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Indigenous Protected and Conserved Areas and Climate Change in Canada’s Boreal Forest

By Cheryl Chetkiewicz [Note: this is the third and final blog in this WCS series during the Global Climate Action Summit, taking place in San Francisco this week, examining the role of Indigenous Peoples in protecting forest resources and mitigating climate change.] At 5.6 million square kilometres, Canada’s boreal region is one of the largest forests...

By Cheryl Chetkiewicz

[Note: this is the third and final blog in this WCS series during the Global Climate Action Summit, taking place in San Francisco this week, examining the role of Indigenous Peoples in protecting forest resources and mitigating climate change.]

At 5.6 million square kilometres, Canada’s boreal region is one of the largest forests in the world and one of the Earth’s most important forest carbon storehouses, making it critical to the global effort to address climate change. The boreal forest contains almost twice as much carbon per unit area as tropical forests.

In addition to the carbon stored in surface vegetation, carbon has accumulated and been conserved over millennia in the soils, wetlands, peatlands, and permafrost – all of which are integral parts of the boreal forest. Taken together, the boreal forest and associated soils and wetlands store an estimated 208 billion tonnes of carbon – the equivalent of 26 years of global carbon emissions from the burning of fossil fuels.

Canada’s boreal region also contains extensive intact forest areas (~ 4.3 million square kilometres), the largest wetland in North America, and some of the most carbon-dense soils in the world. If these areas are disturbed through industrial development such as forestry, mining, hydroelectric development and road building, carbon is released from this massive carbon storehouse, accelerating climate change.

The boreal forest, or taiga, is Earth’s largest terrestrial ecosystem, extending like a green ribbon across FennoScandinavia, Russia, Alaska, and Canada. The boreal forest contains some of the world’s largest stores of terrestrial carbon. Protecting these stores of carbon in the boreal forest are critical in the efforts to address climate change. Credit: Garth Lenz.

In Canada, determining what lands and waters in boreal forests and wetlands are protected or developed is determined mainly through land use planning and policy, both of which urgently need to prioritize maintenance of these largely intact systems to bolster the fight against climate change. A growing body of research on tropical forests establishes the positive connection between strengthening the governance and the rights of Indigenous Peoples, whose wellbeing is tied to their forests, with mitigating climate change.

At least 600 Indigenous communities are located in Canada’s boreal forest. The relationship between Indigenous Peoples and the land and water is profoundly important and protected under Section 35 of the Constitution Act 1982. Only recently, however, has this deep history been recognized. Indigenous Peoples across Canada as well as their governments are being acknowledged as guardians and leaders in caring for the boreal forest.

One important way this leadership is manifesting in conservation practice is through the creation and legal recognition of Indigenous Protected and Conserved Areas (IPCAs). IPCAs are lands and waters where Indigenous Peoples and their governments have the primary role in protecting and conserving ecosystems while building sustainable local economies. Examples include Tribal Parks, Indigenous Cultural Landscapes, Indigenous Protected Areas, and Indigenous Conserved Areas.

IPCAs represent a modern application of traditional values, Indigenous laws, governance, and knowledge systems while providing an innovative way of expressing Aboriginal and Treaty rights. IPCAs are also an opportunity to reconnect people to the land and heal both the land and Indigenous Peoples.

Tribal Parks are one example of an IPCA. Tla-o-qui-aht Tribal Parks on the Ha`huulthii (territories) of the Nu-chah-nuLth First Nations are watersheds that are managed to integrate human and ecosystem well-being. They are founded on teachings from the ancestors and Elders and adapted for present day. One of the ways visitors can experience the Tla-o-qui-aht Tribal Parks is in a traditional cedar canoe. Credit: Cheryl Chetkiewicz.

In Canada, there is an unprecedented opportunity to advance Indigenous-led governance across the boreal forest as the federal government works to meet its National Targets for terrestrial (17%) and marine (10%) protection. WCS Canada scientists have been using their scientific research, spatial planning tools, and knowledge of resource management to help inform and support emerging IPCAs being advanced by First Nations across the boreal.

In Yukon, for example, Dr. Don Reid and Dr. Hilary Cooke are working with First Nations to develop new protected areas, including IPCAs. This work includes a proposal with the Ross River Dena Council to the current federal Canada Nature Fund for an IPCA of more than 40,000 square kilometres in east-central Yukon.

In the Southern Lakes region, we are providing scientific support to the Kwanlin Dün and Carcross/Tagish First Nations and the Ta’an Kwäch’än Council in their identification of potential protected areas and other conservation measures for the forested landscape.

In the boreal mountains of Yukon many valley bottoms support intact forests and wetland complexes, and land use planning still offers opportunities for new protected areas. Credit: Hilary Cooke/WCS Canada.

Previously, Dr. Reid coordinated the Conservation Priorities Assessment for the Peel Watershed Plan, where the team worked with data and assessments provided by members of the Vuntut Gwitchin and the Tetlit Gwich’in, Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in, and Nacho Nyak Dun First Nations.

As scientists, we see the effect that a rapidly changing climate is having on the boreal forest in our research every day. Indigenous Peoples in the boreal forest experience the impacts even more profoundly in their communities, particularly in high latitudes.

Collectively, we understand the critical importance of doing everything we can to reduce emissions by safeguarding the carbon reserves in boreal forests, soils, and wetlands. Our joint efforts to identify and support IPCAs is imperative in the fight against climate change – and an unprecedented opportunity for reconciliation with Indigenous Peoples around parks and protected areas in Canada.

Cheryl Chetkiewicz is a conservation scientist with WCS Canada.


Read other blogs in this series:

Securing Intact Forests and Indigenous Livelihoods in DR Congo

Protect Indigenous Rights and Culture to Confront the Climate Crisis


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