Reclaiming the World’s Boreal Forests

2013 World Wilderness Conference in Salamanca, Spain
2013 World Wilderness Conference in Salamanca, Spain. Credit: Jeff Wells

At this year’s World Wilderness Congress in Salamanca, Spain, an impressive gathering of conservationists—including scientists, policy experts, government officials, artists, musicians, and young people—came together to discuss international wilderness conservation. Activists with a European movement called Rewilding Europe, for example, are working to protect and restore Europe’s largest areas of intact forest by trying to bring back populations of gray wolves, European bison, Eurasian lynx, and many other species.

But perhaps the most refreshing stories at the conference were those about the empowerment of indigenous communities in the decision-making on the future of their lands. Millions of hectares in a number of African countries are now in what are called community conservancies, which are helping protect some wildlife populations. In Australia, where The Pew Charitable Trusts is working to preserve parts of Australia’s Outback, there are now more than 48 million hectares (more than 118 million acres) in indigenous protected areas, and a force of nearly 700 indigenous rangers is working to restore the land.

In Brazil, the Kayapó peoples of the Amazon are protecting an area of 11 million hectares (about 27 million acres) against an onslaught of development. And in northern Scandinavia, the indigenous Saami are exploring the establishment of the Greater Laponia initiative to gain greater authority over future use of their ancestral lands. Such authority would give them more opportunities to maintain and restore the ecological values of that European boreal region.

Indigenous communities of Canada’s boreal forest region are also among the world leaders in developing and implementing what speakers at this year’s World Wilderness Congress termed indigenous and community conserved areas, among them:

All of these indigenous governments are leading the way in developing comprehensive land-use plans for their traditional territories that balance conservation and development.

Cree children pick wild blueberries in Northern Quebec. Credit: Natasha Moine

It was also gratifying to see a major emphasis on the need to keep large ecological systems free of alteration by industrial land use in order to maintain their inherent conservation values. The International Boreal Conservation Campaign has been advocating for exactly this in Canada and Alaska. Likewise, speakers reported that 50 percent of the nation of Bhutan is under formal conservation protection and that Namibia has at least 34 percent of its land in some form of protection and is moving toward 50 percent.

There were also presentations at the conference on the much-needed global ocean conservation movement that has been a major part of Pew’s Global Ocean Legacy program, and the continuing successes around the world in establishing marine protected areas. These include a conservation framework for marine reserves in California that integrated the rights for the more than 100 recognized Native American tribes in that state.

The knowledge, ideas, and inspiration of people working toward conservation of the Earth’s last wild places that were evident in Salamanca are a sign of hope for our world and its people.

Jeff Wells is a science adviser for The Pew Charitable Trusts’ international boreal forest protection work. He received a doctorate in ecology and evolutionary biology from Cornell University, where he is a visiting fellow.

Dr. Jeff Wells is the Science and Policy Director for the Boreal Songbird Initiative. He earned his Ph.D. in Ecology and Evolutionary Biology from Cornell University and has published numerous scientific and popular articles, book chapters, and is the author of Birder’s Conservation Handbook: 100 North American Birds at Risk (2007), Boreal Birds of North America (2011) and Birds of Aruba, Bonaire, and Curacao (2017).

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