‘Boom, Bust and Beyond’ Women’s Perspectives on the Mountain Pine Beetle

Text Size: Normal / Medium / Large
Printer-friendly versionPrinter-friendly version

A wilderness-lover’s paradise, northern British Columbia consists of medium-to-small-sized municipalities, towns and villages, with populations anywhere from a couple of hundred to several thousand—a diverse area rich in Aboriginal culture. The area offers plenty of outdoor recreational opportunities, has an abundance of natural resources, including, oil, gas, minerals, trees and water, and is home to a wide variety of wildlife, such as, grizzly and black bear, deer, moose, caribou and mountain goat. In most of the smaller communities, forestry has traditionally been the predominant source of employment.

In March 2008, women gathered at the University of Northern British Columbia to explore the social, economic and health-related impacts of the mountain pine beetle (MPB) infestation, and to identify issues and concerns as described by women in beetle-affected communities. The forum “Boom, Bust and Beyond: Women’s Perspectives on the Mountain Pine Beetle” demonstrated why and how the beetle epidemic requires a gendered lens to fully understand its impacts.

The beetle and the damage
North America’s largest known insect infestation, the mountain pine beetle, Dendroctonus ponderosa, is a native bark beetle no bigger than a grain of rice, a voracious pest that has chewed its way through most pine species in British Columbia. The beetles construct egg galleries and emit pheromones which attract many beetles to create a mass attack on a single tree, eventually overwhelming the tree’s natural defenses and killing it. As of March 2008, 710 million cubic meters of timber have been destroyed—a forested area four times the size of Vancouver Island. The hardest hit communities are those that have been heavily dependent on the forest industry, such as Quesnel, Mackenzie, Vanderhoof and Prince George.

Climate change has allowed the beetle to proliferate and the only effective measure known to stop the infestation is sustained cold temperatures of minus 35˚ to 40˚ C or colder for several consecutive days. With the progression of global warming, this is unlikely. The fate of northern British Columbia’s forests is of great concern to a wide variety of people, many of whom attended the forum, including land use planners, academics, Aboriginal people, government workers, foresters with industry, and women and men from timber-dependent communities.

The beetle epidemic has left vast numbers of dead and dying trees standing in and around cities and towns in northern BC, creating a significant fire hazard. The pine beetle  epidemic has also resulted in serious consequences for agriculture, conservation, wildlife habitat and biodiversity. Aggressive silviculture, including planting more resistent species, will be needed to shorten the recovery period and restore the forests. Fortunately, forests are a renewable resource.

Air quality, already a problem in northern British Columbia, will be greatly impacted as a direct result of increased carbon emissions (with fewer trees to absorb emissions), potentially leading to increased health problems. As one woman at the forum stated: “Trees are the lungs of the planet.”

Aboriginal cultural impacts
“There is a need to engage Aboriginal people and protect cultural values,” said Zandra Ross of the First Nations Mountain Pine Beetle Initiative (FNMPBI), a group that represents a number of Aboriginal organizations in British Columbia including the Union of BC Indian Chiefs, Assembly of First Nations (BC Region) and First Nations Summit. Representatives from Aboriginal organizations have an expressed need to minimize cultural disruption by ensuring that the rich, vibrant, spiritual and environmental connection they have with the land remains intact. The importance of viewing the mountain pine beetle epidemic with a “cultural” or “diversity lens” is key to the ongoing success of the work being done by the First Nations MPB Initiative. “Cultural values were the first and foremost lens that we had to look through for all of our work,” said Ross.

Impacts of ‘boom and bust’ cycles on families and communities
The historic practice of natural resource extraction in the North, and taking as much out of our land as quickly as possible to gain the highest and quickest return on investment, has not provided a basis for long-term self sustainability in local economies. The negative impact of this “boom and bust” cycle is being felt in forestry-dependent communities all across northern British Columbia and other areas where there is a heavy reliance on exploitation of raw logs for export. The mountain pine beetle epidemic together with a decrease in demand of processed lumber, the collapse of the housing market in the United States, a strong Canadian dollar, and a 15 percent export tax on lumber shipments to the United States, has resulted in several small pulp mill closures and more than 3,500 jobs lost (not including logging and trucking jobs) in the North, including in Mackenzie, Prince George, Fort Nelson, Chetwynd, McBride, Fort St. James, Vanderhoof, Burns Lake, Houston, Smithers, and Terrace. In some forestry-dependent communities, such as Mackenzie, half of the community is out of work. As one woman stated at the forum: “We need to look beyond the forest as only having economic value—it is where we live, eat, breathe and play.”

Gendered impacts: A ripple effect
The work of exploiting timber, oil, gas and minerals has been, and still is, predominantly men’s work. Generally, when the economy slumps in northern resource-dependant communities, there tends to be a deepening of disparities between men and women. At the “Boom, Bust and Beyond” forum, participants pointed to a number of gendered impacts, such as an increase in unpaid caregiving (women are more often the primary caregivers in our communities), loss of jobs for women who work in the forestry industry as well as loss of jobs for women who work predominantly in the service sector and social services.

Creating a unified picture reveals the connections and dynamics of the various social, economic and health-related impacts of the mountain pine beetle infestation. At the community level, if families are forced to relocate, there are profound impacts. “There is a real ripple effect when people have to leave their communities,” said Dawn Hemingway, Chair of the UNBC School of Social Work. A decreased tax base can lead to diminished social service infrastructure, devaluing of rural communities, and a loss of sense of community. When people lose jobs (economic impact), stress increases (health impact) and these can result in various social problems (e.g., increased violence against women, family break-up, and mental health issues).

Employment opportunities for women in rural communities are very limited. A woman might get  a job at an office, the mill, a local school, a grocery store, a restaurant or a bar, but it won’t necessarily be a well paying job. “The biggest problem in the North that we face is access,” said Lynn Florey of the Community Planning Council. “Whether it is access to other people, access to services or access to jobs, or other opportunities.”
Many of the women get involved in community activities; it is primarily mothers who take their children to the ice rink and other recreational activities. The traditional gender split is still evident in rural communities. As one forum participant stated, “We need to avoid assigning ‘social issues’ as ‘women’s issues.’ Economic issues are women’s issues too. Gender balance adds to the quality of life.”

Moving forward
“What we have learned through the current epidemic is that there is a need for better planning and innovative approaches to salvage harvesting in the MPB-killed forests, not clear cutting everything,” said Kate Hrinkevich, a doctoral student in dendroecology (the study of ecology through the examination of tree rings) at UNBC.

One of the first ideas discussed at the forum was the creation of a network of researchers, community members, government, industry, and activists to stay connected and move forward on issues relating to women and the effects of the mountain pine beetle. The women who participated in the forum will continue to organize meetings, conferences and community rallies. Participants identified possible funding opportunities to help communities respond to the aftermath of this natural disaster. At the forum, participants used several tools to develop five project proposals: the Women’s Health Research Network “Grammar of the Research Question” poster is used as a tool for individuals “to answer the what, why, who, where, when and how” in framing a research question and conducting research. The FNMPBI strategy map is a tool used to help map out a process for communities to move forward from the impacts of the beetle (see the resource list at the end of the article for a link to the policy report). Several projects are in the works, including a forum on women’s employment in northern economic development, research exploring the gendered impacts of climate change,  as well as further policy articles on women, the mountain pine beetle and its various social impacts.

The forum “Boom, Bust and Beyond: Women’s Perspective on the Mountain Pine Beetle” made real the connection between gender, health and the mountain pine beetle, and examined the “situated knowledge” (experiential knowledge) of women living in the communities affected by the epidemic. The forum confirmed that to address the complexities of the multitude of social, health-related and economic repercussions of the pine beetle epidemic, it is crucial to take gender perspectives and gender roles into account. Participants left the forum with a greater awareness of the extent and implications of the epidemic on their own health and well-being as well as the future sustainability of their communities.

It is clear that all British Columbians, and indeed all people in Canada, need to be better stewards of land and develop integrated land use policies that protect and maintain clean land, air and water. There is a need to find innovative and creative ways to engage communities in the decision-making process around socio-economic, cultural and environmental planning, one that legitimizes and hears the voices of women and other vulnerable groups in beetle-affected communities.

Debora Munoz is a city councillor, a health care professional, and a long-time activist in support of community health and well-being. Sarah Boyd-Noël is the coordinator of Northern Women’s Centre at UNBC and organizer of the “Women’s Perspective on the Mountain Pine Beetle” forum in March 2008.

Funding and sponsorship for the Women and MPB forum was provided by Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada, Women’s Health Research Network, BC Rural and Remote Health Research Network, Confederation of Canadian Unions, Northern Women’s Forum, Northern Women’s Centre, UNBC School of Social Work, Women North Network and Stand Up for the North.