Activists Prepare for the Next Wave of Protests (3/01)

The Maori people call it Aotearoa, the Land of the Long White Cloud. It’s a place of mystery and wonder, where glacial mountain peaks tower over vast coastal rain forests, with breathtaking coves and bays far too numerous to count and genera of trees and birds that can’t be found anywhere else on earth.

New Zealand’s indigenous population has made its mark on the majority colonial population’s language, cultural norms, and legal institutions to an extent rarely found in the English speaking world.

But this is also a troubled land. Numerous successive governments have embraced the agenda of economic neoliberalism to an unprecedented degree. In the late 1980s and early 90s, New Zealand sold $14 billion in public assets to private interests, the largest such sale anywhere in the world. Sales included railways, telecommunications, utilities, and water resources. Now, most cities even have competing postal companies, with boxes on opposite street corners. Rather than bringing wealth and prosperity to the country’s nearly four million people, these policies have exacerbated economic inequality, while making the New Zealand dollar one of the lowest-valued currencies in the Asia-Pacific region.

London’s Economist magazine called this "out Thatchering Thatcher." To activists such as Aziz Choudry of the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation forum (APEC) Monitoring Group and GATT Watchdog, it’s "Chile without the gun."

In November 2000, New Zealand’s capital city of Wellington was the site of a unique gathering of international forest activists and opponents of corporate globalism. "Protecting Global Forests in a World Trade Environment" was the third international conference organized by the Native Forest Network (NFN), an international alliance of forest defenders launched in the heart of the Australian island state of Tasmania back in 1992. Since then, NFN has developed an international roster of representatives and contacts, maintained US offices in Burlington, Vermont, and Missoula, Montana, and sustained a diverse, loose-knit collective of activists in the southern hemisphere. After several years in which each hemisphere focused on their own issues, the hope was that this gathering would bring NFN back to its international roots, and reaffirm its founding emphasis on the struggles of indigenous communities, especially those living in endangered temperate forests.

By most criteria, the gathering, held at a traditional Maori gathering place (marae) on the city’s outskirts, was an overwhelming success. Activists came from Mexico, Chile, Russia, Germany, the Netherlands, and the Philippines, in addition to the US, Australia, and New Zealand. The meeting style – with everyone sitting on mats around a large, open hall, and sleeping in large rooms with similar layouts – was conducive to a higher level of informal sharing among participants than the typical, over-scheduled, Western-style conference. While impatient Northerners often begged for minimal attention to time and schedules, our hosts emphatically urged us to forget that and let the traditions embodied in this unique gathering space guide us toward a less businesslike and more open, sharing approach to our work together.

Lessons of Betrayal

The stories that emerged from this unique setting and collection of people were diverse and enlightening. We heard of Maori struggles against cultural appropriation and the pervasiveness of manufactured identities. Indian attorney and scholar Radha DeSouza, currently teaching in Auckland, New Zealand’s largest city, reported on people’s movements in India against the construction of large-scale hydroelectric dams, and the ways in which opposition groups have often been co-opted by the forces of colonialization and "progress," ever since the earliest origins of British imperialism. Carlos Beas Torres of the Mexican indigenous network UCIZONI told a similar story of complicity and betrayal, this time in the case of environmentalists collaborating with commercial interests seeking to establish new transoceanic "dry canals" across Central America. Some self-proclaimed environmentalists are quietly supporting these megaprojects – and large-scale conversion of forested land into commercial plantations – in the hope that other, more desirable lands will be protected via a new World Bank-designated "biological corridor."

Russian activist Anatoly Lebedev discussed the wholesale export of timber from the Russian Far East to replenish northeastern China’s largely depleted forest resources, and the widespread complicity of government officials in this corruption-ridden trade. Activists from Chile told of their own country’s rising timber exports, and the loss of rare southern-cone forests, as unique as those in New Zealand, largely driven by transnationals such as Forestal Trillium. We also learned about the insidious role of Japanese pulp and paper companies, such as the soon-to-be merged Daishowa and Nippon Paper, in the exploitation of Australian and New Zealand forests, and about the role of US-based public relations firms in efforts to undermine the successes of New Zealand’s own forest activists.

Perhaps the most enlightening of the formal presentations regarded a unique legal intervention by several Maori peoples that could significantly slow the exploitation of the country’s biological resources and cultural knowledge. In 1975, the New Zealand government established a Commission of Inquiry to address outstanding Maori claims under the 1840 Treaty of Waitangi. Maori chiefs ceded legal sovereignty to the British crown under this treaty, but only in exchange for "full, exclusive and undisturbed possession" of their lands, forests, fisheries, and other "treasured possessions." Over the past 25 years, the commission has heard some 800 claims, mostly regarding particular indigenous lands, fishing and mineral rights, language and broadcasting rights, and numerous violations of the terms of the 1840 treaty. In 1991, a diverse group of Maori claimants significantly raised the stakes by filing what has come to be known as "Wai 262," the Indigenous Flora and Fauna Claim.

Eschewing the kinds of payments in cash and/or land that often result from such treaty claims, the Wai 262 plaintiffs are seeking a much broader authority over the uses of native plants, animals, genes, and cultural knowledge. The patenting of living organisms, the granting of rights to commercial breeders, the export of biological samples, large-scale land clearances and habitat destruction, and the misappropriation of Maori cultural symbols are all termed violations of the Waitangi treaty under this claim. The claim was conceived as a direct challenge to the Western model of intellectual property rights, as promoted by the World Trade Organization (WTO) and other international bodies, as well as the increasing influence of transnational companies over New Zealand government policies.

This claim is seen as part of a long-range education process, through which it is hoped that Maori cultural principles – including the inseparability of the people, their heritage (whakepapa, a concept that situates family genealogies and ties to ancestral lands firmly within their traditional creation stories), and the integrity of the land – will become more meaningfully encoded in the country’s legal practices. Since hearings on this claim began in 1995, every government agency has had to take steps to consider its implications.

Further, Maori elders seek to challenge the Western view that separates an abstracted "nature" from the consciousness and evolution of the people and their ways. Maori solicitor Tania Tetitaha writes: "Maori, who draw no distinction between visible and invisible worlds or spiritual and physical beings, and have a landscape where Ôculture’ is the indivisible sum of all things, see no dichotomy, and no [sanctified or abstracted] Ônature.’"

An Agenda Emerges

Formal resolutions from the conference reflected the underlying theme of alliance building, and the need for a more profound understanding and support for indigenous ways. Participants pledged to continue opposing the efforts of corporations, from Boise Cascade to Nippon Paper and Trillium, whose global reach embodies the most destructive characteristics of today’s globalized economics. They appreciated the need to link anti-globalization actions to community-based efforts at reconstruction and revisioning, while supporting calls for demonstrations at upcoming meetings of the World Bank, APEC, various WTO committees, and the Western hemisphere trade ministers. The latter will meet in Quebec City in April with the goal of establishing a hegemonic Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA).

More traditional forest defense goals were embraced as well, including an end to the logging of old growth forests, clear-cutting of all kinds, the chipping of native forests for paper pulp, and the conversion of native forests to commercial plantations. In the aftermath of the collapse of global climate talks in The Hague the preceding week, those assembled agreed that planned markets in tradable "carbon sequestration credits" – heavily promoted by the Clinton/Gore administration – were a bad idea for both climate protection and the conservation of forests.

Participants also supported a strong resolution against the genetic engineering of trees, emphasizing that the long-term threat to biodiversity posed by engineered trees far outweighs any conceivable benefits. The threats of cross-pollination, unexpected changes during a tree’s life cycle, and unpredictable impacts on a wide range of forest-dependent species reach beyond even the known problems with genetically engineered food crops. This suggests that field trials should be halted, and that this highly speculative technology should be scrapped before it ever becomes commercially viable. Last year, NFN in the US launched a major new campaign against the genetic engineering of trees.

As with any diverse international gathering, some important issues remained unresolved. Perhaps the most intractable controversies emerged from differing attitudes toward the rise of so-called "market-based" approaches to forest conservation. With the obvious failure of "carbon credits," some proposed that a form of "biodiversity credits" might be offered to investors in the hope of forestalling further forest destruction. In countries such as Chile, where strategies of privatization and deregulation go largely unquestioned – even with the rise of a more reform-minded administration in Santiago – such approaches often appear to be the only hope in the face of unregulated corporate assaults. Others, particularly in Australia and the US, support the strengthening of independent certification and labeling of "ecologically" harvested timber, which often can be sold at a premium. Many see this as an appropriate use of market instruments to encourage more sustainable approaches to forest management.

While approaches such as these have a certain visceral appeal, however, they continue to subordinate principles of conservation and ecological integrity to the forces of the commercial marketplace. Conservation may prove "profitable" in some settings, but less so in others. According to one activist, under New Zealand’s neoliberal model, every saved tree is expected to somehow pay for itself. The inherent limits of that approach are all too apparent.

During the field trips that followed the conference, we visited a logging site in the heart of an old-growth New Zealand beech forest, which is being "sustainably" logged with helicopters. While not as obviously appalling as a huge clear-cut, the best-quality trees in this area are being cut into sections, while only those sections with high commercial value are being hauled away. If these methods are systematically applied to lands with the highest conservation value, as has been proposed, virtually no place will escape the chainsaws. Industry can’t be trusted to measure what is "sustainable" or ecological, and neither conservation values nor indigenous cultural values should be forced to compete on the same profit-and-loss scale with commercial timber operations. These issues remained for future gatherings to digest, and for others to offer their collective insights.

Demonstrating Solidarity

There was one issue on which those assembled in Wellington were ready to take immediate action. A number of participants, from several different countries, had been closely following the case of two Mexican farmer/activists who were imprisoned in the spring of 1999 after successfully halting the logging of old growth forests in their home state of Guerrero. Rodolfo Montiel and Teodoro Cabrera were arrested by Mexican infantrymen for alleged ties to a guerrilla movement, and, according to many accounts, have been repeatedly tortured. Those assembled at the NFN conference signed a petition to the new Mexican president demanding that the two be released from jail, harassment of environmentalists end, and the logging of old growth forests cease throughout Mexico.

The next day, a lively march proceeded through the downtown streets of the New Zealand capital, and an international delegation met briefly with Prime Minister Helen Clark and an official of the Mexican consulate. Supporters distributed information outside both offices. It was a determined display of the necessity of international solidarity, the centrality of indigenous struggles, and the joys of working together across sometimes imposing barriers of language, culture, and geography.

Throughout the gathering, and other sessions over the following two weeks, it became increasingly clear that NFN’s successes over the past eight years – from the northern forests of New England to the Rocky Mountains of Western Montana, and the breathtakingly unique forest lands of New Zealand and southern Australia – offer important strategic models. They are a source of much hope for the years and struggles ahead.

Brian Tokar’s latest book is Redesigning Life? – The Worldwide Challenge to Genetic Engineering. NFN can be reached at:

PO Box 57
Burlington, VT 05402

PO Box 8251
Missoula, MT 59807