David Suzuki: Protecting the boreal wilderness known as Pimachiowin Aki

September 21, 2011

According to a study published several years ago in the journal Science, few places on our planet have been untouched by modern humans. Satellite images taken from thousands of kilometres above the Earth reveal a world that has been irrevocably changed by human land use over the past few decades.

From Arctic tundra to primeval rainforest to arid desert, our natural world has been fragmented by ever-expanding towns and cities, crisscrossed with roads, transmission lines and pipelines, and pockmarked by pump jacks, flare stacks, and other infrastructure used to drill, frack, and strip-mine fossil fuels from the ground.

The need to supply food, fibre, fuels, shelter, and freshwater to more than six billion people is driving the wholesale conversion of forests, wetlands, grasslands, and other ecosystems. Researchers have discovered that farmland and pasture now rival natural forest cover in extent, covering 40 per cent of Earth’s land surface. And although advances in modern agriculture have brought millions of hectares of once-unsuitable scrub land into food production, the environmental consequences of our growing “foodprint” have been severe in some regions, resulting in the loss of wildlife habitat, degraded water quality, and widespread soil erosion. Worldwide fertilizer use alone has grown by more than 700 per cent over the past 40 years to sustain crop yields over an ever-increasing area.

On the other hand, Canada’s rugged and inaccessible terrain, small and concentrated population, and relatively recent history of urban and resource development have spared us from the scale and intensity of land-use change that many other regions have experienced. A review of the state of Canada’s forests and woodlands by Global Forest Watch Canada concluded that we are one of the few countries with large tracts of forests relatively undisturbed by human activity. They found that about half of Canada’s forests are still intact. Most are found in the greenbelt of northern boreal forest that stretches across the country.

One of the largest areas of untouched boreal wilderness left in the world straddles a significant section of Eastern Manitoba and Northern Ontario. The local Anishinabe First Nation calls this massive 43,000-square-kilometre region Pimachiowin Aki (Pim-MATCH-cho-win Ahh-KEY). In English, it means the “the land that gives life”.

Home to such threatened species as woodland caribou, and dotted with freshwater lakes, wild rivers, and biodiversity-rich wetlands, Pimachiowin Aki has remained more or less unchanged for some 5,000 years, roughly as long as recorded human history. It is the very absence of clear-cuts, mines, hydroelectric dams, transmission lines, and other industrial infrastructure, along with the region’s rich cultural landscape, that makes Pimachiowin Aki so exceptional, and it is for this reason that First Nations communities want to protect it as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

As Sophia Rabliauskas, a Pimachiowin Aki spokesperson and leader from the community of Poplar River, says, “As First Nations, we already know the value of this land—because we live on it, and live with it every day. Now we want our neighbours, people who live in cities and people around the world, to understand just how important it is.”

Fortunately, the Manitoba government has listened and is working with First Nations to protect the area for its unparalleled ecological and cultural richness. If they succeed, it would join other world-renowned UNESCO World Heritage Sites, including the Pyramids at Giza in Egypt, the Great Barrier Reef of Australia, and the 7.7 million-hectare Ténéré Nature Reserve in the Sahara Desert region of Niger.

However, obtaining international recognition for Pimachiowin Aki as a UNESCO World Heritage Site is no easy task. The Manitoba government and local communities have had to make difficult decisions to sustain the ecological integrity of the region in the face of industrial pressures. Most notably, the government decided to reroute a planned multibillion dollar hydro transmission line away from the area. It would have cut through the heart of the World Heritage Site. The controversial decision has become political fodder in the current Manitoba election campaign.

Many environmental groups and scientists, including the David Suzuki Foundation, support the government’s difficult decision. We believe Pimachiowin Aki must be protected as a special place where rivers run wild, caribou roam unfettered by industrial development, and the centuries-old values of its indigenous peoples are honoured and respected.

Written with contributions from David Suzuki Foundation Terrestrial Conservation and Science Program director Faisal Moola. Learn more at

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