Changing Planet

Indigenous leaders of Pimachiowin Aki Are a Beacon of Hope As World Heritage Designation Becomes Official

The Bloodvein River, one of many significant rivers, streams and water bodies within Pimachiowin Aki. Photo Jeff Wells.

It’s part of what may be the largest single block of intact forest in the largest intact forest landscape left in human history and the largest remaining landscape of southern boreal forest left in Canada. Millions of birds fly north from tropical climes to nest here every summer filling the rich forests with a symphony of song. Woodland caribou, moose, wolves, trout, whitefish, walleye and so many other living creatures thrive in its woods and waters year-round.

It is called Pimachiowin Aki and it is and has been for thousands of years, the ancestral homeland of strong and vibrant Indigenous communities.

Those communities came together some years ago with the provincial governments of Manitoba and Ontario to start the long and sometimes difficult process to place these lands on the world stage as the Pimachiowin Aki World Heritage Site. In the first ever proposal of its kind, the Pimachiowin Aki communities and governments, insisted that the landscape be simultaneously considered and designated for both its cultural AND its ecological values.

Such a request initially sent the international governing bodies that decide on World Heritage Site designations into a bit of a tizzy. They weren’t sure how to handle such a dual consideration of values. But to their great credit, they found a path forward to honor the request of the Pimachiowin Aki communities.

The path wasn’t necessarily an easy one, perhaps a bit like trying to hack a new portage through a thick stand of spruce beside a boreal forest river within Pimachiowin Aki itself! But the people who have lived for thousands of years in that landscape have hacked through many a seemingly impenetrable stand of spruce. A tough pathway through international designations would certainly not be enough to stop them.

That many-year journey started and led with both steely determination and gentle persistence by forward thinking Indigenous leaders of the First Nations of Bloodvein River, Little Grand Rapids, Pauingassi , and Poplar River has finally achieved its goal. Together with the governments of Manitoba and Ontario, these First Nations are working to ensure a healthy future for both the Indigenous people and the birds, caribou, moose, fish and all wildlife and plants and the forests, lakes, rivers, and wetlands of the more than seven million acres found within the landscape of Pimachiowin Aki.

That fact has been formally recognized as UNESCO has now (as of July 2018) designated Pimachiowin Aki as an official World Heritage Site for both its globally significant cultural and ecological values.

Congratulations leaders of Pimachiowin Aki and thank you for your vision and strength. You truly are a beacon of hope in today’s complicated world!

Fairy slipper or calypso orchid from near Aikens Lake, Manitoba in Pimachiowin Aki in May 2011. Photo Jeff Wells.

Dr. Jeff Wells is the Science and Policy Director for the Boreal Songbird Initiative. He has 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 American (2011), and Bird of Aruba, Bonaire, and Curacao (2017).

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