“Some people call this God’s Country,” says Shannon McPhail of the idyllic town where five generations of her family have lived. “But I don’t even think God knows where it is.” The executive director of the Skeena Watershed Conservation Coalition is talking about Kispiox Valley, deep in northwestern B.C., about 900 kilometres north of Vancouver. Kispiox, population 300, is part of the Skeena Watershed, which originates in the Klappan Valley, an area that First Nations people call the Sacred Headwaters. This pristine alpine basin feeds the tributary river systems leading to three major salmon rivers (harvesting the wild salmon in just one contributes $110 million a year to the local economy), and the region’s mountains, forests and meadows support grizzly bears, wolves, caribou and mountain sheep. The Sacred Headwaters are of tremendous spiritual and cultural value to the First Nations tribes of the region.
“This is where we take our youth to teach them our culture and way of life. And it’s the last place our elders want to go before they die,” said Rhoda Quock, mom of four and spokesperson of the Kablona Keepers, a conservation group formed by elders of the Tahltan First Nations, in one newspaper report.
Try to visualize a place like this. Now picture 1,000 ““ 1,500 pipelines and wells scarring the wilderness, courtesy of Royal Dutch Shell, which won the right to develop coal bed methane from underground deposits. Extracting coal bed methane requires pipelines, wells, roads, power lines and compressors. Excess gas in the pipelines would likely be burned off by “flaring,” an ecologically unsound practice. Methane extraction also produces vast quantities of contaminated wastewater (up to more than 17,200 litres of it per day, per well). Royal Dutch Shell (which bought Shell Canada) has committed to trucking this wastewater out of the community for one year. After that? “In some parts of Alberta where coal bed methane is extracted, the communities have clean water trucked in because theirs is so contaminated they can’t use it,” says McPhail.
While Shell says the development will create jobs, activists say they’d be minimal and not worth the environmental and social upheaval. Quock fears large-scale development will bring increased access to drugs and alcohol, and that the jobs that are created will encourage aboriginal teens to drop out of school for temporary employment.
This is a fate local activists are putting everything on the line to prevent. They’ve taken their battle into court, into the media, and even onto a dirt road just outside a tiny village called Iskut, where a handful of protesters, many of them Tahltan, have set up a blockade to prevent Shell from expanding the exploratory drilling they conducted in 2004. “It’s both sad and inspiring,” says McPhail, a blockade participant. “Grandmothers and grandfathers have been camped out for three years.” Seasoned activists now, a handful have been arrested in the past for other peaceful anti-development protests.
Besides challenging the injunction Shell has threatened to obtain in order to have blockaders arrested, local activists have gone global with their cause, enlisting such bold- print allies as Greenpeace, The Sierra Club and Friends of the Earth. An ad and public-awareness campaign is turning up the heat.
Shell’s tenure on the land expires in 2012: whether they choose to withdraw or to develop one of Canada’s most pristine watersheds hinges, to a large extent, on the dedication of people like these two moms, Quock and McPhail. Are they up for it?
“Whenever I’m tired or I don’t want to type another report or answer another e-mail, I look at my two-year-old and think that all of this can be taken away from him if I don’t,” says McPhail, now pregnant with her second child. “I want to do something he can be proud of, like “My mom went up against the second-largest company in the world — and she kicked their ass.”
1 Take direct action When a company is about to destroy your land, sometimes you have to get in its way. For three years, local activists have been peacefully blockading the road into the Sacred Headwaters of the Klappan Valley, so Royal Dutch Shell can’t get in to drill.
2 Broadcast to the world Publicity is one of the strongest weapons you have when challenging a corporate Goliath. So take out ads, send out press releases, and work the Internet. Check out B.C. eco organization Dogwood Initiative’s much-watched YouTube videos about the crisis.
3 Build alliances You can’t take on a corporation like Shell by yourself. “One good thing about this is it’s completely united people who may not have traditionally agreed on land development issues,” says Skeena Watershed Conservation Coalition’s Shannon McPhail. A broad base of support is hard for corporations, government and media to dismiss.