Uniting Economics and Conservation
As a member of the Ahousaht Nation, Tyson Atleo has worked for years to integrate conservation and economic development.
Tyson Atleo joined our team as Community Economic Development Lead, based in Victoria. He is a 27th-generation hereditary chief of the Ahousaht Nation of Clayquot Sound. As the youngest elected Band Councillor in history, Tyson led the development of Ahousaht’s first economic development corporation and served as vice-president of the Maaqutusiis Hahoulthee Stewardship Society (MHSS) until 2015, when he transitioned to the role of Senior Economic Development Advisor to the MHSS board and CEO. He also worked for many years with the Canadian government and as a consultant focused on economic development for First Nations.
Why did you join Nature United?
For years, I’ve been on the other side, working in partnership with Nature United to develop a land use vision for our traditional territory, our hahoulthlee. The two-year visioning process was empowering for our people. It is literally the first map created in recent history that shows sacred sites, renames places in our language, and pinpoints where and how we will generate income, support our families and build a sustainable future. It also identifies 150,000 acres of areas the Ahousaht would like to see protected. In fact, I’ve said over and over again that it is one of the most monumental undertakings for our nation in my lifetime.
Seeing how Nature United operated really impressed me—never forcing an agenda on our community but instead offering capacity-building and support so we could make our own decisions. More broadly, Nature United is what I would call a "conscious conservation organization," meaning they are aware of the impact of conservation not just on the environment but also on people. Working for an organization where I can advance protection of places like Clayoquot Sound while promoting the health and well-being of Indigenous communities is a childhood dream come true.
How did the partnership with Nature United come about?
My father, Shawn Atleo, invited Nature United to come to Clayoquot Sound after hearing about their work with First Nations in the Great Bear Rainforest. But the partnership has thrived because of the values we share and our respect for one another. The foundation of Ahousaht cultural values is heshook-ish tsawalk, meaning "everything is one." To me, that interconnectivity is the essence of conservation—the recognition that ecosystems are complex and that we have a responsibility to steward those ecosystems because we are part of them; they sustain us.
I’d even go further to say that Nature United’s act of acknowledging and valuing Indigenous peoples’ connection to land is an act of reconciliation. In Canada right now, the most common understanding of reconciliation is around residential schools, but during that era, the Canadian government also took away Indigenous peoples’ right to steward their territories. Nature United is working with their Indigenous partners to return that capacity and responsibility to whom it originally belonged.
What are you most excited about in your new role?
In this role, I work across the Emerald Edge, which spans 100 million acres. Our strategy revolves around strengthening local leadership, advancing sustainable, local livelihoods, and providing the resources and tools for local decision-making. Our work in the Great Bear Rainforest, Clayoquot Sound and beyond demonstrates what I’ve seen my whole life: No matter where they live, Indigenous and local communities share a strong connection to their traditional landscapes and an ancestral duty to steward the fish they eat, the animals they hunt for food and clothing, the natural life that sustains them. What I’m most excited about is the potential to be innovative and tap into regional and global thinking to inform our strategies. Ultimately I want to be testing new models of community development in the Emerald Edge that can be scaled and replicated in other geographies around the world.
It’s ambitious but attainable. I see very few organizations out there that are connecting people—especially Indigenous people—from different geographies to solve the problems we’re all facing. Working with our Global Lands team, I will be sharing with and learning from my colleagues in Australia, Belize, Kenya, Indonesia, Mongolia… the list goes on.
In your view, how does economic development fit with conservation?
It’s simple: One is not possible without the other. Access to sustainable economic opportunities is critical to the well-being of local people. And community wellbeing is critical to conservation success. Large-scale conservation can only be successful and sustainable with the full endorsement and leadership of the local people who have the greatest stake in the outcome. Plus, the happier and healthier people are, the more capacity they have to care about and lead conservation.
Developing conservation strategies rooted in economic development is ground-breaking, challenging work. But there are a lot of great examples of success across the world that we can learn from. I was just in Kenya learning about how Indigenous grazing communities are working with the tourism industry and Kenyan government to establish new wildlife conservancies on land owned by Indigenous tribes. This can only be possible where industry, communities and government work together to ensure economic certainty for land owners into the future.
We are applying a similar strategy in my home of Ahousaht. Our land use vision protects 82 percent of our territory—a first major step in realizing the economic potential of conservation. The vision builds on a protocol agreement with the B.C. government, and provides certainty for tourism, carbon, energy, aquaculture, restoration, fisheries and other opportunities that may have not been available otherwise. We are leveraging this certainty by developing our own initiatives and working closely with existing businesses to realize mutually beneficial economic opportunities in a diversity of sectors. This provides our people with great deal of opportunity to improve quality of life and community well-being while protecting the local ecosystems.
What else do you balance with work?
I consider myself an avid outdoorsman and spend a great deal of time hiking, camping, paddle-surfing, ocean or river fishing—you name it. I’m also passionate about soccer, motorcycle racing, and love to cook and drink good wine. After a hard day at work, I will come home and cook my heart out. Hunting and fishing are both a very big part of my cultural identity. They are practices that, when done properly in tradition and cultural prayer—ethically, respectfully and sustainably—connect me directly to the spiritual interconnectivity of the universe.
I also have a massive family that I spend a lot of time with. And then of course, there’s my dog—she’s numero uno. Her name is Sweetie and she is a Basenji, which is an African breed and one of the oldest breeds in the world. She has a strong personality and is highly intelligent, a perfect match for me.
But in all honesty, I absolutely love my work. I look forward to quiet Sunday afternoons after a good hike, when I can pour myself a cup of tea and do some writing or research for the amazing projects I get to be a part of with Nature United.