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This article was published 5/7/2018 (526 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
Pimachiowin Aki means "the land that gives life" in Ojibwa.
The area that stretches over 29,040 square kilometres of boreal forest in Manitoba and Ontario was finally named a World Heritage Site by the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) on July 1, after three attempts to win the designation by a group of four First Nations and the federal and provincial governments.
It’s the first site ever to be designated in both the cultural and heritage categories.
Predictably, while some applauded the work by members of the Poplar River, Bloodvein, Pauingassi and Little Grand Rapids First Nations in Manitoba as a positive step for the conservation and cultural preservation of a pristine example of boreal forest, others grumbled about lost revenues from potential resource extraction on the land, or bemoaned the $15 million spent on the 14-year campaign.
It’s difficult to imagine similarly short-sighted complaints being made about other UNESCO-recognized sites around the world. No one would suggest the historic missions of San Antonio, Texas, might be better used as a chain of hotels, nor would they bulldoze ancient Aït Ben-haddou, a stunning example of earthen clay ksar buildings in Morocco, because of the possiblity of a shale oil deposit in the area.
Some argue it’s hardly worth promoting Pimachiowin Aki’s UNESCO status, as a 2014 report by Marr Consulting claimed the remote site would attract fewer than 1,000 tourists a year.
Though eco-tourism is an increasingly popular concept, it’s likely true that Pimachiowin Aki will not attract visitors in the same numbers as Mission San Juan or the Aït Ben-haddou. But tourist appeal should not be the yardstick by which we measure a place’s worth — and a large part of the area’s value lies in its unspoiled nature.
Sophia Rabliauskas, the Poplar River woman who spearheaded the UNESCO campaign, told botanist and author Diana Beresford-Kroeger in 2016, "I get people telling me, ‘You will continue to keep your people in poverty because you’re stopping development, you’re stopping the community from benefiting…’ In the past, there were all these developments near Indigenous communities and none of those Indigenous communities ever benefited from these projects…
"We have been able to maintain that land for thousands of years."
From an environmental standpoint, the boreal forest is worth more, both to the Anishinaabe people and to the world at large, kept as it is. It is a perfect, balanced ecosystem that can’t be replaced or replanted.
The jack pines of the boreal forest are uniquely designed to be a carbon sink — the coniferous trees hold on to their needles for years and draw very few nutrients from the soil, while absorbing carbon from the air. Beneath the pines lies a secondary forest of lichen, which cleans the atmosphere and pulls nitrogen out of the air; it feeds off fallen pine needles and takes hundreds of years to grow.
As for its cultural value, we’re not used to thinking of the environment itself as a vessel of learning and tradition, but just as parishoners in San Antonio still attend services at the old missions, Anishinaabe in Pimachiowin Aki still hunt and fish their land, a space steeped in living history that’s as sacred as any man-made temple or monument.
It’s land that gives life, both literally and figuratively. The fact that it will be protected and preserved is something to celebrate.
Editorials are the consensus view of the Winnipeg Free Press’ editorial board.