Pimachiowin Aki setting the stage for critical change to World Heritage Site selection process

By Olivia Atkins
The Pimachiowin Aki bid seeks World Heritage Site designation for a 33,500km2 expanse of boreal forest that spans eastern Manitoba and north-western Ontario. Compared with the UK’s Peak District, which is one of Britain’s largest areas of untamed moorland at 1,437 km2, and other major conservation regions in Europe, this is a vast stretch of land.


The bid area is predominantly occupied by Anishinaabeg or Ojibway peoples of Bloodvein, Little Grand Rapids, Pauingassi, Pikangikum and Poplar River First Nations. These First Nations, who have developed traditional land practices in harmony with the forests for over 6,000 years, have put forth the bid in partnership with the Manitoba and Ontario governments.


Pimachiowin Aki is currently deemed an exceptional contender as it is one of the few bids to consider the combined ecological and cultural importance of the area (currently less than 3% of World Heritage sites fall into this ‘mixed’ category). It is also the only North American site to represent the Canadian Boreal Shield eco-zone and offers the highest multi-diversity within the region .


Currently, the bid acts as a precedent case for other future ‘mixed sites’ as Pimachiowin Aki is among the few that considers the important interrelationship between culture and nature rather than focus on these categories individually.


Shortcomings in the UN evaluation process have delayed the Pimachiowin Aki bid from securing World Heritage Site nomination.  Although Pimachiowin Aki falls into the pre-existing ‘mixed’ category, there is an inadequate method to assess these hybrid sites for UNESCO status. This has prevented UNESCO from officially designating the region’s value as a national treasure until a decision is reached in 2016 .


At the World Heritage Committee meetings, many international nations celebrated the Pimachiowin Aki bid. But, they also expressed disappointment that the current UN process fails to adequately address the intersection of culture and nature. It is hoped that these discussions will successfully change the UN process, following the Pimachiowin Aki bid. If wise changes are made, there will be more respectful and appropriate mechanisms in place to review Indigenous-led nominations.


In the meantime, the Pimachiowin Aki bid is being modified to demonstrate the connection between ecology and culture.


The Pimachiowin Aki bid acts as an exemplary case for future mixed sites as it focuses and supports the local community’s continued traditional use of the land.
If Pimachiowin Aki is successfully awarded a mixed World Heritage Site designation, it will set a powerful precedent for the future in that it will represent a paradigm shift that affirms the importance and value of traditional world views in the creation of protected areas, both as world heritage sites or otherwise. Furthermore, if this bid is successful, it could also act as an incentive for other Indigenous peoples to put sites forward for future nomination.