Biodiversity, Climate Change, Environment, Headlines, Human Rights, Indigenous Rights, North America

Historic Conservation Pact a Decade in the Making

Christopher Pala* - IPS/IFEJ

YELLOWKNIFE, Canada , May 25 2010 (IPS) - It was here in Yellowknife, on an inlet of the Great Slave Lake, that Stephen Kakfwi, then a minister of wildlife and economic development who would go on to become premier of the Northwest Territories, brought together in 1996 a group that would decide which areas of the forest needed to be protected and which areas could be developed.

Bison numbers along the Mackenzie River have shot up to over 2,000 from less than 200 a few decades ago. Credit: Christopher Pala/IPS

Bison numbers along the Mackenzie River have shot up to over 2,000 from less than 200 a few decades ago. Credit: Christopher Pala/IPS

The trigger was the opening of diamond mines in the area, some occupying prime hunting grounds for the local tribe, the Dene.

The process turned into something called the Protected Area Strategy (PAS). Local tribes designated areas like calving or hunting grounds or places of spiritual significance, with input from scientists. After negotiations with miners, the provincial and then federal governments officially set aside these areas as parks.

“The PAS was the first tool to get everyone to work together,” Kakfwi, now retired from politics, said during a drive through the Mackenzie Bison Sanctuary, another success story where the wood bison, the largest land mammal in North America, has gone from under 200 to over 2,000 – many of them grazing by the side of the road.

Today, under the PAS system, the Northwest Territories is in the process of more than doubling its parks area from 10 percent to 23 percent.

“The PAS opened the way,” said David De Launay, an assistant deputy minister of the environment in Ontario, in an interview in Toronto.

Last week’s agreement between tree huggers and tree cutters is the latest chapter in a process, initiated by Kakfwi 16 years ago, in which environmentalists, native governments, political leaders and Canadian logging companies work together to set aside lands for conservation on a scale never seen in human history, with existing commitments totaling 1.6 million square kilometres, an area nearly the size of Iran (or five times the size of France).

“These commitments are five times the U.S. national parks system,” says Steve Kallick, the director of the Pew Environment Group’s International Boreal Conservation Campaign, which has played a leading role in facilitating these processes. “Canada has gone from leading the pack to lapping the field.”

Much of this land is in the lightly populated northern boreal forest zone, which lies between the treeless tundra and the southern fifth of the country where most of its population lives.

“The threats to the far northern boreal forests don’t seem significant right now,” says Nigel Roulet of McGill University. “After all, we’re only developing a tiny fraction of the resources that are there.”

“But I’m convinced pressure is going to increase as northern Canada gets warmer and it gets easier to operate there. Also, I expect our resources will become more valuable as other sources get exhausted,” he added. “That’s why it’s important to lock in this legislation now.”

When the process of creating the world’s protected areas network began a decade ago, saving the woodland caribou and other wildlife was the prime goal. It received fresh vigour and legitimacy over the past few years as new studies of the remote region showed the forest will play a key role in future climate change scenarios.

In July 2008, Ontario’s premier Dalton McGuinty announced the province would turn half of its northern boreal region into nature reserves, setting aside 225,000 sq km “for ourselves, future Ontarians and for the sake of the planet”. Here again, scientists and native Canadians – known locally as First Nations – would play a central role in determine which parts would be protected from mining, logging and dam- building.

In the other half of Ontario’s boreal region, development would be encouraged in some areas and restricted in others, taking into account the carbon implications, among others, of any project, says Roulet, who is advising the Ontario government.

In 2009, Quebec’s Premier Jean Charest made a similar commitment for an area nearly three times larger, promising like Ontario to protect at least half as new parks, refuges and nature reserves and ensure that new development in the other half can only start if it fits into an approved land- use plan.

Another province, Manitoba passed a law providing for consultations with First Nations over protecting another 85,000 sq km.

Meanwhile, on the federal level, when the Conservatives took over four years ago, they pledged to double the area of national parks to 183,000 sq km by 2012.

“It’s our gift to future generations,” said Alan Latourelle, CEO of Parks Canada. “We’re the last generation that can do that.”

Even Avrim Lazar, head of the Forest Products Association of Canada, which groups loggers, paper mills and other wood- product companies, was enthusiastic.

“The boreal forest is a huge wilderness treasure and Ontario’s plan is a huge step in the right direction,” he said at the time. “We strongly believe that every improvement in environmental quality can translate into market value for our products.”

The latest step in that process came last week, when after two years of negotiations with nine environmental groups, the 21 members of the association he leads signed an agreement with nine environmental groups.

The members agreed to set aside some 300,000 sq km of the public lands for which they have leases and to harvest the rest under the eco-friendly standards of the Forest Stewardship Council. In exchange, the green groups agreed top suspend their campaigns with buyers of wood products, enabling the companies to gain market share.

In just five years, the proportion of logging done under the Council’s rules, which reduce environmental damage and ensure that the rights of natives and employees are respected, has risen eightfold to 350,000 sq km, 20 percent of the area logged.

“I expect 80 percent of the logging will be done this way within 10 years,” says Antony Marcil, the council’s CEO, noting that not all logging companies are members of the Forest Products Association of Canada.

Caribou biologist Justina Ray, director of the Wildlife Conservation Society Canada, says it’s still too early to say whether the lands to bet set aside will be the ones most needed by the woodland caribou, whose numbers have been falling recently.

“The devil’s in the details,” she said. “But at least now we have a different model for the north than we used in the south, which was develop what we want and try to salvage the best of what’s left.”

*This story is part of a series of features on biodiversity by IPS, CGIAR/Biodiversity International, IFEJ and UNEP/CBD, members of Communicators for Sustainable Development (

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