A Dismal Response

We must respond more adequately to the global challenge of
the World Conservation Strategy we helped to launch and then neglected.

By David McRobert

One of the first actions taken by the former federal Minister of the Environment, John Roberts, after he was appointed to the position by Trudeau in the Fall of 1981, was to endorse a little-known document called the World Conservation Strategy. Roberts went on to become one of the most popular ministers in the post-Clarke era of the Trudeau Liberals. But regrettably the WCS, which had gained support from over forty countries and many United Nations agencies since it was released in 1980, remains relatively unknown in Canada.

The reasons behind this weak support for the WCS are complex. Part of the problem is the division of powers in the Canadian Constitution. No clear authority over environmental issues is granted to either the federal or provincial levels of government. Consequently, all that Roberts and his successors have been willing to do is endorse the WCS, rather than foist it on unwilling provincial counterparts.

Another problem is that the mood of policy makers shifted when the Mulroney government was swept into power with the largest majority in Canadian history in September 1984. One of these shifts in mood was in the area of industrial regulation. Environmentalists have perceived the new attitude of the Conservatives as anti-regulatory.

Both Tory ministers responsible for the Department of the Environment under the Mulroney government have adopted primarily rhetorical positions on issues such as toxins and acid rain. Thus it is not surprising that a document such as the WCS has been overlooked.

This situation should be something of an embarrassment to the Canadian media and politicians. Many prominent Canadians, such as Maurice Strong and Dr. David Munro, were closely involved in the preparation of the WCS.

Strong was the director of one of the main agencies responsible for the production of the WCS, the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), at the time the document was first commissioned in 1976.

Munro, now a resident of British Columbia, was Executive Director of the other principal agency responsible for the production of the Strategy, the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources. His efforts were essential in the coordination of the submissions of over 500 non-governmental organizations and more than 800 scientists who eventually contributed to the WCS.

As a result the whole document had a distinctly Canadian flavour. For example, the model of public participation recommended in the WCS was influenced by a unique Canadian experiment, the Mackenzie Valley Pipeline Inquiry, which former British Columbia Supreme Court Judge Thomas Berger headed up in the mid-seventies. No doubt the experience of individuals such as Munro and Strong played a part in the decision to use this experiment as a basis for this WCS recommendation.

The strategy itself outlined an agenda for protecting everything from the global commons to genetic material. In part, it was conceived to find a common ground between developed nations for measures such as the Convention of international trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES). This treaty, which (in 1986) is 13 years old, has over 70 member nations as signatories. CITES imposes restrictions on international trade to limit harvesting of endangered species for furs, ivory and pharmaceuticals.

The WCS also promotes the idea of sustainable use as a basis for renewable resource use. This idea is directed at balancing economic development and conservation initiatives to ensure that the rivers and lakes that our children inherit from us are more than chemical cocktails.

In the light of the drama of recent months, as possible jail sentences for the executives of industrial offenders have grabbed the headlines in Ontario and the full implications of Chernobyl are becoming apparent, such a holistic approach to resolving environmental problems seems urgently required.

In view of the apparent need for such an approach, it is reassuring that scientists such as Munro have been busy promoting the adoption of the WCS by governments in Canada and all over the world. With the release of two reports prepared by the provincial conservation organizations in response to the WCS, it seems that his efforts are paying off.

The first of these reports, entitled Prospectus for An Alberta Conservation Strategy, was produced by the Public Advisory Committee of the Environment Council of Alberta. The second, Towards a Conservation Strategy for Ontario, was prepared by the Conservation Council of Ontario, and attracted considerable media attention upon its release.

These two reports are a positive step towards recognition of Canada's special role, as a vast and relatively unpopulated land, in the long-term conservation of nature. Moreover four other provinces have undertaken similar reviews of their programs to determine how much further they must go to comply with the objectives of the WCS.

Much work remains to be done to alleviate environmental problems in Canada. Both the Alberta and Ontario governments, for example, have a long way to go before their practices begin to broach the goal of sustainability as set out the the WCS.

The Ontario response to the WCS is divided into six "issue areas": agriculture; forestry; water resources management; wildlife and natural areas; waste management; and land-use conflicts. Discussion of each area is divided into four subsections which outline the desired position of the Conservation Council and their priority concerns regarding future government action.

The actual work was done by six task forces made up of Council members. The majority of the Task Force participants were conservationists with experience in either government or NGO's. But the President of the Council, Simon Miles, is quick to point out that numerous other members, representing professions such as medicine and education and groups such as labour, were also involved in the production of the final report.

In contrast, the Albert study was produced under the rubric of three of the public advisory committees of the rubric of three of the public advisory committees of the Environmental Council of Alberta. The Council represents 130 different provincial organizations, ranging from wilderness groups to the YMCA. Their report identifies six objectives for an Alberta strategy.

These objectives include modifications of those outlined above as well as three additional ones. These relate to the provision of recreational opportunities, the maintenance of high-quality life in urban environments, and the management of non-renewable resources.

One of the most important problems facing wildlife managers in North America is the protection of wildlife habitat. Not surprisingly, this problem receives detailed consideration in both the Alberta Wildlife Plan, may provide the needed solutions.

The Ontario document considers the problem of wetlands preservation in terms of existing land use policies. The Council observes that land use decisions are being made continuously, usually in the absence of any meaningful input from wildlife managers. A major victory will have been won, they claim, if such decisions are tempered by environmental considerations in the future.

Both documents recognize, however, that the preservation of wildlife habitat is not an end-point. The demands of users, the attitudes towards poaching and the actual genetic resilience of population all have to be evaluated and taken into account by managers.

Most of this information is not very newsworthy. We know that modification and destruction of habitat is the prime cause of the decline of wildlife populations. Despite this, it is apparent that the cure is not as easily identified as the illness is diagnosed. And the slow progress on habitat is only one example of this recurring theme in the Ontario and Alberta reports.

One issue which the Ontario report examines in considerable detail is sustainable utilization of Canada's forests. In terms of the framework set out in the WCS, the current government policy is is to conserve those processes and portions of the natural environment that enable natural self-regulation. However, the report observes that "a false perception of plenty" has encouraged a rate of exploitation that is clearly not sustainable in the long-term.

Another area where the Ontario report is extremely critical of government policy is agricultural land conservation. The authors note that more than one million acres of Ontario's best agricultural land was lost between 1971 and 1981. They advocate that this prime land - much of it around cities and towns - be preserved rather than paved.

Alberta's prospectus also calls for major changes in agricultural land use and policies, noting that the of acres affected by erosion, dryland salinity, loss of organic matter, and soil acidification is unknown but presumed to be significant. Moreover the report goes on to observe that "agriculture would seem to be the most obvious of all sustainable developments" and that a crucial requirement of a provincial conservation strategy is improvement and maintenance of Alberta's agricultural land base.

There are other parallels between the two documents. Both clearly emphasize the urgent need to deal with problems such as acid rain and hazardous waste management. Both recognize the need not only for sound scientific data upon which to base procedures, but for strong political commitment to ensure that the good intentions already expressed will be translated into action. To this end, the reports offer a series of recommendations for action and the establishment of permanent mechanisms for monitoring this action.

The documents are also similar in emphasizing that wildlife belongs to everyone and must be uniformly accessible to all Canadians, so long as the survival of a species is not threatened. At the same time, both reports acknowledge that many species of flora and fauna are not receiving adequate protection from poachers and other forces such as development pressure. The Ontario study, for example, notes that "there is far from adequate attention to the protection of those species that are rare, threatened or endangered."

The two reports do differ in some respects. An interesting difference between the two documents is the five-page discussion of the importance of conservation of non-renewable resources in the Prospectus. The tone of this discussion suggests that conservation of oil, gas, oil sands, and heavy oil resources is essential to balance development in the province of Alberta. The Ontario report does not, in direct contrast, consider economic conservation arguments for mineral resources.

The ultimate impact of these remarkable volunteer efforts will depend on whether the public demands that Canada meet the objectives set out in the WCS. To date, the government response has been dismal. We should expect to be chastised by leaders from the Third World if we continue to balk at implementing the strategy. Canada has failed to meet the challenge of global conservation, after helping to promulgate the WCS in the 1970's. There is a touch of irony in this situation. However, it is one that we should view with embarrassment rather than smugness.


David McRobert is a student at Osgoode Hall Law School
and a Fellow in the Faculty of Environmental Studies at York University.

Published in POLICY OPTIONS POLITIQUES November/Novembre 1986