‘Tragedy of the Commons’ Redux

‘Tragedy of the Commons’ Redux

Summer is upon us and an army of grey-market gatherers are descending on the forests of British Columbia to harvest berries, mushrooms, floral greenery and an array of other botanical products, part of a largely informal non-timber forest products (NTFP) sector worth somewhere near a half billion dollars a year in sales.

The BC-based wild NTFP harvest has steadily marched towards big business in the past few decades in the shadow of the conventional forest (read timber) industry with increasing numbers of pickers and wholesale businesses capitalizing on the natural wealth of the province. However, because the harvest of NTFPs from Crown land is largely unregulated (and in my interpretation of the Land Act, most of the commercial harvest is in fact illegal), the emergence of this industry has raised concerns about its impact on the forest ecosystems and on the aboriginal and other traditional users who depend on them.

We have little research documenting the impact the removal of NTFPs is having on wildlife and forest processes, but empirical evidence has been mounting for years that the unmanaged commercial NTFP harvest is succumbing to overexploitation by an unscrupulous segment of the industry that has no concern for sustainability or other users. On Vancouver Island, once prime areas for salal collection, a staple of the floral greenery market, are now only producing a sparse understory of low-quality plants. Transient picking crews are moving from site to site and harvesting everything in sight, often leaving garbage behind and disturbing other vegetation and soil for ease of their access. Unethical harvesters, supported by some equally unethical wholesale buyers with no concern with how or where their product is sourced, are tearing up the old growth forest floors with rakes while looking for mushrooms, irreparably impairing future production. In the southern interior there are examples of vanloads of ‘picking’ crews raking mountaintops clean of huckleberries and in the process destroying plants, leaving nothing for wildlife or First Nations harvesters exercising their traditional food gathering rights.

Five years ago, the Forest Practices Board, in a report titled “Integrating Non-Timber Forest Products Into Forest Planning and Practices in British Columbia”, recommended the provincial government should increase its involvement in the management of NTFPs. The report emphasized that the current system does not give harvesters or buyers any incentive to manage these resources sustainably or to consult with First Nations. First Nations throughout BC have unextinguished rights and title to timber and non-timber resources on public land in BC and these rights are routinely ignored by NTFP harvesters. Five years have passed since the release of this report with full public recognition of the problem that has been decades in the development, but very little action has been taken to regulate the activity and provide security to the legitimate players in the sector. What we are left with is homegrown example of the tragedy of the commons.

In Garrett Harden’s seminal 1968 Science article “The Tragedy of the Commons’ he used the analogy of the unregulated use of a pasture shared by livestock herders. Each herder in trying to maximize their own production increases their herd size whenever possible, but the positive and negative consequences of this action is not shared equally. The herder receives all of the proceeds from each additional animal produced, but the pasture is slightly degraded by each additional animal and this negative externality is shared among all herders using the pasture. Consequently, for each individual herder there is little incentive to conserve or restrain their activity and overgrazing of the pasture is the result. So too the tragedy of BC’s NTFP commons – each harvester is fully rewarded for each additional mushroom/berry/branch they pick, but everyone (including other non-commerical users and wild species) share in the pain of overexploitation.

For the NTFP industry to develop sustainably in this province there must be incentives to invest in resource management and penalties for those who otherwise would not voluntarily adhere to sustainable and ethical management. Regulation of the NTFP harvest in BC is a complex issue deserving something greater than a one-size-fits-all approach. The commercial resources are widely dispersed over an enormous forest land base and often the objects of harvest are transient in nature (not growing in the same location from year to year), making tenure options complicated. But complexity is no longer a suitable excuse for inaction. We have examples of businesses, such as ‘First Nations Wildcrafters, BC’ in Port Alberni, who on their own initiative have set very high standards for what, when and how things are harvested, and employing a very progressive and enlightened approach to ensuring the safety and quality of their product, and equitable treatment of harvesters and other stakeholders. We need to draw on the experience and insights of businesses like ‘First Nations Wildcrafters, BC’ and get the process of regulating NTFP harvest in BC underway.

With the current downturn in the forest industry, increasing numbers of laid off workers may now turn to harvesting NTFPs as their unemployment benefits begin to wind down. Without some concrete actions towards legitimizing and regulating the NTFP industry in BC then the price we will all pay for continued inaction is the loss of part of our collective natural heritage and the loss of the opportunities to develop sustainable rural jobs and economic stability.

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