Ecosystem and Human Well-Being Are Threatened in the Chilcotin

A guest post by Josef Kuhn, Naturalist-Ecologist, first published in 2010 but more relevant now that ever. It’s this kind of evidence-collection that makes the legal processes RAVEN funds worth more than just the victories in court. Compiling data from elders, the land, and the community brings together a precious treasury of knowledge for future generations. Thank you Josef for your contributions. 

The Tsilhqot’in First Nation people in southwestern British Columbia may not use the word ecosystem very often in their stories, songs, dancing and talk about their homeland, but the life they know about and respect has many interacting bio-physical, cultural and Spiritual aspects. They see ‘human being’ in the connections, interactions and cycles of life, and beyond life, in each person and in other life in their traditional territory. They see and feel these connections in the wind, the water, the rocks and soils. They see and feel them in the plants and animals of their territory that provide them with shelter, companionship, food and medicine.

It is critical that the people who make the land and water use decisions that impact the Chilcotin river ecosystem, the homeland of the Tsilhqot’in people, recognize that ecosystems are also living beings. They must acknowledge and respect the fact that human activities, especially large scale industrial ‘development’ projects, can be very harmful to the ecological and economic health of ecosystems. They must recognize that the health of individual human beings is clearly impacted by adverse impacts on ecosystem health and insure that these impacts are fully assessed and considered in the decision making process.

What would a major adverse impact on an ecosystem look like?

If you were to stand at the mouth of the Chilcotin River and look upstream to the west, and lift yourself up for an eagle or ‘Google eye’ view of the Chilcotin’s spectacular watershed, to the left of center, at the heart of this awesome mountain landscape, you would see a beautiful natural lake called Teztan Biny by the Tsilhqot’in people, Fish Lake in English. If you were to look at industry plans for the proposed open pit mining project here, you would see the lake eliminated, replaced by tailings ponds to contain tremendous volumes of crushed rock, chemicals and soil and other once living material.

How long it would take for these tailings ponds to return stability and good health to the ecosystem is unknown. Mitigation plan drawings prepared by the proponents of this monster project depict a new ‘replacement’ lake and landscaping to ‘restore’ the area once the gold and copper have been removed. This is what major bio-physical impact on an ecosystem looks like.

What about socio-economic impact? How do Tsilhqot’in people see this potential industrial impact on their traditional territory and way of life, essential aspects of their identity and self esteem as human beings? How would the sustainable elements of their local economy be affected? How would their Spiritual connection with Mother Earth be impacted? How do naturalists and other conservation minded Canadians feel about the development of an open pit mine in the Chilcotin watershed?

Turn away now from your Chilcotin vision and imagine for a minute facing one of your healthy parents or children. Imagine being told of a plan to take out the heart of this human-being that you love. Imagine being told that there will be benefits to doing this and that adverse impacts will be mitigated by putting back an artificial heart, with lots of surgery.

It’s difficult to impossible for a Tsilhqot’in person or a member of the ‘naturalist tribe’ like the writer of this brief essay to imagine how a human-being or ecosystem can remain healthy after sustaining such an impact. Will the downstream waters in the Chilcotin ever return to their pristine condition if open-pit mining is permitted at the heart of this watershed? Will Tsilhqot’in people retain their Spiritual and biological well being as the heart of their traditional territory is being ripped out and replaced by something man made?

It is beyond reason to expect people who appreciate and respect natural landscapes and water systems to accept a proposal offering short term economic benefits replacing the long term benefits they know and trust. The Chilcotin’s exceptional lake and river fisheries, selective logging, low impact ranching and ecotourism offer healthy, long term benefits for people who work there. An open pit mine to extract gold does not!

The low impact development activities and sustainable economic benefits are largely dependent on maintaining a healthy, beautiful, peaceful landscape and unpolluted waters. An open pit mine at the heart of the Chilcotin landscape destroys these economic assets, these gifts from the Creator.

Another aspect of ecosystems that makes their being much like the life of human beings is that they connect with and affect others. The Chilcotin river ecosystem contributes significantly to one of Canada’s and the world’s greatest salmon runs, as we were reminded again this year, 2010. The habitat and salmon production this ecosystem provides is exceptional and is highly valued by ocean and river fishers, human and others, and of course thousands of people in many places who enjoy this wonderful natural food.

Water is the life blood of any ecosystem, and clean water is essential if the good health of the Chilcotin ecosystem and the Tsilhqot’in people is to continue. Siltation and other forms stream pollution that always accompanies large scale open pit mining projects will have serious adverse effects on salmon runs and habitat for local trout, char, other species of fish and the many plant and animal species that interact with them. It is not possible to rip the heart out of a human being or ecosystem being without doing great harm. Massive bio-physical and socio-economic impact is certain if the proposed Prosperity Mine in the heart of the Chilcotin is approved by the Government of Canada, and no short term benefits or mitigation efforts can offset or repair the extensive damage to a very special people and place.

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