Celebrating a Historic Agreement
Jenny Brown shares the life-changing wisdom she learned while working on the Great Bear Rainforest Agreement with Indigenous Communities
My first trip to the Great Bear Rainforest was eight years ago. As I boarded a propeller plane in Vancouver, I thought I was going to Bella Bella (an isolated community of 1,000 on British Columbia’s central coast, just north of Vancouver Island) to facilitate a one-off conservation planning session for the Heiltsuk First Nation. The initial Great Bear Agreement had just been signed (with support from The Nature Conservancy) and 1.6 million hectares of new conservancies had been created. The Heiltsuk wanted to develop a management plan for one of those newly protected areas, the Koeye River. Easy, I thought, I’ll fly in for a week, lead the group in a few planning exercises, and then fly back home and continue with my science work.
But I was wrong—that week forever changed how I think about conservation. And it was just the start: The pace of change over less than a decade in the Great Bear is unlike anything I’ve ever seen in the 30-plus years I’ve worked in conservation.
Listening to a Community
I spent that week at Koeye with Larry Jorgenson, the local founder of a community group called Qqs Projects Society (meaning “eyes” in Heiltsuk and pronounced kucks) leading the planning. His daughter, Jess Úst̓i, and his son, William Housty—who were finishing undergraduate degrees in medieval literature and natural resource management, respectively—joined us, along with several others.
The first question I asked was, essentially, what matters to you in this place? I’d brought oversized sticky notes to capture what I heard, and by the end of the first day, the room we were in was wallpapered with notes. (Which may sound overwhelming but was actually quite functional—ever since, every time I visit, I bring Jess a pack of oversized stickies for her latest planning efforts.) Over the subsequent days, Jess and I painstakingly worked through each community value, ultimately building the bones of a plan that the Heiltsuk would negotiate with the provincial government and finalize five years later.
Since that week in 2008, I’ve watched the Heiltsuk step forward as leaders in protecting nature and social well-being in their vibrant, coastal community. William himself has led more than five years of scientific research on the region’s grizzly bears, gathering DNA that suggests that the Koeye is one of the densest bear habitats in North America. His research has also started to illuminate the distances bears travel to reach salmon-rich streams like the Koeye, making the science case for forest management across a much larger area than just the places where bears congregate to feed.
The foundation of this leadership has been a new, integrated resource management department, which the Heiltsuk created to manage conservancies, forestry tenures and all other natural resources in their territory. (Jess and William both sit on the Board.) In fact, in just eight years, nearly all of the Indigenous communities in Great Bear have established their own natural resource offices or governance systems.
Allied in Conservation
If you asked me to describe this work five years ago, I would’ve talked your ear off about place-based communities, a term to describe people who are connected to their local ecology through culture, food, sustenance, history and their role in governing the use of local resources. First Nations fall squarely into this category, and so do ranchers and agricultural communities that rely on local resources for their cultural and economic well-being.
That concept still describes our work, and I now believe that can lead us to big and powerful opportunities to conserve nature that we miss otherwise.
But today, when I describe the work we do with our partners in the Great Bear, I talk in terms of change and leadership. What we’ve seen happen in less than a decade is beyond what we could’ve imagined.
And it’s spreading. I’m now starting to see places all over the world where The Nature Conservancy is committed to community conservation goals and developing plans that support local leadership, self-determination and decision-making. My global colleagues are increasingly seeing Indigenous and local communities as our most important allies and successful land stewards.
Around the world The Nature Conservancy is now partnering with Indigenous and local communities across more than 290 million hectares of land—in places like the Brazilian Amazon, Mongolia’s Eastern Steppe region and Indonesia’s island of Borneo.
But for me, that journey started in Bella Bella. I will forever remember how Jess, William and Larry changed what it means to do conservation—and what success looks like to us. As Nature United continues to grow (today we’re working in three regions: coastal B.C., Northwest Territories and Manitoba, with more on the horizon), working in true partnership with Indigenous communities will be the keystone of our work.