Smells Like Success: Coastal First Nations’ Great Bear Rainforest Essential Oils
Through a social enterprise formed by Coastal First Nations and the Nuxalk and Metlakatla Nations, Indigenous workers harvest needles from five species of tree and use steam to capture the smell of the rainforest in a line of essential oils.
On the central coast of modern-day British Columbia, rainforest ecosystems have always been a source of wealth. That legacy continues today in Great Bear Rainforest Essential Oils, an Indigenous-owned business that draws on traditional stewardship knowledge and demonstrates how non-timber forest products – that are regenerative, not extractive – can create wealth and support families on the coast.
The Nuxalk and Metlakatla First Nations, with support from Coastal First Nations – Great Bear Initiative, launched Great Bear Rainforest Essential Oils as a social enterprise venture in 2009. Today, the company’s oils are sustainably harvested and distilled within Nuxalk territory, creating family-supporting jobs and minimizing impacts to the environment. The company produces a range of products from five species of trees, including high-grade, 100 per cent undiluted oils as well as other aromatic applications like roll-on scents and aerosol sprays.
Sustainability informs every aspect of the business, from hiring to harvesting to production. Great Bear Rainforest Essential Oils hires Nuxalk members and, by creating long-term employment for residents, the company is able to generate wealth in a way that aligns with Nuxalk values.
“I’m proud of the fact that they’re inclusive enough that there is no barrier for local members,” says Keith Hamilton, CEO of Nunumus Management, the company behind Great Bear Rainforest Essential Oils.
Great Bear Rainforest Essential Oils draws upon traditional Nuxalk knowledge and practices: workers harvest needles from boughs in a way that doesn’t harm the tree and, when power tools are needed, harvesters use non-petroleum-based lubricants like canola oil to avoid contaminating the canopy. While boughs don’t regrow, they do regenerate. To avoid over-harvesting, the company times production with the trees’ regeneration cycle.
“It’s a truly renewable practice,” says Hamilton. While harvesting needles is not without a footprint, the production process has been designed in a way that’s sustainable for the Bella Coola valley. “We’re not taking carbon out of the woods at any appreciable level. It happens to fit in very comfortably [with] Nuxalk cultural and historical values — and the millennia-long practice of Nuxalk forest husbandry.”
We always want to keep sustainability at the core: to be non-invasive and operate within each community at a level that is stable for both our production and the biomass, and ensure it’s a profitable operation, employing local members over the long-term.
At their production facility in Bella Coola, Great Bear Rainforest Essential Oils uses a closed-loop system and chemical-free processing to minimize waste. By keeping production local, the company reduces transportation emissions. These practices prioritize the health of the forest and the well-being of the community over the long-term.
By structuring Great Bear Rainforest Essential Oils as a limited partnership, the founders have kept the door open for other coastal First Nations to participate in the business.
“The intention is that, if demand outgrows what we’re able to comfortably and sustainably harvest here in the Bella Coola valley, another Nation could start harvesting in their territory,” remarks Hamilton. “It’s inclusive of every Nation that wishes to participate.”
Hamilton sees a future for Great Bear Rainforest Essential Oils that includes all coastal First Nations, all while continuing to balance economic prosperity with environmental protection.
“We could be employing dozens of people,” says Hamilton. “And we always want to keep sustainability at the core: to be non-invasive and operate within each community at a level that is stable for both our production and the biomass, and ensure it’s a profitable operation, employing local members over the long-term.”
To get there, the company is focused on gradual, consistent growth. They’re expanding their retail line, purchasing and upgrading capital equipment, bringing their oils to market through e-commerce platforms, and establishing bulk buyers to ensure production quantity is being met. It’s a slow, but thoughtful strategy.
The team behind Great Bear Rainforest Essentials Oils takes pride in the success of the business so far. “We’re committed, because we see the enormous value it brings to our employees and the community,” says Hamilton.
Between 2009 and 2013, Coastal First Nations accessed $280,996 in start-up capital from the Coast Economic Development Society to help establish Great Bear Rainforest Essential Oils.
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