Tuesday, January 10, 2017

Farmers hurt by Yancoal’s divide and conquer strategy: a guest post

Residents of the area surrounding the proposed Yancoal mine gathered Tuesday afternoon in Earl Grey to voice their opposition to the project. (image from CBC News site )

From an enthusiastic note in a Kijiji notice posted by someone in Ontario who wants to sell his mineral rights for $1000 per acre to cash in on the Yancoal potash interest in the region north of Regina:

"Saskatchewan is already well known for its potash mining and now another massive, multi-billion dollar project could soon be developed north of Regina.  
Chinese-based Yancoal has been exploring and studying a potential site about halfway between Southey and Strasbourg. The company recently carried on to the feasibility stage. 
"It looks pretty promising," said Strasbourg Mayor Ken Swanston. 
Swanston indicated Yancoal is getting pretty close to the start of construction. He figures shovels could be in the ground as soon as next year. The company's website confirms that plan, with the mine scheduled to be in operation by 2020. Their goal is to produce 2.8 million tonnes of potash annually. 
"The longevity of the mine, they figure it'll last anywhere between 65 and 100 years," said Swanston. "We're hopeful around here in Strasbourg that we get some spinoffs, and I'm sure Southey as well, whether it be for housing or shopping."

I don't know everything there is to know about Yancoal but many people in the Southey--Earl Grey region, especially those without land or mineral rights they want to sell, are upset and feel the Province is not listening. (See this CBC story when the Province approved the environmental assessment for Yancoal in August.)

Nearby, in Fort Qu'Appelle, the Qu’Appelle Valley Environmental Association has opposed the project citing concerns over the amount of water the mine will use and the likelihood of contamination to watersheds.

Living in a dry land with a vulnerable and limited water supply, everyone in Southern Saskatchewan should be worried about letting a Chinese company use 11 to 12 million cubic metres of water annually from the Buffalo Pound reservoir to dissolve potash. 

And a lot of people are worried. Last year the Province received more than 800 public submissions to their environmental assessment for the project--a huge number. No one will say how many of the submissions were opposed to the siting of the mine and its projected extraction of water from the Qu'Appelle system, but it seems likely that most were.

At the same time, town administrators in Southey and Earl Grey are boosters for the project and a small number of area farmers like the idea.

For some insight into the people who are in favour of the Yancoal project, take a look at the following guest post from Braden Schmidt, a farmer in the Earl Grey area who speaks to a common concern for wildlife and habitat that may be affected by the Yancoal project:

Yancoal Canada Resources Co. is a subsidiary mining company of Yanzhou Coal Mining Co., owned by the government of China. With the support of the Saskatchewan government, they are charging forward with plans to build a solution mine on top of local farmers north of Earl Grey in the Rural Municipality of Longlaketon #219. With world-wide operations in China, Australia, and South America, Yanzhou has the capital to bribe locals with enormous sums of money. And that is exactly what they have done.

One farming family sold several quarters of land to Yancoal for as high as $720,000 per quarter, well beyond what neighbors would be able or willing to pay. That is about five times the current market value of farmland for the area where a good quarter could fetch anywhere from $120,000 - $150,000. Any farmer can quickly confirm that commodity prices have not jumped in price by five times, nor have input costs dropped by this factor. This payout is certainly a boon for those who own the land desired by Yancoal, but what about the remaining landowners who want to continue their operation? Many of these are multi-generational family farms with a deep commitment to their rural lifestyle and community. For some it would not be so easy to take the cash, uproot their lives, and move away. For others it would be downright out of the question. Farmers stuck with the land in the surrounding area will have to contend with the air pollution, increased noise and traffic, and groundwater contamination.

"What happens when the cement drill casing fails and salty brine enters the pristine water table?"

Yancoal insists that their extraction methods will not endanger the integrity of the Hatfield aquifer, which provides drinking water for not only the community and several towns but also their livestock. What happens when the cement drill casing fails and salty brine enters the pristine water table?

Needless to say, the mining proposition has caused some contention among landowners as Yancoal continues to drive the community apart on this issue. Yancoal is not here for the good of the people of Earl Grey, Strasbourg and Southey. They don’t actually care about any of us despite what your gullible neighbor may be telling you. They are a large, faceless, foreign mining company and will do whatever it takes to get that potash on a train and send it to the Port of Vancouver. Despite increasing opposition to Yancoal from local landowners, the project seems poised to move forward.
three whooping cranes were spotted this past spring near the Yancoal site. (This lovely image courtesy of the ever-generous Kim Mann)

However, a sighting of whooping cranes near the proposed mine site last spring may provide yet another reason to stop Yancoal. The cranes were spotted in April 2016 resting on their route from their wintering grounds in Texas to Wood Buffalo National Park. They came very close to extinction in the 1940’s when only 20 individuals remained on the entire planet. The population has recovered with a rigorous captive breeding program but they are still considered critically endangered.

Unlike mining, grain and livestock production can still occur without completely wiping out the landscape and polluting aquifers. It is sad that locals need to seek out endangered species to provide a solid platform on which to argue their right to continue farming and uphold their rural lifestyle.

The farmers and locals of RM #219 don’t necessarily have to be bird enthusiasts or conservationists to appreciate what the occurrence of these critically endangered species might mean for their community as they continue to struggle with a foreign bully such as Yancoal. The protection of wildlife habitat may not be near the top of the list for reasons not to develop a mining project but it should be.

If there is something to learn from the visit of the whooping cranes, it is that the local people have maintained agricultural land that supports wildlife, even endangered species. Placing it in the hands of a Chinese mining company with a poor environmental record puts that agricultural land, and any habitat it provides, at risk.

another great photo courtesy of Kim Mann

Wednesday, December 7, 2016

BBC on Grassland: Planet Earth 2

BBC's new Planet Earth episode on grasslands
David Attenborough has finally brought his dulcet tones to bear on the planet's grasslands in episode 5 of Planet Earth 2. Cue posh public school accent:

"One quarter of the earth is covered by a single, remarkable type of plant . . . Almost indestructible, it can grow two feet in a day and be tall enough to hide a giant."
It is available online for viewers in the UK at the BBC website. Others have found it in other places online but I couldn't tell you exactly where. . . .

My review? Well, it contains the usual stunning imagery and life and death drama you see on BBC nature programs, but if you are looking for north America's grasslands you may be disappointed. There is one short segment on bison and red fox (!?!) in winter on the Great Plains--the rest is shot on other continents.

Here is a bison....

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

WWF report: 53 M acres on Great Plains converted since 2009

a page from the just released WWF "Plowprint Report" for the Great Plains
According to The Washington Post, a report just out from the World Wildlife Fund "argues that the continued expansion of cropland in the region may be threatening birds, pollinators and even drinking water, while releasing millions of tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere each year."

WWF data shows that 53 million acres of land in the Great Plains have been converted to cropland since 2009. From 2014 to 2015 alone, approximately 3.7 million acres were lost. 
when native grass is plowed as this was in the summer of 2015, tons of carbon are released

According to the WWF's annual "Plowprint Report" ,published annually to show the loss of grassland habitat, "in 2014, the Great Plains lost more acres to conversion than the Brazilian Amazon."

Where is this happening? Right here in Saskatchewan. In fact, Saskatchewan's White Valley Rural Municipality (Eastend area in the southwest of the province) had the highest rates of habitat loss among regions where there is important grassland bird habitat.

In general, though, as the report says, "the highest rates of loss occurred in the Prairie Potholes Region and specifically in the Canadian portion of that region. The rate of loss in this region is about twice that of the larger study region."

Here are the maps from the WWF Plowprint Report for 2016 (pdfs here for general info and here for facts and figures). Red areas in the map on the left show regions where the rate of grassland loss is highest (Saskatchewan is among the worst) and green in the map on the right shows what remains of native cover on the Great Plains:

Areas of greatest grasslands loss on the Great Plains, courtesy of WWF 

Thursday, November 10, 2016

Grassland Matters--talking to the Canadian Forage & Grassland Association

Baird's Sparrow in a hayfield

Next Wednesday, November 16, I have the privilege of addressing a national gathering of men and women who manage grass.

The Canadian Forage and Grassland Association is hosting its 7th annual conference next week in Winnipeg, Nov. 15 to 17. This is Canada’s only national forage-based conference and will highlight how the forage and grassland sector is a critical foundation for sustainable growth and development throughout the Canadian agriculture industry.

This year's theme is "Grass and Green in 2016" and begins with an optional pre-conference tour to Brandon on Nov. 15 to SG&R Farms and the Manitoba Beef & Forage Initiatives research farm. The main conference includes a trade show, several virtual farm tours, a banquet where the organization presents its New Holland-sponsored CFGA Leadership Award, and a full line-up of speakers on such topics as environmental protection, research at work, sustainable agriculture systems and forage export development.

During my presentation, "Grassland Matters: Some Thoughts on Grassland, Native and Tame, and Why We Need More of It," I will speak about why perennial grasslands, both native and tame, are important not only to the animals that graze them but for everyone; why they are overlooked as lands that must be conserved and fostered; and how producers and consumers, rural and urban, Indigenous and settler people, can work together to conserve, and expand, Canada's grasslands.

While our native grasslands are in trouble, there is an important role for the tame forage community to play in addressing at least some of the issues associated with losing our old growth prairie.

So I will be talking about how not to give up on the life of the prairie that underlies the land no matter what is growing on top—and how the livestock and forage and grassland management world can be part of restoring health to the land.

Looking forward to meeting grass people there!

Bobolink on Smooth Brome

Wednesday, November 2, 2016

"The world's most endangered ecosystem"

landscape courtesy of Hamilton Greenwood

"The loss of Canada’s prairies is also a loss for the world."
That is a line from a terrific essay recently posted by Dan Kraus, the Nature Conservancy of Canada's Weston conservation scientist and senior director of conservation program development.

My favourite line in the piece amounts to the strongest statement in favour of publicly owned community pastures that I have seen NCC make to date:

"There is also a key, and immediate, opportunity to conserve large areas of prairie and maintain local ranching economies by protecting community pastures in Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba — public lands that are managed to protect both biodiversity and sustainable grazing in local communities."
Anyway, just read the essay. Dan says it all and says it well.


Thursday, October 20, 2016

paskwâwaskî in October--a book launch

pronghorn, courtesy of Hamilton Greenwood
Sitting on a hilltop last Saturday, watching spiders ballooning through the sky, and above them layers of birds on the move—snow geese in the depths of the blue, with a half dozen canvasback below them moving faster, and then a scattered flock of Lapland Longspurs, like sparks shooting out of a fire and across the whole scene—I thought of all the movement that happens in fall, even in our fragmented prairie world.

There are pronghorn right now slowly moving toward winter range across the medicine line. The Sage Grouse on private ranches near Grasslands National Park will soon do the same, if they haven’t left yet. Montana sage brush, high enough to stay exposed even when snows come deep, will help them survive to breed next spring. And overhead the great flocks of Sandhill Cranes are leaving the northern plains, following their ancient and venerable sky trails to river flats in Nebraska where they will linger as they have for millions of years before continuing south.
sandhill cranes on the move
These are the long truths of the prairie, not the wealth, fuel and roads that let me drive to hilltops and write about it, instead of cleaning out the barn or sorting potatoes the way my grandparents would have in October.

Prairie people once moved in fall too--sometimes by choice, sometimes by force. My mother remembers Metis families travelling down the Qu’Appelle valley at this time of year, stopping to rest at their farm at the mouth of the Kaposvar Creek. Her grandmother called them “gypsies,” after the caravans of Roma people she saw as a child in Scotland. Scottish and English immigrants arriving in the Eastern Qu’Appelle district in the 1880s were welcomed by the resident Metis, who knew well how to winter on the prairie. That first generation of settlers would not have survived without the aid and knowledge of the valley’s Indigenous settlers. What I would give to have been there and heard them talk to one another, across the barriers of language and culture.

Most of the Metis would have spoken Michif, their language blending Cree and French into a unique Indigenous tongue. For the Michif people, and perhaps for the people my mother saw passing by in the late 1930s, the valley was “îwâyatinâk,” the grassland was “paskwâwaskî,” the trail they traveled on by pony and ox-cart was “mîskanâs,” and the stream they rested at was “sîpîsis.”

There is something good about trying to say these words out loud (you can listen to audio samples here of the proper pronunciation), even if we mess up. Why? Because this language is old in the land and has its roots right here where the prairie meets the forests of the northern Plains. 
Norman Fleury teaching in Kamloops

As Michif elder, teacher, and language expert Norman Fleury says, “the Michif were Michif before Canada was Canada.” Norman, who traces his Michif lineage back six generations to this land, is featured in my latest book, Towards a Prairie Atonement (University of Regina Press--Regina launch info here), telling the story of his ancestors who lived, farmed, and hunted in a community of 250 Michif people on the Sand Plains near the confluence of the Qu’Appelle and Assiniboine Rivers, until they were told they had to leave in 1938.

Gypsies? No. People of the prairie, and proud survivors of every attempt to remove them from the land. 

If you are able, please join Norman and me and our host CBC's Stefani Langenegger on the evening of October 27th (Royal Saskatchewan Museum, 7 pm; admission free), when we will talk about the new book and the fierce bonds of the Michif to this part of the prairie.

Thursday, October 6, 2016

Understanding the K+S biodiversity offsets

this image shows the footprint of the K+S project, and the grassland lost to build the new solution mine (that is Buffalo Pound Lake in the distance)

This week the Nature Conservancy of Canada (NCC) announced a deal with K+S Potash Canada and the Saskatchewan Government to conserve 402 ha of "high-value grassland", to offset the 194 ha of grasslands that have been degraded and destroyed by a new solution potash mine the corporation built roughly 50 km west of Regina between the Qu'Appelle Valley and the town of Bethune.

Here is the announcement in Canadian Mining Journal

"In 2010, K+S committed to offset natural grasslands affected by the project. But calculating the appropriate offset is not simple. Governments and stakeholders have struggled to create fair compensation schemes that recognize that some habitats are more valuable than others and like-for-like or area-for-area doesn’t necessarily provide the best environmental outcome or use of resources. The formula-based approach tested at K+S’s Legacy mine site estimates functional loss and required offsets using a system of debits-and-credits. The formula includes, among other things, the effect of development on species of concern and the effect of breaking up connected habitat. In the case of the Legacy mine, this means that the 194 hectares of grasslands that have been impacted will be off-set by conserving an estimated 402 hectares of high value grassland."

Much of that is taken from the NCC news release. So, what do they mean by "conserving an estimated 402 hectares of high value grassland"? I wasn't sure so I contacted Cameron Woods, NCC's Natural Areas Manager in the Saskatchewan region who has worked for years on the project (NOTE: the ever-sharp Jared Clarke will interview Cameron on the offset project on 91.3 FM (CJTR Community Radio), "The Prairie Naturalist", this evening, Oct 6 at 6pm. Go online to listen to the show on CJTR here.)

In my message I referred to a story on biodiversity offsets that the NCC posted online last year. Written by Dan Kraus, NCC's Weston Conservation Scientist and Senior Director of Conservation Program Development, the story said, "Offsets are challenging and the line between effective conservation and green-washing can be easily crossed."

I had heard the same concerns, but Kraus's main point in the post was that NCC follows a "net gain" standard on offsets that would mitigate the usual offset issues and "ensure that nature gains ground, natural capital grows and that the good intentions of biodiversity offsets are met."

I asked Cameron if NCC was aiming for that kind of standard with the K+S project. Here is what he said:

"Any project that we plan to undertake in relation to offsets must undergo a rigorous review process to ensure that the objective of a ‘net gain for nature’ is met. In this case, we plan to achieve this net gain by ensuring the permanent protection of native grasslands where we will employ management practices to benefit biodiversity and preserve the functions of grasslands and associated habitats. We will focus our efforts in areas of high habitat connectivity and biodiversity and to ensure the offset can benefit the same species impacted by the Legacy Project. By focusing on these elements and the principles of the Business and Biodiversity Offsets Programme (international collaboration between companies, financial institutions, government agencies and civil society organizations) our goal is to achieve a net gain for nature."

With that in mind NCC will be using the funds from this offset to find 400 ha of private land at risk and with high conservation value.

Now, would it be better if no mine had been built on the 194 hectare patch of grassland displaced by K+S Legacy? Yes, but that was not one of the options open. Meanwhile, the prospect of NCC conserving more than double the hectares of land that is of higher conservation value and then managing it to improve conservation outcomes does help make up for the loss. Will it be no net loss? Even a net gain? Only time will tell but I am sure NCC will work hard to get there.
Mountain bluebirds and many other species of concern could potentially benefit from the lands NCC ultimately uses to offset the grasslands damaged by the K+S Legacy project

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