09/03/2013 10:06 EDT | Updated 11/03/2013 05:12 EST

Exposing The Gold Diggers Of B.C.

Clayoquot Sound is one of the most renowned wilderness regions in Canada, its name synonymous with environmental struggles. Coverage of the 20th anniversary of 1993's legendary blockades have dominated the environmental news cycle in recent weeks, and some of B.C.'s most famous activists got their start in Clayoquot.

Yet the battle to conserve the region's increasingly rare ecosystems is far from over. While the profile of these fights is not at the international fever-pitch it's been in decades past, much work is being done to find real, long-lasting solutions. In some ways, the challenges have grown - industrial aquaculture and mining have joined clear-cut logging as threats to Clayoquot's ecological integrity.

Like the irresponsible logging that decimated parts of Clayoquot Sound in the past, these newer industries are operated by huge corporations with little interest in the long-term future of the environment. One thing that hasn't changed is that in most cases, the fights against risky, short-sighted, and environmentally unsound development are led by the region's proud First Nations people.

One such development is rearing its ugly head right now. The project in question is the Fandora Gold mine -- a proposal to do exploratory (yet still substantial) work at a long-abandoned mine site in the Tranquil Valley in the heart of Tla-o-qui-aht First Nation territory. The Tla-o-qui-aht have declared the area a Tribal Park, to be managed by the Nation to meet their economic, social, and cultural needs without compromising the environment. A gold mine, or any activity working towards gold mining, doesn't fit their definition of responsible development.

Gold mining is one of the most destructive things we do, and the reasons to worry about it are endless. Acid mine drainage -- a process through which non-usable materials found in gold deposits are exposed, acidified, and leached into the surrounding environment -- threatens water quality and is a common occurrence at gold mines worldwide. Other toxins like mercury are released through mining, further impacting local water systems. In a rainforest like Clayoquot Sound, water is the central element, and by jeopardizing it we jeopardize everything from salmon rehabilitation to cultural practices to recreational opportunities.

On top of all this, gold mining is based on a finite resource, meaning any benefit will be short-term and unsustainable. Up and down Canada's west coast, communities that have based their economies solely on resource extraction are now in dire socio-economic situations as those resources run out.

For these reasons and more, the Tla-o-qui-aht have repeatedly stated firm opposition to the Fandora proposal.

Unfortunately, their opposition has fallen on deaf ears. Just under a year ago, I was invited to sit in on a meeting between the Nation and several senior staff with the Ministry of Energy and Mines. At that meeting, the Senior Mines Inspector was told in no uncertain terms by Tla-o-qui-aht councillors, elders, and Chiefs that the Nation will not allow Fandora on its territory. There was no grey area, no way to confuse their position.

But just a few weeks ago, that same Senior Mines Inspector issued a permit allowing the project to go ahead.

This whole process is upsetting for those of us who know we must start taking better care of the environment, and who believe First Nations should have decision-making authority within their traditional territories. But it is also incredibly worrisome when looked at in the larger provincial context. This is a time when the government is accelerating the assault on our environment and on First Nations rights.

Unfortunately, this isn't unique to Clayoquot Sound. There is a troubling list of large industrial projects throughout B.C. that the government is trying to push through over the objections of local First Nations -- that includes the Site C Dam, the New Prosperity Mine, the Arctos Coal Mine, and a other resource extraction proposals.

Those concerned about the environmental and socio-economic impacts of this aggressive, extractive approach have been told that their concerns are unwarranted, and that projects will feature world-leading environmental standards and better consultation processes. But things are getting worse, not better.

On environmental responsibility and adequate consultation, our government has failed.

It's clear the provincial government has got a lot of work to do -- and so do we; we need to give more priority to alternatives and find a balance that better respects the natural capital of this coast. I'm often asked, 'If not mining, then what?' This is the fun part, because there are good alternatives, usually right in the same areas.

Clayoquot Sound is a perfect example. Here, the Tla-o-qui-aht are championing exciting initiatives like Tribal Parks, which refocus economic efforts on protecting the environment and creating local employment and wealth. They've invested in tourism through operations like their Best Western Tin Wis Resort, hiking tours and a partnership with a local zipline company, and are also working to re-establish their wild salmon fishery.

These and other efforts need to be prioritized and given a fair chance. We can get there by creating the space and opportunity for ecosystems to recover and for green industries to emerge and grow.

We won't get there by forcing gold mines into ecosystems that can't withstand them, and onto people who do not want them.