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A New Era in Conservation

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Issue: 16 Section: Environment Geography: North Topics: forestry

March 16, 2004

A New Era in Conservation

by Yuill Herbert

The Canadian Boreal Initiative (CBI), launched at the end of last year, is a common vision for the largest conservation agreement in the world. It proposes a plan to protect approximately 265 million hectares of forest and to manage a further area of equal size according to stringent ecological standards of development.

"We have a unique opportunity to pursue a balanced vision to conserve the entire Canadian boreal region, while providing for extensive economic benefits," explained CBI's Director, Cathy Wilkinson.

Canada's Boreal Forest is the largest intact forest ecosystem in the world. photo: Bryan Evans
Stretching across most of northern Canada, the boreal forest is the largest intact forest ecosystem in the world.

The vision is powerful due to its unusual mix of proponents, representing cooperation on an unprecedented scale. The Boreal Leadership Council, the spearheading committee of the initiative, is a mix of industry, environmental and First Nations organizations, including representatives of some of the most significant political and economic interests in the boreal region. The World Wildlife Fund, Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society, Forest Ethics and Ducks Unlimited Canada are the environmental groups involved. The Deh Cho First Nations, the Innu Nation and Poplar River First Nation are also at the table. Most intriguing are the industry representatives, including forestry companies Alberta-Pacific Forest Industries, Tembec Inc, Domtar Inc and Suncor Inc.

"We know that it is crucial for the Canadian boreal region to be managed in a responsible way if we want future generations to benefit from its economic, environmental, and social value," said Raymond Royer, president and chief executive officer of forestry company Domtar Inc. Royer believes that Domtar's involvement in CBI does not only demonstrate good corporate citizenship, but also good business.

"It will allow us to better understand stakeholder concerns," he explained, "which will in turn improve our planning for future fiber supply."

The economic value of the boreal is rivaled only by its ecological significance. Globally, the boreal forest is of vital importance. A 2001 report by the United Nations Environment Program called on Canada and a handful of other countries to take immediate steps to protect the remaining large swaths of untouched forest. It found that just 21 per cent of the planet's land area was still covered with healthy forests, including large chunks in Canada, Russia, the United States, the Congo and parts of South America. Globally, the largest conservation commitments to date have been made by the Sakha Republic in northern Russia with 70 million hectares, and by the Amazon Region Protected Areas Agreement, which protects 40 million hectares. "By acting now, Canada can safeguard one of the world's remaining large ecosystems - while it is still for the most part ecologically intact," urges Wilkinson.

Although the over 500 million hectares involved in the CBI far outdoes earlier conservation commitments, the unusual nature of the partnership, the magnitude of its vision and the process itself have generated controversy amongst environmentalists. Charles Caccia, a Toronto MP and chairman of the House of Commons Environment Committee, believes that protection of only 50 per cent of the Boreal is not enough, suggesting instead that the target should be set at 80 per cent.

But according to Monte Hummel, one of the agreement's chief architects and president of the World Wildlife Fund, the CBI goes far beyond the 80 per cent proposed by Caccia.

"The Boreal Forest Conservation Framework targets 100 per cent of Canada's boreal region for 'conservation,' where conservation is defined as striking a balance between strict protection and sustainable use that meets the highest international environmental standards," said Hummel.

The standard that the agreement proposes is the Boreal Forest Stewardship Standard, which was recently approved by Forest Stewardship Council, a certification process that is based on the principles of ecological protection and respect of the First Nations.

Caccia is also concerned by who is leading the initiative.

"It is the task of elected governments--not of private sector businesses and organizations--to produce a framework for a very sensitive and fragile resource that has more than monetary value."

According to Hummel, however, the initiative is not taking over the government's job, but helping the government to do its job better.

"Our initiative should be understood for what it is - an attempt by leading non-government parties and Aboriginal peoples to collaborate and generate solutions for governments to consider. In the past, governments have claimed their options were severely limited by adversarial relationships between First Nations, industry, and conservation groups. This constant warfare has forced governments to referee among competing interests - a dynamic which... has not historically benefited Canada's forests".

The government shares Hummel's view, but makes no committments. Brian Emmett, who heads Canadian Forest Service, said, "We see CBI's contribution as a potentially positive input in the on-going global and informed debate on how best to practice sustainable forest management".

In the meantime, the logging continues, and one wonders for how long the boreal forest can simultaneously be both the world's largest remaining wilderness and the world's largest source of facial tissues and advertising fliers.

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The Dominion is a monthly paper published by an incipient network of independent journalists in Canada. It aims to provide accurate, critical coverage that is accountable to its readers and the subjects it tackles. Taking its name from Canada's official status as both a colony and a colonial force, the Dominion examines politics, culture and daily life with a view to understanding the exercise of power.

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