Manitoba boreal forest activist honoured

December 4, 2001

A woman from Manitoba who has been fighting to preserve one of the world’s last stretches of untouched boreal forest is one of six international activists to win a major environmental award, handed out Sunday in San Francisco.

Sophia Rabliauskas of the 1,200-member Poplar River First Nation received this year’s Goldman Environmental Prize for trying to get permanent protection against development on land about 600 kilometres northeast of Winnipeg.

The recognition “means a lot,” Rabliauskas told CBC News. “Not only I, but the whole community has worked tirelessly to protect the boreal forest.”

She and her community persuaded the Manitoba government to protect 810,000 hectares of their traditional lands, at least until 2009. And they have also developed a land management plan for the government, which requires approval, she said.

They’re also working with other First Nations in Manitoba and Ontario to safeguard an even larger section of the forest as a UNESCO World Heritage site.

“The forest holds the knowledge, the wisdom, and we as people have to take that responsibility to look after it,” Rabliauskas, 47, told CBC News.

The Ojibway have called Poplar River home for thousands of years, but the past century or so has been difficult; they’ve suffered poverty, addiction and abuse.

Rabliauskas and the elders believe returning to the forest is the key to a healthier future. “To preserve the land means preserving our people,” she said.

Canada’s boreal region is home to more than 90 per cent of the country’s remaining large virgin forestlands. It covers nearly six million square kilometres, comprising 58 per cent of Canada’s land mass.

Broad green belt

The region forms a broad green belt across the centre of the country, stretching from Newfoundland to the Yukon, and is one of the largest unfragmented eco-systems on the planet.

Most of Canada’s forests north of the 49th parallel can be classified as boreal. Environmentalists fear Canada’s boreal forests could be the next major target of the world’s pulp and paper industry.

At present, less than 10 per cent of Canada’s boreal region is strictly protected from development, and there is no consistent application of sustainable resource development practices, according to the Ottawa-based group the Canadian Boreal Initiative.

The winners of the environmental prize are selected from different regions of the world and each received $125,000 U.S. from the Goldman Foundation.

Other recipients include Tsetsge Munkhbayar of Mongolia; Julio Palacios of Peru; Willie Corduff of Ireland; Hammerskjoeld Simwinga of Zambia and Orri Vigfusson of Iceland.

Only three other Canadians have won the award, including Matthew Coon Come, who led the Quebec Cree battle against hydro dam development in northern Quebec.

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