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Protest Prompts Abitibi Pullout

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One of the world's biggest logging companies has pulled out of a Northern Ontario forest because of opposition from a small local Indian community.

AbitibiBowater Inc. said it will surrender its licence to cut trees in the Whiskey Jack forest, about an hour's drive north of Kenora, because it can't wait for negotiations, recently announced by the province, that the company says will take at least four years.

The million-hectare forest is on land claimed by Grassy Narrows First Nation, which has been backed in a five-year blockade and publicity campaign by environment and human rights groups.

"We were thinking we'd have a quicker resolution," spokesperson Jean-Philippe Côté said in an interview. "We respect the decision, but it doesn't fit with our business interest. We don't want to wait four more years without knowing what's going to happen."

The giant company, formed last fall by the amalgamation of Abitibi Consolidated Inc. and Bowater Inc., is licensed to cut 700,000 cubic metres of wood a year from the forest until 2023.

It will, for now, get replacement wood from other forests. That's possible because the combined company is licensed to cut in other forests and the downturn in the forest industry has made wood supplies available elsewhere, Côté said. "This doesn't affect our operation."

Last month, the company reported a net loss of $248 million, or $4.32 per diluted share, on sales of $1.7 billion for the first quarter of 2008. For the same period last year, Bowater alone reported a net loss of $35 million, or $1.19 per diluted share, on sales of $772 million.

Supporters of Grassy Narrows called the withdrawal a clear message that businesses can't work in the North without local consent.

"All companies operating in the boreal forest should take this as a wake-up call," said David Sone of San Francisco-based Rainforest Action Network. "This is proof that communities can say `no' and enforce their right to control development in their territory."

The province has negotiated several forest agreements backed by industry, First Nations and other communities and will work toward one for Whiskey Jack, Natural Resources Minister Donna Cansfield said in an interview. "It shouldn't take four years." As for AbitibiBowater's time estimate: "It's their decision, not mine."

The issue of consultation is heating up across Northern Ontario, especially with a mine claim-staking rush underway. The highest-profile fight pitsKitchenuhmaykoosib Inninuwug First Nation against Platinex Inc., which wants to mine platinum on land KI claims.

Most of the Whiskey Jack logs go to a pulp mill in Fort Frances. Pulp produced there is piped to a paper mill across the Rainy River in International Falls, Minn.

That mill is owned by Boise Inc. Last February - soon after Grassy Narrows declared a moratorium on development without its consent - Boise said it would accept pulp only from operations approved by the community or from other sources.

The Toronto Star
Peter Gorrie
Thursday, June 5, 2008

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