David Suzuki: Protecting the boreal wilderness known as Pimachiowin Aki

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      According to a study published several years ago in the journal Science, few places on our planet have been untouched by modern humans. Satellite images taken from thousands of kilometres above the Earth reveal a world that has been irrevocably changed by human land use over the past few decades.

      From Arctic tundra to primeval rainforest to arid desert, our natural world has been fragmented by ever-expanding towns and cities, crisscrossed with roads, transmission lines and pipelines, and pockmarked by pump jacks, flare stacks, and other infrastructure used to drill, frack, and strip-mine fossil fuels from the ground.

      The need to supply food, fibre, fuels, shelter, and freshwater to more than six billion people is driving the wholesale conversion of forests, wetlands, grasslands, and other ecosystems. Researchers have discovered that farmland and pasture now rival natural forest cover in extent, covering 40 per cent of Earth’s land surface. And although advances in modern agriculture have brought millions of hectares of once-unsuitable scrub land into food production, the environmental consequences of our growing “foodprint” have been severe in some regions, resulting in the loss of wildlife habitat, degraded water quality, and widespread soil erosion. Worldwide fertilizer use alone has grown by more than 700 per cent over the past 40 years to sustain crop yields over an ever-increasing area.

      On the other hand, Canada’s rugged and inaccessible terrain, small and concentrated population, and relatively recent history of urban and resource development have spared us from the scale and intensity of land-use change that many other regions have experienced. A review of the state of Canada’s forests and woodlands by Global Forest Watch Canada concluded that we are one of the few countries with large tracts of forests relatively undisturbed by human activity. They found that about half of Canada’s forests are still intact. Most are found in the greenbelt of northern boreal forest that stretches across the country.

      One of the largest areas of untouched boreal wilderness left in the world straddles a significant section of Eastern Manitoba and Northern Ontario. The local Anishinabe First Nation calls this massive 43,000-square-kilometre region Pimachiowin Aki (Pim-MATCH-cho-win Ahh-KEY). In English, it means the “the land that gives life”.

      Home to such threatened species as woodland caribou, and dotted with freshwater lakes, wild rivers, and biodiversity-rich wetlands, Pimachiowin Aki has remained more or less unchanged for some 5,000 years, roughly as long as recorded human history. It is the very absence of clear-cuts, mines, hydroelectric dams, transmission lines, and other industrial infrastructure, along with the region’s rich cultural landscape, that makes Pimachiowin Aki so exceptional, and it is for this reason that First Nations communities want to protect it as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

      As Sophia Rabliauskas, a Pimachiowin Aki spokesperson and leader from the community of Poplar River, says, “As First Nations, we already know the value of this land—because we live on it, and live with it every day. Now we want our neighbours, people who live in cities and people around the world, to understand just how important it is.”

      Fortunately, the Manitoba government has listened and is working with First Nations to protect the area for its unparalleled ecological and cultural richness. If they succeed, it would join other world-renowned UNESCO World Heritage Sites, including the Pyramids at Giza in Egypt, the Great Barrier Reef of Australia, and the 7.7 million-hectare Ténéré Nature Reserve in the Sahara Desert region of Niger.

      However, obtaining international recognition for Pimachiowin Aki as a UNESCO World Heritage Site is no easy task. The Manitoba government and local communities have had to make difficult decisions to sustain the ecological integrity of the region in the face of industrial pressures. Most notably, the government decided to reroute a planned multibillion dollar hydro transmission line away from the area. It would have cut through the heart of the World Heritage Site. The controversial decision has become political fodder in the current Manitoba election campaign.

      Many environmental groups and scientists, including the David Suzuki Foundation, support the government’s difficult decision. We believe Pimachiowin Aki must be protected as a special place where rivers run wild, caribou roam unfettered by industrial development, and the centuries-old values of its indigenous peoples are honoured and respected.

      Written with contributions from David Suzuki Foundation Terrestrial Conservation and Science Program director Faisal Moola. Learn more at www.davidsuzuki.org.




      Sep 21, 2011 at 9:13am

      Another piece of environmental propaganda by Canada's premier environmental spin doctor. With no concern for meeting human needs through the management of a renewable resource, David Suzuki once again calls for blocking huge parts of the world from humans. Perhaps Suzuki could take some space in one of his future articles to tell us exactly how we will meet the needs of an ever expanding human population. Those needs include the use of wood. It's easy to be a critic, but much harder to propose realistic solutions.

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      James G

      Sep 21, 2011 at 10:00am

      You'd think that the author of this column would recall that the population of the planet is now estimated at seven billion and not six (as the column reads AT PRESENT). After all, just two weeks ago, the same column used the new stat to suggest we must lower the human population but gave no suggestions as how to do so or what was appropriate, giving Columbia's death squads, among others, new hope of social acceptance.

      That little tease is bound to rile the hive mind that follows these scribblings. I have never suggested though that Dr. Suzuki is not brilliant. His scientific research involved fruit flies and they are not even a social insect. To turn around from that into creating an unthinking hive mind in human beings is nothing more than remarkable. What else are the children of gated communities in California to do, if after a trip to Nepal they came back wearing wool hats and convincing Mom to carpool her neighbors in the Bentley to the country club but declare themselves environmentalists? Then take up the cause of ... oh, Woodland Caribou ... in a place somewhere for them remote enough to ignore growing poverty right outside the gates of home.

      I have never been to this unspoiled forest on the Manitoba-Ontario border but was glad to read that Canada is "one of the few countries with large tracts of forests relatively undisturbed by human activity." Imagine the carbon footprint that would leave by going there since the distance from east Vancouver is substantial. Even if I were to visit Haida Gwai by myself and not including large numbers of family, that is some distance. It requires either air transport or a very roundabout extended highway trip. Of course there is also travel by boat, but I do not own a yacht ... if only I could learn to eat a little less cake, perhaps I could afford one.

      I do have some familiarity with forests of Northern Alberta since I spent part of my childhood on the southern shores of Lesser Slave Lake. There were no caribou there then, nor in the area around Fort McMurray, Alberta, where I have family members still resident who camp and fish in the woods and have also never seen a migrating caribou herd in their lives.

      It is quite acceptable to suggest that the area is the southern edge of range and that is a substantial item in arguments of First Nations peoples in land claims negotiations. I support these land claims and hope the First Nations gain their share from the windfall of oil revenues presently being realized. It is quite true to claim that migration has likely been pushed further northward due to human activity, including highways and settlement. The Tar Sands is arguably the main reason people are there in the numbers they are but there was already agriculture and human settlement sufficient to deter migration. To equate Tar Sands oil extraction with the reason the Woodland Caribou are threatened is merely exaggeration for effect. What effect I can only speculate, perhaps to bring a foundation worth a mere $89 million dollars past the $100 million mark?

      Of course, this could come to a crashing end if those of the hive mind have their way. Although they will weigh in with comments denying they want a complete stop to extraction, the protest signs they carry clearly read "Stop the Tar Sands." Stop. Not make cleaner, not adjust. The Tar Sands, not The Pipeline. It is no different than claiming that a slurry pond "can be seen from outer space." It's just a hive mind item picked up and spread around by the EnLiarMentalists.

      Oh, and never forget, science is above politics. Just ignore the endorsement and political game playing in favour of centre-right political movements like the B. C. Liberals, the Onatrio Liberal Party and Vision Vancouver. Until you are unfortunate to deal with such a government, then perhaps you will be forced to think.


      Sep 21, 2011 at 7:49pm

      @ James G (aka 'ramble on') - wtf! How did you get 2 thumbs up?
      And @ RK some Oscar Wilde - " A cynic is a man who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing".

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