Geographical Scale: A Key Consideration in Assessment of Economic ‘Development’ Impacts on Our Eco-systems

Guest post by Josef Kuhn, Naturalist-Ecologist-Elder

  I was prompted to write this blog piece by David Suzuki and Faisal Moola’s posting “Big Picture Thinking Required to Protect Nature” on the Suzuki Foundation web site. Big picture thinking is certainly needed, but it is equally important to document the cumulative impacts of human activity, existing and proposed, at the local eco-system level. There is questionable validity in talking about the big picture if the smaller eco-systems within are not adequately considered. I refer to eco-systems because experience has convinced me that these systems, local, national and international, must be considered as both ecological and economic systems, something big governments rarely do.

Having worked for many years with First Nations’ people, struggling to protect their traditional territories from ecological damage, I am convinced that the best local eco-system information can be developed by indigenous and other caring people who live in and/or care about the ecological and economic health of local watersheds or other eco-system areas they spend time in, appreciate and love.

With responsible support from government programs, NGOs and universities, our young people today have access to the technology and the skills to not only develop local geographic information system (GIS) models, they can work with the so called ‘higher’ levels of government to develop the big pictures needed for good provincial, national and international decision making. In the process of economic development planning and related impact assessments, government workers and decision makers, and the citizens they act for, should be aware of the geographical patterns of change that are occurring. This is especially true at the scales that will be most effected by the decisions they are making. Understanding the patterns and processes of change is essential to the understanding of eco-system and individual human health.

GIS maps with supporting photography and other documentation can provide truth-based representation of proposed changes to the landscape, water, air and living things. This is a very different form of information from the spin and untruth that so often accompanies development proposals produced by industry proponents. Their efforts are focused primarily on generating profits for investors and special interests. The broad generalizations by these proponents and their government supporters about benefits and the sustainability of their planned actions, which they call ‘development,’ have no credibility without good eco-system and human health impact assessment at the local level. Tragically, we have been letting them get away with this for decades!

In 1971 I wrote a paper, published by the National Academy of Science in the U.S., on “Environmental Mapping: An Ecological Methodology for Forest Highway Impact Assessment.” Many other good science and planning studies were reported around this time in the U.S. and Canada and others followed showing that the GIS approach, with good local participation, works. So, the tools for fact-based planning, assessment and decision making have been available for around half a century now and should not be ignored by any level of government.

There has developed in North America a seriously misguided concept that governance, and the decision-making authority that goes with it, should concentrate its deliberations and decision making power at the highest levels, i.e., provincial or national levels, rather than at the local community level. Government revenues from natural resource extraction are controlled and directed to provincial and federal land use planning, natural resource management and environmental protection programs.

Indigenous peoples and other local communities have supposedly given up to the ‘higher levels’ of government their human rights to self determination, even in the area of environmental stewardship in the places where they live! Local stewardship of lands, waters and natural resources, eco-systems, is “not workable” in this Crown ministry and corporation driven ‘macro-economics’ view of the world.

Why is it not needed or workable, we should all ask ourselves. Do we really believe that higher levels of government, because they act on behalf of larger numbers of people, have better information and a better understanding of what land and water use and other natural resource management decisions are most beneficial to people?

We should not stand by as big government usurps the power over land-use and natural resource management that was exercised by local communities and tribes for most of human existence. The resulting environmental and human health tragedies are reported almost daily in our media. They are also well documented in human history.

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