Our forests are under attack again, I see. Or more accurately, New Brunswick’s toilet paper industry has fallen under the watchdog eye of CBC’s Marketplace. Their question: what do the eco-logos on the toilet paper packages actually mean?
To find out, Marketplace rounded up the usual suspects: a member of the Irving family, several forest management types and the head of one of the ego-logo branding outfits. They all met in somewhere in one of the province’s “managed” forests, which is essentially a farm of maturing spruce trees. The company foresters point to the forest as a model of success, the critics argue that it is an ecological tragedy, an industrial monoculture destroying our original mixed forest.
According to the Falls Brook ecological centre, the government of New Brunswick now subsidizes the forest companies to the tune of $11.12 per cubic meter of harvested wood, which amounts to an annual gift of $76 million from us, the taxpayers, to the private corporations. So, we’re all into a public-private sector partnership when it comes to harvesting our forests for wood chips.
And then there’s the other New Brunswick chip business, which depends on another agricultural monoculture: potatoes. Most of the province’s intensive farming is done on the upper reaches of the Saint John River. According to Agriculture Canada “the area of lowest soil cover in New Brunswick occurs in the potato region,” which the report identifies as “negative.”
Since 1981 there’s been a 79 percent decline in organic matter in soils across about 70 percent of our agricultural lands, which indicates that the general health of the soil is in serious decline.
Also since 1981 there’s been a dramatic increase in the contamination of our fresh water by the nitrogen in fertilizers. The amount of land in the high-risk category has gone from 2 percent to 96 percent. As to other contaminants, the report is a bit evasive about pesticides in the water, but notes that areas of low risk are shrinking while areas of high risk are expanding. Translation: New Brunswick farmers are using a lot more pesticides than their predecessors did 30 years ago.
So, like our forestry, our agriculture is increasingly dependent on the large-scale industrial model.
What about another side of our economic table on the fish plate?
Recent figures put New Brunswick’s fish and seafood exports at about $795 million. Combined with the domestic market, the total production is nearly $1 billion a year. The entire seafood industry provides jobs for more than 12,000 New Brunswickers, primarily in harvesting and seafood processing, and indirectly supports thousands more in transportation, manufacturing and other industries.
And yes, both traditional fishing and aquaculture are industrial-scale activities that can often have profound consequences on the eco-system. Over-fishing and other human activities have resulted in the collapse of some fin-fish stocks such as cod. And aquaculture methods, including the choice of species, salmon, have had their ecological impacts on the health of the oceans.
It’s important to note with all of these resource activities that only 5 percent or less is actually consumed by New Brunswickers. The remaining 95 percent is exported either to the rest of Canada or abroad. In short, all of these activities are tied to global markets, so New Brunswick’s economy (not to mention its ecosystem) is only as sustainable as the global industrial model itself. And that, pardon the pun, is food for thought.
And there’s the emerging aspect of this story: the shale gas development in the southeastern corner of the province. Natural gas fracking is a highly controversial industrial mining method, and if you don’t believe it, check out the Academy Award-nominated American documentary, “Gasland,” which will give you some idea of the horrors befalling the people who live near these operations. Have you even seen your household tapwater on fire? That kind of thing.
Our current provincial government seems to be in a backpedalling defensive mode when it comes to fracking. Their website shows an increasing focus on raising the regulatory bar on natural gas development and a commitment to “managing” the industry. On the positive side, there is gas in that there shale. On the negative side there’s a very high risk of severe environmental damage from the fracking process to the water tables in the region, very few local jobs created, and extremely low provincial revenues relative to the impacts, for example just $600,000 in royalties in 2010. But thanks to the Emera pipeline, our fracked gas will have an easy route to US markets.
All of this makes my head hurt. It all comes down to slowly, or sometimes rapidly, strip-mining our provincial natural resources for export. In return we get a lot of jobs, which are only as good as last week’s paycheques, as we’ve seen from recent mill shutdowns, and some bargain-basement royalties paid by the companies.
Tell me this isn’t our model for future sustainable development, is it? And if it isn’t, what is?