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Tar Nation: Haunting Photos Reveal Rape of Canada’s Boreal Forest


Garth Lenz has spent the last 20 years photographing wilderness and indigenous peoples, focusing particularly on environmental issues, throughout Canada, the U.S., Chile, Ecuador, Borneo, and China. His photos have been published in numerous books, newspapers, and magazines including Time Magazine, B.B.C. Wildlife Magazine, The Guardian, The New York Times Sunday Edition, The Globe And Mail, and Sierra Magazine. Mr. Lenz’s boreal images from the Alberta Tar Sands received recognition at the Prix de la Photographie Paris and the 2008 International Photography Awards, and the Fine Print award in the Center for Fine Art Photography’s “Our Environment” exhibition.

The haunting pictures in Mr. Lenz’s current traveling exhibit, Tar Nation, reveal the rape of Canada’s boreal forest that is happening daily, year in and year out, in Northern Alberta in the guise of economic development. It’s one thing to hear in the abstract tar sands statistics such as everyday enough toxic sludge is produced to fill 720 Olympic-sized swimming pools, or that they are Canada’s largest source of carbon and produce as much carbon pollution annually as the entire nation of Denmark. It’s quite another thing to hear these truths when you are looking at the vast Mordor-like expanse of toxic ponds and muddy sludge on a screen in front of you, spoken by someone who has seen the devastation for himself. It moves from the abstract to the very real, and packs a punch in one’s gut.

One of the most moving stories that Mr. Lenz shared during his presentation at TEDx Victoria was about the day he borrowed a boat while visiting Fort Chipewyan, a First Nations community downstream from the tar sands. Along with the loan of a boat came a warning from his indigenous acquaintance not to eat any fish he caught, because it was carcinogenic. Yet on this man’s own porch, behind him, was the fish he was cleaning to feed his own family, as they don’t have the option not to depend on the land for their survival.

Having moved the audience to tears, Mr. Lenz finished his talk with the reminder that “there is nothing ethical about this oil” and a call to action for every one of us seated in that auditorium.

We are, it seems, closer than ever to fulfilling the Cree prophesy that:

“Only after the last tree has been cut down, Only after the last river has been poisoned, Only after the last fish has been caught, Only then will you find that money cannot be eaten.”

Alberta Tar Sands. May.2011 Photo: NASA’s Earth Observatory

Are you willing to take action, as Mr. Lenz urges? Call or write your Member of Parliament, talk about the devastation of the tar sands with your friends and family, check out Tar Sands and/or join Citizens Climate Lobby and work with to create the political will for a sustainable climate.

More links: TarNation

NASA Earth Observatory: World Of Change

Oil Sands

2 Comments leave one →
  1. Beth permalink
    2011/12/02 3:18 pm

    Wow, thanks Christine for the link to those amazing (and disturbing) pictures. I always thought the “Mordor” references were more figurative – these photos show how it physically looks like Mordor too. It’s incredible that people are willing to do this to the landscape for the sake of jobs, or money, or what have you. No doubt future generations will look at these photos with sheer horror.

    • Christine permalink*
      2011/12/02 5:19 pm

      You’re welcome Beth – and you’re absolutely right that future generations will look at these pictures, and a whole lot more of what we are doing, in total horror and disbelief. Truly, “The Age of Stupid”.

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