IT has been described as the northern lungs of our planet. It is the largest source of fresh water in the world. One of the biggest, untouched swaths of it sits right in our own backyard.
“It” is the boreal forest, 15 million square kilometres of trees, lakes, rivers and bogs that circle the top part of the Northern Hemisphere like an emerald halo.
A 42,000-square-kilometre section of the forest on the east side of Lake Winnipeg is being pitched to the United Nations Education, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) as a World Heritage Site.
It is a prestigious designation, bestowed upon 851 of the world’s most famous and important historical and ecological sites such as the Acropolis in Athens, Greece, rainforests in Madagascar, Indonesia and Brazil, and the ancient Inca city of Machu Picchu in Peru.
The Pimachiowin-Aki would be the first UNESCO world heritage site in Manitoba and the 15th in Canada.
The Pimachiowin-Aki site encompasses the traditional lands of five first nations, three provincial parks and six protected areas in Manitoba and Northwestern Ontario.
While much of the boreal forest globally has been harmed by logging and industrial development, this particular swath is largely untouched. It is home to some of the most traditional first nations in Canada, but they are also among the poorest.
One of them, Pauingassi, has been in the news repeatedly for rampant social problems including solvent abuse among children as young as five years old, alcoholism, violence and more than 95 per cent unemployment.
But a UNESCO site—and the tourism opportunities it would create—could bring to the first nations an economic opportunity that helps pull them out of poverty while also protecting a crucial part of the Manitoba landscape and their traditional way of life.
“Eco-tourism and cultural tourism are the fastest growing in the world,” said Ron Thiessen, Manitoba executive director of the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society.
The uniqueness of the aboriginal culture coupled with the beauty of the landscape would be a draw for tourists from all over the world, says Thiessen.
European tourists in particular, notes Thiessen, would be a prime market for aboriginal powwows and sweat lodges, canoe adventures down rivers abundant in rapids and waterfalls, hikes through forests thick with stands of jack pine and black spruce where woodland caribou roam freely in one of their last remaining habitats in North America.
What kind of infrastructure is needed to support the growth of a tourism industry on the site is not certain yet but must keep a balance between protecting the environment and economic opportunity, says Manitoba Conservation Minister Stan Struthers.
“You want to have the kind of infrastructure that would attract eco-tourism," said Struthers. "You don’t want that to impinge upon what the eco-tourists are coming to see.”
Much of it depends on the desires of the first nations involved, he added.
Without question, a permanent road is needed, something supported not just by the four first nations who are part of the proposal, but says Struthers, all 16 of the first nations on the east side of Lake Winnipeg.
Most of the communities there only have road access during the winter when ice roads are built for a month or two.
But preserving the integrity of the environment is also one of the main reasons the provincial government has given for choosing not to let Manitoba Hydro build a transmission line down the east side of Lake Winnipeg.
It has been a hot political issue in Manitoba in the last year and is one of the most divisive to hit the Manitoba legislature in recent memory.
While there is no specific rule that would nullify the UNESCO proposal if a hydro line were built, and few will second-guess the all-powerful selection committee, the emphasis of the world heritage program is on preserving the integrity of each site.
How long it might take to get the UNESCO designation is also uncertain.
Mechtild Rossler, UNESCO’s Europe and North America section head in Paris, said it can take years or even decades. Proponents of the Rideau Canal pitch waited 13 years before they were accepted last summer.
“I was in Ottawa speaking to local people about the Rideau Canal and the world heritage process and I reminded them to remember just how long the process can be,” said Rossler. “That was in 1994.”
Struthers is hopeful the Pimachiowin-Aki proposal will be ready to pitch to UNESCO in just four years.
Before that happens, there have to be land use plans in place for all the first nations and parks involved in the proposal, designating exactly what would be done with each parcel of land, including where roads would go or what other development would be allowed.
Poplar River First Nation is almost finished its land use plan, and Pikangikum in Ontario is well on its way, says Struthers. But Pauingassi and Little Grand Rapids are just beginning the process, and so far relations with east side bands have been a quagmire.
Repeated phone calls to Poplar River chief Russell Lambert, a key advocate for a world heritage site, went unanswered.
It’s a bureaucratic process, but Manitoba has reason for optimism, said John Pinkerton, Parks Canada’s go-to-guy on all things UNESCO.
First, the boreal forest is already on Canada’s tentative list—the country’s top 10 contenders for world heritage status. Among those, Pinkerton says there are three sites that really have momentum—the Acadian cultural centre of Grand-Pre in Nova Scotia, the Arctic desert of Quttinirpaaq in Nunavut and Manitoba’s boreal forest.
Another bonus: In recent years, UNESCO has been favourably inclined towards natural sites, especially in the Arctic, in an effort to balance off the cathedrals and ancient monuments that tend to dominate the list.
Still, the UNESCO process is a slog.
“It’s very hard to guess how long each site might take,” said Pinkerton, the acting international program adviser for Parks Canada. “Each site is very different, and they might be starting from different points.”
For example, in Quttinirpaaq in Nunavut, there’s a huge body of research already done. The archeological and cultural sites have been identified, there’s a fairly complete inventory of the of flora and fauna, there’s a plan for development, and generally, all the laws and policies are in place to protect the site. That’s just about everything needed to help convince UNESCO the site is worth protecting and Canada has a good plan to do it.
In Manitoba all the sites critical to preserving aboriginal heritage have to be identified and researched, as well as the unique plants and animals. And the province has to make firm and permanent plans to protect the park, something that’s already under way.
Struthers says Manitoba wants to get all its ducks in a row before it goes forward.
“We’re targeting 2011 to make our pitch to UNESCO,” he said. “We think that gives us enough time to get everything right. But we don’t want to rush forward and weaken our chances for success.”
Don’t Mess with UNESCO
This summer, for the first time ever, UNESCO punted a site off its world heritage list.
At the same meeting that saw Ottawa’s Rideau Canal added to the list, an Arabian Oryx sanctuary got turfed because the government of Oman shrunk the size of the sanctuary by 90 per cent and plans to allow oil and gas exploration there. Oman has also allowed poaching to continue unchecked, and the habitat belonging to the rare antelope has been degraded.
In 1996, a couple of years after the sanctuary was declared a World Heritage Site, there were 450 antelope. Now there are only 65, with just four breeding pairs.
UNESCO said the oryx’s future is uncertain.
—Mary Agnes Welch
UNESCO for DUMMIES
* What: The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization
* Founded: 1945
* Mandate: It’s huge. The agency handles education and literacy programs worldwide, teacher training and HIV/AIDS outreach. It also looks at conservation and sustainable development, especially freshwater issues, renewable energy and preserving indigenous knowledge of plants and animal life. It is also a clearing house for debates on bioethics. And, it identifies and preserves World Heritage Sites. There are 851 already on the list.
* Budget: About $930 million.
* Headquarters: Paris, but there are satellite offices all over the world.
* Governance: It’s run by a general conference of 192 member states that meets every two years to set UNESCO’s direction. The general conference also elects a 52-member executive board which does more hands-on leadership. Right now, Canada has a seat on the executive board, and the chairman’s seat belongs to China.
—Mary Agnes Welch
The Criteria for a Natural Heritage Site
* Outstanding universal value—"a significance which is so exceptional as to transcend national boundaries and to be of common importance for present and future generations of all humanity."
* Natural heritage—superlative natural phenomenon or beauty, outstanding examples of ongoing ecological and biological evolution, areas with the most important natural habitats for the conservation of biological diversity, outstanding examples of a traditional human settlement, land-use, or sea-use which is representative of a culture’s interaction with the environment, especially when it has become vulnerable.
* Protection—all the policy, legal, scientific, technical, administrative and financial measures in place to preserve the heritage of the site.
* Boundaries—a clearly defined site that "ensures the complete
representation of the features and processes which convey the property’s significance."
* Integrity and authenticity—‘‘The physical fabric of the property and/or its significant features should be in good condition, and the impact of deterioration processes controlled…However, it is recognized that no area is totally pristine and that all natural areas are in a dynamic state, and to some extent involve contact with people. Human activities, including those of traditional societies and local communities, often occur in natural areas. These activities may be consistent with the outstanding universal value of the area where they are ecologically sustainable."
—Source: Operational Guidelines for the Implementation of the World Heritage Convention
What We’re Up Against
The other eight sites that Canada could nominate to the World Heritage Committee.
* Áísínai’pi (Writing-On-Stone), Alberta:
An aboriginal spiritual site, it includes one of the largest and most complex petroglyph formations in the world.
* Grand-Pré, Nova Scotia:
The emotional centre of the Acadian people, the site dates back to the 17th century and commemorates the forced relocation of the Acadians.
* Gwaii Haanas, B.C.:
An old-growth rainforest on the Queen Charlotte Islands, the site combines unique marine and bird life and Haida history. The site would be incorporated into the existing SGaang Gwaii World Heritage Site
* Ivvavik/Vuntut/Herschel Island (Qikiqtaruk), Yukon:
A combination of some existing national parks, it’s home to unique arctic landscapes of tundra, boreal forest and mountains and evidence of the very first inhabitants of North America.
* Joggins, Nova Scotia:
The world’s richest and largest Coal Age fossil site along a coastline strip of the upper Bay of Fundy. The old swamp forest is home to such a vast array of fossils it was once called the Galapagos of the Coal Age. The World Heritage Committee is considering this site right now.
* The Klondike, Yukon and B.C.:
Home to one of the great gold rushes of the 19th century, the area includes First Nations sites and old mining and settlement sites from the gold rush.
* Mistaken Point, Newfoundland and Labrador:
The cliffs and shorelines of this site on the Avalon Peninsula offer up a record of early life in ancient oceans. Fossils of 30 species of soft-bodied animals, preserved in the ash of ancient volcanoes, provide the earliest and most complete record known of Ediacaran multi-cellular life on the deep-sea floor.
* Quttinirpaaq, Nunavut:
A frozen, vast and almost lifeless desert with mountains, fjords and glaciers, it bursts to life in the summer and is dotted with archeological sites left by pre-contact peoples.
* Red Bay, Newfoundland and Labrador:
It’s the most complete and best-preserved example known of a 16th-century Basque whaling station.
—Source: Parks Canada
* THE PROCESS
It’s led by the proponents—cultural groups, non-profit agencies, provincial governments or even a department within Parks Canada that is championing a site. The process is tortuous and can take decades.
* THE TENTATIVE LIST
UNESCO will only consider a site if it comes from a country’s tentative list. That’s each country’s log of the 10-or-so top contenders for World Heritage status. Parks Canada is the keeper of Canada’s list. It was just five or six years ago that Canada started to use clear criteria to determine what sites make it on the tentative list. Before that, it was a bit willy-nilly. Manitoba’s boreal forest is on the list.
* THE DOSSIER
Once a site’s proponents have done enough planning and research and it appears the site has a good shot at winning World Heritage status, a huge dossier is prepared to forward to the international selection committee. Parks Canada works closely with the proponents to make sure the dossier fits all the requirements and has the best possible chance of success. Parks Canada doesn’t really choose which of the 10 sites to forward to UNESCO. Instead the process is driven by the proponents and groups that have completed the long, involved planning process.
* THE NOMINATION
This is where the application finally gets to UNESCO. By Feb. 1 of each year, countries must send their nominations to the World Heritage Committee. That committee only considers 45 nominees a year, and each country can only send two nominations. Canada doesn’t normally send a nomination a year, mostly because it takes longer than that to get a dossier ready.
* THE CHOICE
Once the World Heritage Committee gets its batch of nominees, it farms them out to an expert advisory committee. The experts review the dossier, check that all stakeholders are on side and do a site visit. The advisers make one of four recommendations to the World Heritage Committee—yea, nay, tweak the application slightly or rethink it entirely. After about 18 months, usually sometime in the summer, the World Heritage Committee makes its decisions public.
—Mary Agnes Welch