Sunday, 27 November 2011

A Better Conversation

Some time in the next few months Islanders will once more be thinking about fish kills.  In mid July thousands of dead fish were found in three rivers in Western PEI.  It was the most serious fishkill in recent memory and very troubling to many.  Traces of pesticide were found in samples taken from the rivers.   One farmer Avard Smallman  has already pleaded guilty to a buffer zone violation and will be fined. Warren Ellis is the other farmer charged under the Environmental Protection Act. He will go to trial, or possibly reach a plea agreement first, in the next few weeks. 

The fact that there were violations of the fifteen meter buffer regulation was a great relief to many in the farming community.  If there hadn't been, then the critics of a fifteen meter buffer would have the ammunition to call for even stricter rules.

If there was anything positive to be taken away from this very disturbing incident, it's this: despite many heavy rain days, there were no fishkills in the majority of the province's watersheds.  In a handful, there's been a conscious effort not to just follow the law, but do more. Here's a story I wrote a few months ago about an inspiring group of  people in Eastern PEI.  I think there are good lessons for us all in their experience.

Souris Watershed: A Rare Success or a Model for the Future

It took months of meetings, a lot of trust, and a heavy dollop of government money, but  people in a large area of Eastern PEI are part of the most successful effort ever in the province to collectively protect and improve water resources.

It started with a series of public meetings through the Fall and Winter of 2005-2006.  The two linchpins of the meetings were to speak honestly about the serious environmental degradation in the watershed,  and just as importantly,  to not lay blame, but figure out who had to do what to make things better. 

The area’s farmers knew they’d be fingered by most  as the cause of the problems, so they initially went to these meetings more to protect their interests than anything else.  “I think farmers were really scared of having the community tell them what was going to happen.”   Bear River farmer Kevin MacIsaac was one of the area’s farmers who was at  these community meetings. “I think there was some fear in the room, and that was probably a reason to get more proactive, but that fear went away fairly quickly once everyone was in the room and talking about common goals.”

Retired school teacher Fred Cheverie agreed to be  the coordinator for the meetings.  “Once farmers understood that we weren’t trying to shut them down, but work with them, then people starting talking.  I think the greatest thing to come out of it was the respect people developed for each of the industries.”

The Souris watershed had all the problems common to watersheds around the province:  fish kills from pesticide run-off, high bacteria counts from poor manure handling, serious soil erosion,  and  high nitrate levels caused by excess fertilizer leaching into waterways. The nitrates, along with phosphorus,  fertilize choking amounts of algae. That’s bad enough, but as the algae dies, bacteria breaking it down use up precious oxygen reserves in the water, weakening and often killing fish and shellfish stocks.  So these meetings were made up of people with vastly competing interests, all seeing their livelihoods at stake. It was Fred Cheverie who insisted that the tone remain civil and respectful.  He says it was the only way to move forward. “When farmers get respect, and they in turn respect the organization, things go a lot smoother.”

Respect is not something many Islanders feel towards farmers. The media dwells on the serious financial problems facing agriculture during the fall and winter, and environmental  concerns the rest of the year.  These same Islanders generally want to see a lot more sticks rather than carrots used to get farmers to take environmental protection seriously.

Without really knowing it, the community used concepts developed for what’s called “conflict resolution”. It essentially states that the default position for most people is to only see the differences between themselves and others, and to argue what these “others” are doing wrong.   Conflict resolution theory suggests looking for common “interests” instead, in other words the goals that various groups can agree on. This requires time and trust, and the Souris Wildlife Federation used both.

“Go slow, take your time, make sure everyone understands  everything, be up front, never make a promise you can’t keep, simple stuff, common sense” says Fred Cheverie.  “You have to remember that the bulk of the land is owned by farmers, so you’re going to have to work with them, you’re going to have to get along with them.”

Farmer Kevin MacIsaac  says Fred Cheverie’s stature in the community was critical. ”Everyone has respect for him. He’s seen the farming side, he’s also a fisherman and a hunter, and a wildlife person, so people knew he would be able to recognize both sides.  Some of the people from wildlife and the watershed, they were just looking for ways to improve things, and that’s all we were too. It was important to get it all on the table, rather than have people walking behind each other and laying blame.”

This process had one other critical component, money, but that came only after the community had done the heavy lifting of developing a comprehensive watershed plan that almost all stakeholders committed to. (there was some money, available to any community,  for coordination and costs for these early meetings).

This was the first time on PEI that governments used public funds to compensate farmers for taking steps beyond what the law requires, to protect water resources. At the time it had the awkward name “ecological goods and services”. Now it’s referred to something a little easier,  Alternate Land Use Services, better known as ALUS. Here are some examples of land use practices that get small per hectare payments: retiring sensitive land by expanding buffer zones and grassed headlands, retiring high-sloped land,  taking additional steps to prevent soil erosion.

Taxpayers may wonder why farmers need to be paid to do things that should be the law, or their civic duty at least. This is where the farm financial crisis comes in. There are increased demands for food safety and environmental protection, but no mechanism for farmers to recover these higher costs out of the market. In fact over the last decade debt levels on most farms have increased yearly, and are now at record levels.  It’s instructive to look at how other jurisdictions view public money going to farmers who protect the environment.   This is from the European Commission which spends  $53 billion euros a year supporting agriculture. Farms in France for example get more than thirty thousand dollars a year for taking minimal steps to protect the environment. Farms on PEI get a  few hundred dollars at best. 

“European Union farmers benefit from income support for supplying the kind of public goods which cannot be provided purely by the market – environmental protection, animal welfare, highquality and safe food. European Union standards in these areas are amongst the highest in the world. As a consequence, producing food in Europe is more expensive than in countries where such standards are not obligatory.
As high-cost producers of food, European farmers would find it very difficult to compete
against farmers in other countries without public support. Indeed, as the impact of climate change increases, the cost of sustainable farming is only likely to rise.”

The Souris Watershed has become the poster child of co-operation between farmers and other interest groups. It’s been rewarded with a lot more government support than other watersheds in the province, more than half a million dollars for the initial two year project (most coming from the Federal government), then in June almost a million dollars to conduct research to quantify the impact of changing farming practices.  (Government departments and university researchers will get this money, not farmers). This new research will look at the impact of fall versus spring plowing.  Many farmers worry that if they don’t plow sod in the Fall, that a rainy Spring might put them weeks behind planting their crops.  But there are serious environmental consequences linked to Fall plowing: land is bare through the winter, and that can mean considerable soil erosion. As well, researchers worry that the nitrogen in a sod/hay crop that’s plowed in the Fall will add to the already high nitrate load in this and other watersheds. Some are hoping that if Spring plowing releases enough nutrients from the sod that can then be utilized by the cash crop and cut down on the need for expensive fertilizer, that farmers will be given one more good reason to keep the plow in barn in the Fall.

It’s taken decades for the many environmental problems in the Souris watershed and elsewhere to develop. There have been numerous studies, Royal Commissions, new regulations, government threats and promises, but little tangible evidence that things are getting better.  Throw in a lot of defensiveness, even hostility from primary producers that non farmers just don’t understand that fewer and fewer of them are expected to  produce huge quantities of cheap food, and the challenges just get bigger. 

The Souris watershed experience offers the best example for breaking this logjam.  The trouble is there aren’t a lot of Fred Cheveries around the province who command the respect of people in the community, and have the time, patience  and inclination to take on months of meetings. And there certainly aren’t the financial resources that Souris enjoyed because it was the first to see this process through.

There is a lot of evidence that public resources should be used to fairly cover the additional costs farmers take on to protect water resources, but this is a public expenditure that’s competing against many others during a time of restraint and cuts.

But there are other lessons from Souris that communities can draw on, that trust and respect are needed to move forward, and at least neither of these cost any money.

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