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Dam Locally, Warm Globally

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February 4, 2005

Dam Locally, Warm Globally

Boreal forest, aboriginal peoples threatened by new push for exploitation

by Kim Petersen

Canada's boreal forest is among the largest intact forest ecosystems in the world. Photo: Natural Resources Defence Council
Around 400 kilometers north of Winnipeg lies Asatiwisipe Aki (Poplar River First Nation), an Ojibway people. The remote community is comprised of roughly 1,200 members, of which over 900 are on reserve. The traditional Asatiwisipe Aki territory, delineated by the registered trapline district of Poplar, lies between 50 and 55 degrees north latitude and extends far east from Lake Winnipeg, almost reaching the Ontario border.

As set out in Treaty 5, the Asatiwisipe Aki Reserve #16 is located at the mouth of the Asatiwisipe (Poplar River). The area is host to a number of rivers that flow west through a pristine landscape (the boreal forest), which plays a critical role in the global and local ecosystems. The trees and peatlands of the vast northern boreal forest comprise one of the planet's largest carbon reservoirs. Boreal forests retain carbon that, if released, would accelerate global warming. Its wetlands filter millions of gallons of water each day.

In 1998, the Manitoba government, the Manitoba Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs, and the Manitoba Keewatinowi Okimakanak (MKO - Cree consortium for northern Manitoba) signed an Memorandum of Understanding in which it was stipulated that "Protected areas will not infringe upon any existing aboriginal or Treaty rights of First Nations peoples."

In spring 2000, protected area designation was sought for the remaining traditional territory in a proposal to the Manitoba government.

There are historical grounds for Asatiwisipe Aki to pursue protection for the surrounding environment, and there has always been external interest in exploitation of the area's resources. Logging interests offered to open up the area with an all-weather road, but the offer was refused by the Cree Elders. They also refused the promises of jobs, economic prosperity, and the modern life.

In the philosophy of the Asatiwisipe Aki elders: "The Creator has given us life, he has given us land to live from, without that land our people will die." Stewardship of the land for future generations is inculcated, as preservation of the intact boreal forest region is key to the Asatiwisipe Aki world vision.

Logging is not the only concern for First Nations in the boreal forest. Environmental NGO Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) issued an alert on 19 October 2004 that the government of Manitoba had given the "green light to yet another dam that could have far-reaching consequences for the wildlife and indigenous people of Canada's boreal forest."

NRDC noted that many First Nations communities are largely dependent on the boreal forest for survival. Previous hydropower developments had already wreaked havoc on First Nations people: flooding the forest, ruining ancestral waterways, clogging lakes and rivers with sediment, and destroying aquatic life.

Fluctuations in water levels still pose a danger of erosion to sacred burial sites. According to NRDC, promises from Manitoba Hydro and the governments of Manitoba and Canada to alleviate this terrible damage have not been fulfilled.

Now Manitoba Hydro wants to build the Wuskwatim dam. This is to be the first in a series of hydroelectric projects, further threatening the boreal forest by cutting roads and transmission lines through some of North America's last unspoiled wilderness. The plans to construct hydroelectric projects in Manitoba's boreal forest are in large part to supply US consumers.

NRDC has joined with other environmental groups and First Nations in a campaign to save this pristine forest region. There is an ambitious proposal to create a United Nations World Heritage Site out of 4.3 million hectares in Manitoba and Ontario. The site would include two provincial parks in addition to the traditional territories of involved First Nations. The proposal has federal government backing, but the governments of Manitoba and Ontario have yet to publicly support it.

Most of the world's original forests have already been cut. However, about 80 percent of the Canadian boreal forest is still undefiled. Most of the 1.3 billion acre Canadian Boreal is predominantly owned by the government and inhabited by First Nation peoples. They live in and rely on the forests for their food, their livelihoods, and their spiritual connection to the world.

Don Sullivan, executive director of the environmental group Boreal Forest Network (BFN), asks, "If diversity is the key to life then why are we globally moving toward homogeneous economy - one based on the need to consume at all costs? Protecting and preserving a 4.3 million hectare intact boreal landscape will in its own little way affirm the need to both protect a fully functioning intact boreal ecosystem and a culture and by doing so, all of humanity will be richer for it."

"The BFN support the five First Nation communities who are seeking to have their traditional territories nominated as part of a World Heritage Site, as we see it as a way for these communities to move forward with their aspiration to manage, plan, control and protect the natural resources in their traditional territories and a step forward towards protecting the foundation of their culture - the natural resources. For us the most endangered species on the planet are the indigenous peoples and cultures who still practice their traditional ways. A culture that still hunts, fish, trap and use the plants (a culture that is not yet alienated from nature) requires, no demands, a healthy fully functioning ecosystem. A culture that seek balance with nature rather then domination of nature is worth learning from and certainly worthy of respected."

The two lead First Nations working on the World Heritage Site proposal and sustainable development on their own traditional territories are Asatiwisipe Aki and Pikangikum First Nation in Ontario. Paungassi First Nation and Little Grand Rapids First Nation in Manitoba are also part of the World Heritage Site proposal. Bloodvein First Nation of Manitoba is the unofficial fifth community.

Louis Young is a former Chief of Bloodvein First Nation who supports World Heritage Site designation. "We are working to ensure that your children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren have air to breathe."

At the 2004 World Conservation Congress in Bangkok, Thailand, Canada, and Russia were urged to "recognize, preserve and, protect ecological processes through which the overall health of boreal forest regions" and "acknowledge and respect the role of indigenous peoples in achieving conservation goals while respecting their traditional land management regimes and knowledge, in all conservation efforts."

Congress delegate Susan Casey-Lefkowitz of NRDC said, "This recommendation clearly signals the international importance of the ecological and cultural values of the Boreal." Casey-Lefkowitz emphasized the "innovative ways" in which, especially First Nations, are protecting the Boreal.

Elder Edward Valiquette speaks of the importance of traditional values: "We need to protect our land, to tell people what to do and not to do. The Elders did that. When they spoke everyone listened."

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