Are the tar sands ecocide?

For six decades Canadians regarded the tar sands as a natural resource to be developed.  The site of the tar sands, located in Canada’s Northern boreal forest, was very sparsely populated, mainly by aboriginal peoples. Apart from sporadic mine sites, there was no other large economic activity carried on until tar sands development arrived in the early 60’s.

Initially no one recognized the risks that could result from the development of the tar sands.  Certainly the extraction of the bitumen from the tar sands would destroy trees and the landscape, but this destruction could later be remedied over time by restoration of the forest.  It was assumed that the toxic substances released by extraction and processing would be in minimal quantities, and so absorbed in the vast space until nature had rendered them harmless. If by chance health consequences did arise, the long-suffering aboriginal peoples would be unlikely to complain until the tar sands reached the status of national resource. The generation of CO2 emissions was not foreseen as a risk until the development was well underway.

It is interesting to speculate how this development would have been different if from the beginning destruction of the natural environment was criminal – that it was ecocide.  Polly Higgins, a UK barrister, a champion for recognition of the crime of ecocide, defines it as:

“The extensive damage to, destruction of or loss of ecosystem(s) of a given territory, whether by human agency or by other causes, to such an extent that peaceful enjoyment by the inhabitants of that territory has been or will be severely diminished. “

All countries have adopted many laws that make pollution a crime, but no country and no international authority has made destruction of nature a crime in these general terms.

An international organization proposes that by 2020 ecocide be a crime under international law.  A recent advocate for that organization commented on our blog Democracy Slipping Away?:

“Recognizing extensive damage to our environment as criminal . . . is essential if we intend to live sustainably.”

A conclusion that becomes more and more inescapable with each passing year!

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