The Australian Conservation Foundation’s Northern Australia Program had the pleasure of hosting Mr Ian Gill and Ms Leah George-Wilson of Ecotrust Canada in Australia for a series of meetings the purpose of which was to discuss Ecotrust’ Canada’s work on the ‘conservation economy’ in remote areas of British Columbia.

In the Cairns meeting Mr Gill, founder and President of Ecotrust Canada, and Ms Leah George-Wilson, board member of Ecotrust Canada and member of the Tsleil-Waututh Nation met with ACF’s Northern Australia Program staff in addition to ACF’s Sustainable Finance Manager David Edwards. Other participants included staff from the Wilderness Society, James Cook University, CSIRO Sustainable Economies Unit, Balkanu Cape York Development Corporation, and Injinoo Land Trust. Staff of the Kimberley Land Council and Environs Kimberley attended the meeting in Broome.

Invited to Australia by ACF to participate in the Roundtable, Ian and Leah gave valuable insights into the work Ecotrust Canada with First Nations communities in northwest Canada.

Mr Gill explained that what Ecotrust Canada is trying to do is create a paradigm shift within current economic thought. "Our current economy is built around volume. That is, using more resources, land, water etc or selling more of a product to maintain a livelihood or to generate a profit. The conservation economy is an economic model that is about value adding to products and manufacturing processes. The emphasis is not on volume, but on creating local, domestic, or international niche markets for products. So instead of value created from using more or consuming more, what we get is value from products produced in particular geographic areas or produced in a highly efficient and sustainable manner" said Mr Gill.

Mr Gill also told of how he established Ecotrust Canada after many years as a journalist covering environmental issues in Canada, including the nation’s largest ever environmental protest in 1993 in Clayoquot Sound to protest old-growth logging in the area. It was the largest episode of civil disobedience in Canadian history. He set up Ecotrust Canada the following year. While modelled on Ecotrust in the US state of Oregon, Ecotrust Canada is an independent entity although it has many similarities with its sister organisation including support from US based ShoreBank, a community development and environmental bank.

Ecotrust Canada’s original focus was in Geographical Information System (GIS) consulting and training. But as Mr Gill explained the organisation has now moved into business lending, equity investment and fundraising and has evolved from a first year annual budget of $200 000, to an operational budget close to $4 million per annum today.

Mr Gill said Ecotrust Canada’s loans are assessed and approved only to businesses that meet the organisation’s vision – the conservation economy. They must meet environmental, social, and cultural criteria and contribute towards Ecotrust Canada’s goals: provide meaningful work and good livelihoods; support vibrant communities and recognise Aboriginal rights and title; and conserve and restore the environment. To date about 50% of Ecotrust Canada’s loans have been to Aboriginal entrepreneurs and communities in their six key focus areas: aquaculture; forestry; fisheries; real estate; energy; and tourism.

Ms George-Wilson told of her peoples challenge to overcome poverty and high levels of unemployment – despite living only one hour’s drive from Vancouver – one of Canada’s wealthiest cities. Since connecting with Ecotrust Canada, her community has established a sustainable forestry initiative. In addition, the community uses the GIS capacity of Ecotrust Canada to regain management over their traditional lands and natural resources.

ACF’s Northern Australia Program Coordinator Dr Rosemary Hill said the visit of Ian and Leah has created a real buzz amongst everyone who listened to their presentations. "There has been overwhelmingly positive reaction by people – including myself – about the Ecotrust concept. Ecotrust Canada is delivering concrete examples of sustainable development and ecological and social equity through its work with Indigenous communities. Their work has many parallels with our Northern Australia Program and represents the future of conservation" said Rosemary.

However, she also believes that to establish an Ecotrust style organisation in Australia is some way off. "The first step I think is an in depth feasibility study of this concept, including a thorough analysis of the finance and banking industry and the legislative framework in Australia. Likewise conservation and Indigenous organisations may need to reassess the way they presently operate. It may also be something that ACF is not able to implement ourselves, but we would certainly be able to offer substantial support to the idea".

Mr Gill finished the Broome meeting by saying that beneath all the business planning, investments, and market research, what Ecotrust Canada is really about is instilling courage in people. "I think what we are doing is about giving people the courage to organise society differently, to offer an alternative to the dominant economic model favoured by governments. It’s also about giving Aboriginal communities the courage to build better futures for their families and communities around land, culture, and sustainable and smarter use of their resources" said Mr Gill.

Click here to view the original posting from Australian Conservation Foundation

Download the Australian Conservation Foundation’s report A Cultural and Conservation Economy for  Northern Australia: A Proof-of-concept study (January 2008) which explores the creation of an Ecotrust Canada model for Norhern Australia (PDF 3.5 MB).