is undergirded by strong spiritual values, Hinduism for Gandhi and Christianity for King.

Civil disobedience is a term popularized in an essay by Thoreau in the 1800s who refused to pay taxes which supported the institution of slavery. Civil disobedience is vital to democracy as it is the only mechanism open to those who believe that certain laws, commands, or the authority of a government are unjust, illegitimate, immoral and/or against their conscience. It goes one step beyond voicing an objection to a law by engaging in noncooperation.

Civil disobedience has remained a core strategy for civil rights and labour movements around the world, to fight apartheid, to fight for independence or various collective rights, to protest a government action such as involvement in war, or to bring down a government. The fact that it is nonviolent and involves normally law-abiding citizens, who are arrested and perhaps punished for their beliefs, is what can shift public opinion, aided by media coverage.

When Canada was colonized, rather than working with the hereditary leadership of Indigenous nations, Canadian colonizers established a parallel system of elected chiefs and councils. As Indigenous nations have gained strength fighting for their human rights and traditional lands, they have been “granted” the rights to manage the resources within their traditional territories. Thus, it was the elected leadership of the Pacheedaht who signed a forest revenue agreement with the Province of BC in 2017. Many Pacheedaht have made their livelihoods as loggers, given lack of other viable options in a remote area. In addition to ownership of three lumber mills, the nation now also makes a percentage from all logging done on their territory. However, once they sign this agreement, they are required to support the government regarding logging issues or, at the very least, not interfere. Yet, they may not have approved logging in specific areas. As a result, the elected leadership of the Pacheedaht have condemned the protestors for being on their traditional land without permission and blocking business that supports their nation.

Bill Jones asserts that all the settler protestors are there at his invitation, uniting with the hereditary leadership in protecting their sacred places. An Elder’s tent was built at River Camp and since then protestors are taught to respect Indigenous Elders and adhere to protocols such as sacred circles and land healing ceremonies. Also in September 2020, the “Protect our Elder Trees Declaration” from the Union of BC Indian Chiefs (UBCIC) called on the government to assist First Nations in breaking from Western practices like old-growth forestry that violate traditional beliefs. Many hereditary Indigenous leaders and young Indigenous from other nations have taken leadership of the movement, physically or spiritually joining Bill Jones and other Elders.

Most evenings, protestors gather at Headquarters to discuss the actions of the day and plan for the next day. In the spirit of new social movements, the protest is decentralized and fluid, community-organized rather than centrally organized. If something or someone was harmed or tended toward violence, the Elders use their traditional teachings to ensure protestors remain nonviolent, use positive language, and demonstrate dignity and respect while remaining resolute…even when taunted by loggers, intimidated by police, or when their property is destroyed or taken. Direct action trainers ensure arrestees remain noncompliant, such as falling limp during arrest, and knowing their legal rights before, during and after arrest.