A breakdown in the boreal game-changer

Chris Sorensen explains why the collapse of the boreal forest agreement comes as no surprise

The Canadian Boreal Forest Agreement was billed as a game-changer when it was signed in 2010. After years of battling each other in the media and on logging roads throughout the country, 21 forestry companies and nine environmental groups vowed to try a different approach by working side by side to create a healthy, sustainable industry that everyone could be proud of.

Perhaps not surprisingly, it didn’t work.

After three years of negotiations and much finger pointing, the talks have collapsed and it’s unclear whether they can be resurrected. Montreal-based Resolute Forest Products said in a statement on Tuesday that a last-minute push to reach deals covering forests in Northwestern Ontario and parts of Quebec had failed after the signatories “were unable to reach mutual agreement on a workable plan to jointly further conservation efforts while balancing environmental, social and economic considerations.” So far, the two sides have only managed to hammer out a single, yet-to-be-approved agreement that covers a tiny fraction of the 76 million hectares of forest that’s supposed to be covered by the pact.

The break-down in talks was foreshadowed by the decision of Greenpeace and, later Canopy, another NGO, to leave the negotiations several months ago. Greenpeace cited a lack of meaningful progress and accused Resolute for violating the agreement by logging in off-limits territories—an accusation it was later forced to retract after Resolute threatened legal action. Those environmental groups that remain continue to blame Resolute for thwarting efforts to reach agreements, saying in their own statement that they “remain committed to continuing their work with other signatory companies to plan for protection of critical Boreal woodland caribou habitat and sustainable forest management practices.”

Though both sides are reluctant to admit it, the collapse of the boreal forest agreement was probably inevitable. Although the idea of companies and NGOs working together is attractive in theory, with corporations gaining “green” legitimacy in the eyes of consumers and NGOs securing a seat at the decision-making table, there’s relatively little evidence to suggest it works in practice—particularly on an industry-wide scale. Companies are ultimately responsible to their customers and shareholders, and are therefore unlikely to take any meaningful environmental steps if it means significantly raising prices or reducing profits. NGOs, by contrast, need to win big concessions from companies or they risk losing their powerful “watchdog” role. A better approach, many argue, is for interested parties to put pressure on governments to enact environmental legislation that applies to everyone. After all, the environment ultimately belongs to the public, not a handful of big corporations and unelected special interest groups.