Originally published in the Ottawa Hill Times on November 5, 2018
For decades, Canada has enjoyed an international reputation as an environmental leader. But as Canada fails to take action to stop the widespread degradation of critical caribou habitat in the boreal forest, that reputation is becoming harder to maintain. Canada’s entrenchment in the industry-dominated status quo has implications that extend far beyond caribou, threatening to undermine its touted international commitments to climate change mitigation, Indigenous rights, and protected areas.
Industrial activities like logging and mining are rapidly degrading large areas of Canada’s boreal forest, threatening the continued existence of boreal caribou. Yet, no province or territory has enacted meaningful caribou protections, despite their obligations under the Species at Risk Act. Caribou are an “indicator species,” meaning the health of their populations is considered a barometer for the health of the boreal forest more broadly. As such, their decline signals even more widespread concerns.
In allowing industry to degrade boreal caribou habitat, Canada is pushing the planet closer to a climate disaster, wiping out one of the earth’s greatest defenses against climate change. The recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report indicated that humanity has as little as twelve years to rapidly reduce emissions in order to avoid truly catastrophic climate impacts. The boreal forest, which sequesters carbon from the atmosphere and stores nearly twice as much carbon as is in all the world’s recoverable oil reserves combined, is vital to the success of our efforts to avoid a truly devastating future.
The destruction of caribou habitat, which overlaps some of the boreal’s most carbon-rich regions, threatens to turn this carbon vault into a disaster for the climate. When the boreal is degraded, it not only loses its capacity to continue sequestering carbon, but it also releases carbon that had been locked up into the atmosphere. According to a recent estimate, each year, clearcutting from logging alone releases 26 million metric tons of carbon, which accounts for 12 percent of the emissions Canada agreed to cut by 2030 under the Paris Agreement.
Canada’s appetite for industrial development in caribou habitat also undermines its international commitments to Indigenous rights. Many Indigenous Peoples’ ways of life depend on caribou. Yet there are still numerous instances of Indigenous territories being degraded over communities’ objections. The UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, which Canada endorsed “without qualification” in 2016, recognizes Indigenous rights to their lands and resources. When Canada approves industrial activity in the boreal forest without free, prior and informed consent, it violates internationally-recognized Indigenous rights.
Only 10.6 percent of Canada’s total landmass is protected, placing Canada dead last among the G7 countries and still a long way from its global biodiversity commitments. Under the 2010 Convention on Biological Diversity’s Aichi Biodiversity Targets, Canada pledged to conserve at least 17 percent of its land and inland waters by 2020. Caribou habitat protection will be an essential means of gaining ground and achieving the Aichi Targets. Indigenous communities have already been leaders in proposing protected areas, giving Canada a ready-made template for safeguarding caribou populations. Canada needs to embrace Indigenous Peoples’ environmental leadership and work swiftly alongside them to avoid the embarrassment of reaching 2020 at the back of the pack.
At this a crisis moment for caribou and other boreal species, Indigenous leaders, policymakers, scientists, NGOs, and others gathered in Ottawa for the 17th North American Caribou Workshop (NACW) last week. The consensus was clear: there is no more time to waste to save the boreal caribou. Canada must work with Indigenous Peoples, provinces, and territories to implement meaningful caribou protections. Where provinces and territories are failing to enact range plans in compliance with the Species at Risk Act, the federal government should step in to protect caribou habitat.
Caribou protection means so much more than just the protection of a single iconic species. It means staving off earth-altering carbon emissions. It means the protection of Indigenous ways of life and the recognition of Indigenous rights to their homelands. It means progress toward achieving international goals around protected areas and safeguarding some of Canada’s most precious ecosystems. With limited time left for action, Canada has to decide now whether it will live up to its obligations to the world and future generations.