Environmental groups, including the David Suzuki Foundation, surprised many people recently by joining with the logging industry to unveil the largest forest conservation agreement in history. The Canadian Boreal Forest Agreement covers more than 72 million hectares of northern wilderness stretching from British Columbia to Newfoundland and Labrador.
Under the agreement, 21 forestry companies, all members of the Forest Products Association of Canada, will halt logging on 29 million hectares of wildlife habitat while plans for new protected areas and caribou conservation are developed. This habitat is critical to the survival of woodland caribou and other endangered species.
The forest companies have also agreed to shift from conventional logging practices to more ecologically sustainable forestry methods, called ecosystem-based management, on the rest of the land base. In return, the environmental groups will suspend their "do not buy" campaigns against companies participating in the agreement while it is being implemented.
For many conservationists, the motivation for entering into negotiations with industry was the urgent need to stop the "bleeding" in boreal woodland caribou habitat. According to a federal government report, many of Canada's caribou herds face extinction if status quo industrial practices that lead to further habitat loss and fragmentation, like logging and road-building, aren't stopped.
One herd in the foothills west of Hinton, Alberta, is critically endangered. Close to 82 per cent of the Little Smoky herd's habitat is now degraded by a mosaic of clearcuts; crisscrossed with roads, seismic lines, and oil and gas pipelines; and pockmarked with well-heads. Scientists believe this herd and, in fact, every herd in Alberta, will go extinct unless we work to protect current habitat and restore damaged habitat.
Caribou aren't the only species in crisis. Grizzly bears, American marten, wolverine, and many waterfowl and songbirds are slipping away in parts of this massive forest region. Indeed, boreal forests across the planet are facing a perfect storm of threats, as revealed by a study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The study showed that in recent years, these areas have lost more forest cover to resource development and natural disturbances exacerbated by human-caused climate change, like catastrophic insect outbreaks, than any other biome on the planet — including tropical rainforests, such as the Amazon.
Although the scale of the agreement is historic and the level of trust and cooperation between environmental advocates and their former adversaries is unprecedented, both parties understand that final decisions rest with federal, provincial, territorial, and Aboriginal governments.
Much of the boreal is First Nations traditional territory, and in most cases, Aboriginal and treaty rights and title issues remain unresolved. Throughout the boreal, the government is legally obligated to consult with Aboriginal people as the traditional stewards of these lands. This means that, although forest companies have voluntarily put the imminent threat of further logging in caribou habitat on hold, Aboriginal people must work out the ultimate fate of the forest with provincial, territorial, and federal governments.
Thus, the success of this world-class effort to protect the boreal will depend in large measure on the support and leadership from Aboriginal people. As noted by Chief Ghislain Picard of the Assembly of First Nations of Quebec and Labrador, "The intentions [of the Boreal Agreement] are good but must obviously be backed up by a genuine and tangible willingness to involve the First Nations that have rights over these lands."
We agree. The Agreement recognizes that "Aboriginal peoples have constitutionally protected Aboriginal and treaty rights and title as well as legitimate interests and aspirations." This is a start. But as Chief Picard warns, the environmental groups, logging companies, and provincial and federal governments must now ensure that the Aboriginal people of the boreal are fully involved, supported, and receive tangible benefits from its conservation and ecosystem-based forestry development.
Indigenous people have been at the forefront of some of the greatest conservation victories on the planet, from the protection of the world's largest tropical rainforest by the Kayapó of southeastern Amazon to a more recent agreement between the Dehcho First Nation and the government of Canada to protect 30,000 square kilometres of boreal wilderness in Canada's Northwest Territories. These earlier victories, achieved by working with Aboriginal people and their governments as partners, offer examples of how the Boreal Agreement must proceed if it is to successfully deliver on its ambitious vision.