Here are the notes from last evening’s (November 4, 2015) Nature Conservancy of Canada forum on Why Forests Matter. Other speakers included Brian DePrato, economist with TD Bank, talking about natural capital, poet Lorna Crozier, Andrea Lyall (Aboriginal forester), Dr. Phillip Miller (with the Canadian Association of Physicians for the Environment), and Dan Krauss, a conservation scientist with The Nature Conservancy.

Why Forests Matter: Indigenomics of Forests

My name is Mark Anielski. I am trained as a forest economist and natural capital accountant. I’m also the author of The Economics of Happiness: Building Genuine Wealth. For 10 years I taught business ethics, corporate social responsibility and social entrepreneurship at the School of Business at the University of Alberta.

I’m now going through the 12-step program for economists, after 25 years of practicing economics. It is my work with First Nations in Canada and inspired by the forest that I am only now beginning to recover from the addiction economists, have had with economic growth and money metrics of progress, like the GDP.

It has been returning back to the forest, as my real teacher, and spending time with indigenous elders that I am learning about a new way of thinking about the economy. We might call this indigenomics or what I call the ‘economics of well-being.’

Having spent much of my career trying to measure the money value of nature or natural capital, including ecosystem services, I have come to a humbling place realizing the futility in measuring the value of nature in money terms.

For First Nations and Inuit people money is less important that their relationship with the land and with each other.

In truth this is genuine economics. For the word economy comes from the Greek words oikos (meaning household) and nomia (meaning stewardship or management). Another Greek word that I love is eudaimonia, which is the original word for happiness; eudaimonia means ‘the well-being of the spirit.

I would discover, years after my economics degree, that the word wealth comes from a 13th Century English word that literally means ‘the conditions of well-being.’ I believe indigenous people understand that genuine wealth relates to the conditions of their well-being and nature, not the money we possess and store up in our bank accounts.

Conventional economics tends to reduce everything into money value terms. Our primary measure of the health and productivity of the economy is through the lens of GDP – a measure of how much money is flowing through an economy. Unfortunately the GDP fails to measure most of the things that actually contribute to our quality of life and well-being including the true value of our forests, the joy of our children, and the wisdom of our elders.

Indigenous cultures understand that money isn’t the most important measure of success. For these cultures the forest is abundant providing all of the physical goods, plants, medicines, and food for their sustenance without any money changing hands.

I’ve spent the last 25 years of my career unravelling the true nature of money and how it is created. I’ve learned that money itself has no inherent value. The word value comes from the Latin word valorum meaning ‘to be worthy’ or ‘to be strong.’

Money is a wonderful social creation useful for the exchange of goods and services in our economy. However, modern money is tied to no-thing of real value such as forests, land or even our human beings! The vast majority of our money is created out of thin air when banks issue loans (as book keeping entries on their ledgers) backed by nothing other than our capacity repay the principle of these loans along with interest. The total amount of outstanding debts in our economy in Canada and the US is now so large that it consumes about $0.35 on each dollar we spend in the economy. This is not only an injustice but it actually exacerbates climate change and results in the degradation of natural capital.

What if we took an indigenous approach to the economy and money. What might that look like? What if money were tied directly to natural assets, let us say the ecological health of the forest to sustain a flow of benefits that included not only lumber from trees, but traditional use benefits of berries, medicines, moose and other cultural values.

I have been working with a few indigenous people from the Alongquin Nation in Quebec in the creation of a natural-capital-backed money system we call the Earth Dollar. My dear friend Lewis Cardinal, of Cree origin, has inspired me with the ancient stories of an annual gathering called the ‘pehonen’ of indigenous people along the banks of the North Saskatchewan river near Edmonton to exchange goods, stories, and children in marriage. It was an economy of reciprocity without any money. They did, however, use seashells (the cowri shell) for rare items such as obsidian which some say came from the Maori in New Zealand.

Seashells were sewn on wampum belts that represented relationships between nations and became the simple of the union between the new colonies of the United States of America and the Iroquois Confederacy (Haudenosaunee).

The potlatch, a West-coast indigenous custom of gift-giving, sharing and reciprocity from the abundance of material wealth, most of which was derived from nature. These peoples must have been inspired by the example of nature and the forests, which give to us daily their ‘services’ without expectation of a return on their investment in our well-being!

This indigenomic system seems to have worked for thousands of years. Can it become our model for a new economy of well-being for our current communities in Canada? I think so.

They’re traditional ways, knowledge and wisdom has a lot to teach conventional economics.

Indigenomics is a term and concept developed by my friend Carol Anne Hilton, who is from the Nuu chah nulth Nation north of Tofino on Vancouver Island. For Carol Anne, Indigenomics acts as a vehicle for understanding, creating meaning and expressing the indigenous relationship to economies.

Along with her colleague Ainjil Hunt, are working with First Nations communities in B.C. and Canada to develop a new economic model which makes well-being the ultimate measure of progress. This new model of measuring well-being I call ‘genuine wealth.’ A genuine wealth approach to economic develop focuses our attention on the stewardship of our five core community assets: human capital (people), social or cultural capital, natural capital and built capital. The fifth capital, financial capital, is really a derivate of the other four asset classes. To live a genuine life is to live according to our values. A genuine wealth-based economy is one which is living true to the values of the people and achieving flourishing well-being for both the community and nature. This model builds on 500 years of asset accounting practices that began in Venice and grounded in 10,000 years of indigenous wisdom, traditions and laws.

A genuine wealth approach to indigenomic development understands that healthy and flourishing natural assets, especially forests, is key to a traditional use life-style and flourishing communities of well-being.

We aspire to redefine wealth and progress for First Nations in Canada. I believe this new indigenomics way of development will become a model for new economies of well-being across Canada.

Most recently I worked with elders of the Alexis Nakota Sioux Nation just west of Edmonton in assessing the potential impact of a proposed pipeline right-of-way through their traditional territory. Two days in the bush with these 65-year-old elders taught me more about traditional plants, medicines and animal habitat than 4 years of forestry school at the University of Alberta. They were teaching me the ‘genuine’ value of the Boreal forest in terms of the abundance of plants and medicines which I would have missed walking through the woods because I could not see their true value. The elders taught me that plants will literally present themselves to you in your dreams as if they want to heal us. This traditional knowledge and wisdom can and should never be translated into dollars or market value.

I want to close my 8 minutes with one of my favourite stories about the Sacred Tree that was published by a group of indigenous elders from Alberta in 1982. The story of sacred tree is similar to the tree of life and the tree of knowledge in the garden of Eden in the book of Genesis. This story is a powerful reminder that trees and forests count more than money values of 2x4s and paper.

The story of the sacred tree goes like this:

For all the people of the earth the crater has planted the sacred tree under which they may gather and there may find healing, power, wisdom, and security.

The roots of this tree spread deep into the body of mother Earth; its branches reach upward like hands praying to Father Sky.

The fruits of the tree are the good things the creator has given to the people; teachings that show the path to love, compassion and generosity, patience, wisdom, justice, courage, respect humility and other wonderful gifts.

The ancient ones taught us that the life of the Tree is a life of the people.

If the people wander far away from the protective shadow of the Tree, if they forget to seek the nourishment of its fruit, or if they should turn against the tree and attempt to destroy it, great sorrow will fall upon the people.

Many will become sick at heart.

The people will lose their power.

They will cease to dream dreams and see visions.

They will begin to quarrel among themselves over worthless trifles.

They will become unable to tell the truth and to deal with each other honestly.

They will forget how to survive in their own land. They will become filled with anger and gloom.

Little by little they will poison themselves and all they touch. It was foretold that these things would come to pass but the Tree would never die. As long as the Tree lives, the people live.

It was foretold of the day would come when people would awaken, as if from a long drugged sleep, that they would begin timidly at first but then with greater urgency to search again the sacred tree.

The knowledge of its whereabouts and of the fruits that adorn its branches have always been carefully guarded and preserve within the minds and hearts of our wise elders and leaders.

These humble, loving and dedicated souls will guide anyone who is honest of the Sacred Tree.

Let us ponder these words the next time you wander through a forest.

Finally, my dear friend Lewis Cardinal of Cree origin from Edmonton reminds me that the word Canada (Kanata) means a ‘pure’ or ‘sacred’ place. Lewis has taught me that the name Edmonton contains the Cree word ‘monto’ which means ‘great Spirit.’

We are reminded by the indigenous peoples of Kanata to return to a more harmonious relationship with nature with great humility and love of the forests and nature. Perhaps we will finally understand that the forests and nature are truly abundant and sufficient for our needs. That the forest is a source of food, medicines plants and shelter whose monetary value may be infinite.

Forests matter because, like the wisdom of our indigenous brothers and sisters, they are the model for a flourishing economy of well-being. We would do well to mimic nature and forests in our economic policies of this pure and sacred place we call Canada.

Thank you.

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