Major Victory for Indigenous Rights and Old Growth Forests

11/17/2011 09:02 am ET

Mention Native peoples being forced off their lands and most Americans think of their high school history books. But battles over Indigenous land rights continue to this day, even right here in North America. Here's one example, but with a happy ending. Grassy Narrows First Nation is an 800-person community living on 2.4 million acres of Boreal forest in northwest Ontario, 28 hours by car from Toronto. For more than a decade, the community has been fighting the clear-cut logging of its forest. On Tuesday, it won a major victory against the largest paper company in the world: logging giant Abitibi Bowater is formally announcing its decision to stop clear-cutting and buying wood from Grassy Narrows traditional territory today at its shareholder meeting in Montreal.

Rainforest Action Network (RAN) began collaborating with Grassy Narrows in 2003, a year after the community established what would become the longest running logging road blockade in North America. RAN helped the community by pressuring U.S. companies Weyerhaeuser and Boise, the major buyers of wood from Grassy Narrows territory, to cancel their contracts with Abitibi. Boise announced that it would do so in February. Weyerhaeuser continued with business-as-usual and is rumored to be considering stepping in to log Grassy Narrows territory for itself after Abitibi leaves.

Grassy Narrows' victory this week isn't just a heartwarming tale of David beats Goliath. It sets an important precedent in Canada, and potentially around the world. It underscores the right of Indigenous communities to give or withhold consent for industrial projects on their land--as established by the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples--and shows that corporations can respect that right without going out of business.

Indigenous communities are increasingly making a place for themselves at the decision-makers' table. Nobody invited them in Canada. The multinational forest products companies and the provincial government, which hands out logging and mining permits, didn't expect the small, remote community to organize itself so effectively and persuasively. It was the clan mothers and the youth of Grassy Narrows who began the grassroots efforts to stop logging on their land, and eventually persuaded the tribal council to get on board. In May, Chrissy Swain, a 28-year-old mother of three, led a delegation of two dozen Anishnabe young people on a 1,300-mile walk from Grassy Narrows to Toronto to join two other First Nations in four days of ceremonies to highlight Ontario's refusal to respect Indigenous people's right to protect their lands. The peaceful gathering was so successful that seven First Nations leaders who had been jailed for refusing to call off their protests against mining occurring on their land were released unconditionally. Even Canada's Financial Post--the northern equivalent of the Wall Street Journal--portrayed the First Nations' cause sympathetically.

Non-Native support for Indigenous rights is growing. The Grassy Narrows victory points the way to a new kind of activism, where people from different countries and backgrounds can stand in solidarity with Indigenous peoples and take their lead on how to protect their lands. Grassy Narrows got support in their struggle not just from RAN, but from many other environmental, human rights and faith-based organizations and advocates. The May rally in Toronto earned the support of Canada's main labor and student groups. All supporting groups agreed that the organizing communities (Ardoch Algonquin, KI and Grassy Narrows First Nations) would call the shots. Indigenous people have been fighting this fight for centuries, and the victory in Grassy Narrows is strong evidence that they have the courage and the vision to win difficult victories.

The support of non-Native groups--from mainstream to rabble-rousers--made it impossible for the Ontario government to isolate First Nations politically. This kind of solidarity work is an exciting model for environmental and human rights activists to come together to protect the planet that protects us.

Though Abitibi's departure from Grassy Narrows territory is a major step forward, Indigenous struggles continue in Canada. We must make sure that Weyerhaeuser or another company doesn't pick up where Abitibi left off in Grassy Narrows. On another front, international coalitions are fighting to stop mining companies from tearing up Indigenous lands in northern Ontario. Join this powerful movement to protect Indigenous communities and ensure that Native land struggles really do become a thing of the past.