The perils of planting

Tree-planting can be a confounding occupation. At times tedious, filthy, and physically debilitating, it can also be lucrative, character-building, and the foundation of a carefree lifestyle that is downright addicting. That morning in May 2003 started much like any other for planters staying at the Woods Lagoon logging camp on British Columbia's West Coast. Workers faced another day with a mixture of dread and resignation as they piled into a crew cab for the bumpy ride out to the woods, nursing mugs of coffee and staring out the window at a scene that flashed past like an apocalyptic newsreel: clearcuts, logging debris, and gravel roads scarring the mountainsides. After stepping out of the truck, reluctantly, they each stuffed a few hundred conifer seedlings into canvas bags, fastened the bags around their waists, and stuck a shovel into the ground for the day's first tree. It was the beginning of season number 14 for Ba Cisse, a job that had taken the strapping, soft-spoken 41-year-old Senegalese immigrant across the British Columbia landscape from Prince George to Port Hardy.

When he started planting in late April, Cisse experienced headaches and a rash on his left hand, but he didn't pay much attention to it. After all, routine discomfort comes with the job. However, as the week progressed, his condition deteriorated. Intensifying headaches were soon followed by a bleeding nose and dizziness. When the left side of his face started to balloon into a softball-sized contusion, worry turned to alarm. A week later, Cisse quit the contract, took a floatplane out of camp, and headed back to his home in Vancouver, suspecting that the cause of his problems was the government-approved fertilizer (a brew of industrial chemicals like phosphorous and nitrogen, and occasionally some nasties like cadmium and nickel that sneak into the mix) that he and his fellow planters had been handling. Fertilizer has been used commonly on West Coast planting operations for years, one of the ways logging companies speed the growth of young trees. And as long as fertilizer has been around in forestry, planters have been expected to accept mild skin and eye irritation as a side effect. But this time Cisse remembered inhaling acrid clouds of chemical dust each time he opened another box of fertilizer packets called "tea bags".

A year later, on a warm June afternoon, Cisse sat at the dining-room table in the small, cluttered apartment he shares with his wife and three preteen children, sifting through a sheath of papers and files while the sound of traffic on East Hastings Street floated in through an open window. The apartment had a cluttered, half-moved-into feel, with cardboard boxes stacked in the corner full of samples of massage butter and oils and other products from Senegal for his fledgling import business, giving a sense that Cisse and his family could take flight at a moment's notice.

"He [the doctor] told me, 'If you stay there even two days longer you're going to have this swelling going into your brain,'?" Cisse said in heavily accented English, recalling his trip to the physician after bailing out of Woods Lagoon. "He tells me that he's never seen a chemical reaction like this."

On May 29, 2003, Cisse filed a claim with the Workers' Compensation Board of BC. With a family to feed but unable to bring home the bread and butter, he had hoped that a claim for lost wages due to his reaction to the fertilizer would have been a no-brainer.

He was more than a little dismayed when a reply came back from the WCB on September 8, 2003, denying his claim. Armed with a compelling report from his physician, Atilla Kitane, dated December 18, 2003, he appealed the decision. It was "the most severe reaction I have seen to a chemical dust in my 22 years of practice", Kitane wrote, further describing the entire right side of Cisse's face as being "deformed from marked swelling".

The following year, on May 3, 2004, the WCB rejected his appeal, reiterating its original decision that basically said there was no direct link between Cisse's severe allergic reaction and exposure to chemical fertilizer.

"There are all kinds of workplace chemicals, and they all come with certain procedures for handling them, whether it's wearing gloves or a face mask," said Donna Freeman, WCB public-affairs manager, about Cisse's claim.

Cisse's tale might seem like a run-of-the-mill worker-versus-WCB conflict, but the world of tree-planting is full of similar stories, and many planters have argued that when it comes to workers' rights, the tree planter is second-class. Oddly, attempts over the years by planters to organize themselves into a potent, unified voice to address workplace issues have fallen flat.

Every spring, some 15,000 people come to the backwoods of British Columbia in pursuit of a paycheque. The camaraderie built upon hard work and mutual suffering can take on an almost heroic quality. For the idealist, planting is an attempt to repair the damage wrought upon the land by logging companies. For most people, though, it's simply a job, a means to an end, which the Web site compares prosaically to "playing in the mud all day". A description on another Web site warns that planting is like a "lover: if you aren't fundamentally happy and focussed before you get involved, you're going to be miserable once you get started."

The seasonal, contract nature of the job attracts an itinerant worker with an independent streak, often college-educated and not averse to the physical demands of the work that can net anywhere between $150 per day for the average planter to as much $500 for the "high-ballers". It appeals especially to people who like to live on the margins of society, people like 44-year-old Ingmar Lee.

Lee has been replanting B.C. clearcuts for 21 years, between stints of university study, driving taxi in Victoria, and stirring the pot of environmental activism. He estimates that he's personally planted more than one million seedlings and supervised the planting of another 10 million. Last fall, the Georgia Straight caught up with Lee in that postage stamp of old-growth forest near Port Alberni on Vancouver Island known as Cathedral Grove. He was there trying to prevent the government from removing some of this rare old-growth to make way for an expanded visitor parking lot. While he greeted a trio of visitors at the base of a soaring Douglas fir that housed a tree-sitting platform, a shiny pickup truck roared past on Highway 4, the driver honking the horn before offering a one-finger salute to the protesters. Lee shrugged.

"Welcome to the world of activism," he said, chuckling, before entering a large canvas tent and pulling a battered lawn chair up to the wood stove. A motley assortment of dreadlocked environmental acolytes sat around the stove, listening to the veteran hold forth on two of his favourite topics: logging and tree-planting. Lee had close-cropped salt-and-pepper hair and wore a sleeveless, faded black shirt that said "To Hell and Back". Strident and outspoken, he exhibits a leftist zeal to fight for the underdog and is a perpetual thorn in the side of forest companies and government. He makes it his business to champion the cause of people like Ba Cisse. During his two decades of bush work, he said, stories like Cisse's have become, sadly, familiar. In fact, the idea of exposure to toxins, be they fertilizers or pesticides applied to seedlings, has been somewhat of a preoccupation for the activist for some time.

The first time Lee came across fertilizer was about 12 years ago. He showed up to work one day and was asked to stick a "tea bag" of fertilizer into a hole next to the tree-for no extra pay, he notes, even though it increased the amount of time to plant a tree by about a third.

"We were being asked to take on this extra duty that actually decreased our productivity and pay," he said, shaking his head.

That was nothing new to Lee. He said that since he got into the industry in the early '80s, the planter's real wage has been on a steady downward spiral. However, from the outset the fertilizer issue was less a financial than a health concern.

Like Cisse, after handling the fertilizer, he experienced throbbing headaches, an acrid "baby aspirin" taste in his mouth, nosebleeds, and skin irritation. Though he didn't vomit, some of his fellow planters did.

Lee spoke about the attitude that seems to prevail among many contractors and foresters: "This is your job; you can take it or leave it."

In 1998, Lee didn't want to take it anymore. He was working near Qualicum Beach on Vancouver Island for Saltspring Planters, which was under contract to Weyerhaeuser. He and his workmates were required to sprinkle a loose, granular fertilizer in a hole next to each seedling, using film canisters taped to their thumbs as a makeshift scoop. Under Lee's leadership, the crew kicked up a fuss, and the lumber company suddenly pulled the product, to the crew's relief. The following January, thinking that the fertilizer issue was behind him, Lee showed up for the season's first contract on Valdes Island, again with Saltspring.

"All of a sudden there were stacks and stacks of granular fertilizer. I just said 'No way.' I took a stand and said, 'I'm not handling this stuff,'?" Lee recalled.

Lee was given two options by his employer: plant the stuff or take a hike. He chose the latter but didn't go quietly. When he returned to Vancouver Island, he went directly to the Weyerhaeuser office in Ladysmith, then to the media, then to the Worker's Compensation Board.

In 21 years of planting, Lee had never seen a WCB official on the planting block, but this time he attracted some interest at WCB. The government agency sent a staff person out to Valdes to interview Lee's fellow planters. Then a meeting was held between WCB and Weyerhaeuser at which Lee was present. He claimed that the gist of the meeting was that planters get sick because they "are inherently dirty people, and they don't wash". When Lee and some other activist tree planters took a sample of the fertilizer to a Vancouver lab for testing, the results were alarming: measurable levels of known carcinogens like cadmium, chromium, strontium, nickel, and zinc turned up.

According to Lee, nothing much came from the WCB inquiry other than a vague promise ensuring that forest company CEOs would sign off on fertilizer orders guaranteeing that the product had been tested and didn't contain heavy metals.

To say that Lee despises Weyerhaeuser is an understatement; to him, the company embodies all that's wrong with industrial forestry: greed and insensitivity. "The industry just does not give a shit about tree planters. For the logging company, we're just a nuisance and we cost money and we don't produce any financial results for decades," Lee said.

If anybody knows about financial results in the woods of Vancouver Island, it's Weyerhaeuser forester Jim Loftus. His job is to make trees grow fast. On one hand, among forestry professionals he's seen as a leader in silviculture practices. On the other, among planters, at least, he's known as an uncompromising taskmaster, tree planters' number-one enemy on the Island. Clearly, there's no love lost between Lee and Loftus.

Since the mid-1990s, Loftus has been prescribing fertilizer on planting blocks, and he said the results are staggering, with the added nutrients giving young trees a huge jump-start. "We take very seriously any complaints made by planters," Loftus said, adding that claims about the deleterious health effects of fertilizer made in the past by the likes of Lee are "outrageous".

He said he considers the fertilizer issue to be "old news". Tell that to Lee, Cisse, and other planters who still complain about serious reactions to the stuff.

You can add fertilizer to a bothersome list that includes the sometimes intolerable winged assaults of black flies and mosquitoes and the threat of bear attacks, as a young woman doing silviculture surveys found out last month after a mauling near Fort Nelson. But the indignities planters are expected to endure don't stop there, Lee said. A few years ago, foresters introduced a product called Plantskydd, designed to deter deer, elk, moose, and rabbits from browsing seedlings. Planters call it "pig's blood". Originally developed in Sweden, the compound is derived from cow and pig's blood and doused on seedlings before they leave the nursery.

"It's the most repulsive, disgusting product ever devised by the diabolical mind of humans. It's sickening," Lee said, remembering the first time he dipped his hand into a cardboard box of trees dripping with a gooey black substance. "Everybody's just disgusted with it."

He believes it's unconscionable to ask vegan and vegetarian planters to use Plantskydd, not to mention a person whose faith might prohibit them from handling pork products.

Kim Lewis, another Vancouver Island tree planter, encountered Plantskydd on a contract two years ago and echoes Lee's assessment. "I told my foreman and they just kind of shrugged. It never really got dealt with. People just continued to do it and I found it really gross," Lewis said.

But, whether planters like it or not, Plantskydd is effective and is likely going to stay around. Claude Boisvert, a former tree planter and now a representative of the company that imports the product, defended Plantskydd and pointed out that it's been tested and approved by Health Canada. However, he admitted that in the early days, companies were not using Plantskydd properly, making workers plant seedlings before the gravylike goo had been allowed to dry.

As for planters having an ethical or moral objection to its use, Boisvert was dismissive. "It wouldn't be for sale if it wasn't safe. We've waited a long time to get this thing; it's good for the planet. If there's a Muslim who doesn't want to touch the product then go thin trees. Nobody's forcing anybody to do anything, and if you're a vegetarian don't eat it. We recommend that you don't eat Plantskydd," Boisvert said facetiously.

Whether it's Plantskydd or fertilizers or shoddy forest practices in general, Lee has no shortage of invective to aim at the forest industry. However, what about the issue of toxic exposure: are tree planters just chronic whiners? It turns out that it was a concern before fertilizer showed up on the clearcut.

Thirteen years ago, Daniel Robinson, then a PhD candidate at Simon Fraser University's kinesiology department, published the results of a study in which he looked into the question of exposure to pesticides commonly sprayed on seedlings in the nursery. He uncovered a "measurable, albeit small, toxicological hazard to tree planters from exposure either to pesticide residue in the field or on the seedlings planted", and that exposure could be minimized through relatively simple measures, like regularly washing hands and work clothes. Basic hygiene, in other words.

However, it's the information that he uncovered during informal interviews that piqued his interest, though it evaded rigorous scientific study.

"A lot of the women and men we worked with talked about infertility problems and cancers that had shown up in friends. It didn't just come up once; it was in a multitude of [tree-planting] camps," Robinson said.

In the years since Robinson's study, the planting industry has evolved. Hygienic conditions and procedures in camps have greatly improved, but pesticides and fertilizers are still around. And one doesn't have to search far to find people who agree with Cisse. Ever since planters have been using fertilizers, anecdotal reports have them complaining about headaches, bleeding noses, nausea, and skin irritation.

Even so, an attitude of ambivalence greets most complaints, the kind of "take it or leave it" attitude that Lee alluded to.

Delia Roberts, a biologist at Selkirk College in Castlegar, recently conducted an in-depth study of the physiological effects of tree-planting. She visited a number of camps where she monitored biochemical changes in planters' bodies, looking for indicators like cumulative fatigue, tissue breakdown, and how well the body responds to the stress.

The results were intriguing. Blood-sugar levels in planters were often well below fasting levels all day long, leading to a host of problems, such as a depressed immune system, slower reflexes, chronic fatigue, and injuries, putting it on a par with the most physically demanding jobs that Canadians do.

"When I compared them [glucose levels] to the levels I'd see in Olympic athletes that were training, they were very, very high," Roberts said. "The magnitude of the work is huge."

According to Roberts, the high rate of injuries (seven out of nine planters by some estimates) like tendonitis and muscle strains could be attributed to the double whammy of intense work and a piecework payment method that rewards high production at the expense of regular breaks.

Conspicuously absent in her study was any mention of exposure to toxins. Roberts said she included it as one of her original research goals but it didn't seem to be a priority concern with the folks who funded her research: Weyerhaeuser.

Perhaps the problems of advocating for the rights of tree planters lies partly within the work force itself and its inability to speak with one voice. Planters can be a quarrelsome, selfishly independent-minded bunch, highly suspicious of any form of organization or bureaucracy, let alone a union.

In 1979, the Pacific Reforestation Workers' Association was formed to badger government and contractors to improve camp conditions and inform planters about the presence of pesticides. In 1990, the PRWA folded and from its ashes grew CREWS: the Canadian Reforestation and Environmental Workers Society.

Long-time planter Ananda Tan was one of the idealists in early with CREWS and its predecessor, the PRWA. During a 1999 tour of more than 70 planting camps, Tan and his CREWS colleagues were quick to discover labour organization is a tough sell among this crowd. He blamed tacit fear of losing their jobs rather than apathy for their lack of success with the informal union drive.

"As migrant and itinerant workers, they're in a more disempowered position with their employer. Workers felt unable to speak out and take a firm stand on many issues because of the nature of their employment, fear of reprisal. Right away, that excludes a huge percentage of the work force from willing to speak out about organizing or about association," Tan said in a phone interview.

In the mid 1980s, planting contractors realized they, too, needed a unified voice. John Betts lives in Nelson among a strong community of "professional" tree planters and is the current executive director of the Western Canada Silviculture Contractors Association.

The WCSCA is trying to raise the bar among contractors in a way that weeds out the low-ball, undercutting operations that don't pay well, often ignore safety standards, and generally give the industry a bad name. Contrary to the grim picture painted by Lee, there are contractors who care about working conditions.

Betts applauded the efforts of Tan and other activists but was also careful to distance himself from the incendiary rhetoric that sometimes tumbles forth from the likes of Lee. Still, he said planters are sometimes surprisingly compliant in the face of shady contractors that take months to pay their workers and put a low premium on planter safety.

"I'm often surprised at how few tree planters complain, given that I know in many cases they're not being paid regularly, and there can be lots of other issues around safety," Betts said.

He pointed to the tragic story of Julia James, a 20-year-old rookie planter who died in a late-night accident near Quesnel in the spring of 2003. The driver, an impaired coworker, was at the helm of a company truck that went into a freezing lake.

As for the notion of the planter as a green emissary out to reforest a wounded planet, Betts concluded with a sobering thought.

"The backlit, romantic notion of the job disappears when you realize that actually it's fucking hard work; sometimes you don't get paid that much and sometimes you don't get paid at all," Betts said.

Back in Vancouver, rush-hour traffic heated up on East Hastings while Cisse plugged away at his small company, building up clients, peddling his imported wares. It was clear that Cisse had had enough of tree-planting. He was burned out. The din of urban Vancouver seemed like a world away from the clearcuts of B.C., where Cisse spent the better part of the past 15 years. In February 2005, after taking his claim all the way to the independent Workers' Compensation appeal tribunal, Cisse finally won his case. It was a bittersweet victory. Money was never the prime motivation for the young father, just recognition that there are some things planters shouldn't have to put up with.

"The reason I want to fight for this, firstly, is I have three kids," Cisse said. "They're going to grow up and maybe one day they're going to say, 'My dad was planting so maybe I'm going to try planting.'"

Eventually, most everyone moves on from this job that's hard on the body and hard on a stable family life but at the same time oddly invigorating and often well-paying. Cisse is working on his exit strategy, Ingmar Lee, who said he's been blacklisted in the industry, is still a perpetual thorn in the side of government, and Ananda Tan has given up on the concept of an organized tree-planting workforce and now works with Greenpeace International in Amsterdam. And sure as the snow melts, every spring there's a whole new crop of young rookies finishing college exams and preparing for that pilgrimage out to the tree-planting camp.

And if you ask any one of them, there's a lot they'd put up with to potentially bag 300-plus bills a day, even if it means dealing with a little pig's blood or unintentionally inhaling chemical fertilizer.