Guest blog by Jennifer Skene
NRDC is working alongside the Waswanipi Cree First Nation to protect the last of their intact boreal forest homeland from Quebec’s aggressive logging proposal. Last week, NRDC called on Quebec to abandon their proposed five-year logging plan in the Broadback River watershed, a vital intact forest region in Waswanipi Cree territory. Quebec’s plan would be devastating for the Waswanipi, who have already had more than 90 percent of their traditional hunting grounds, located in the old-growth forests of the boreal forest, severely impacted by industrial logging. In addition, the expanded logging would destroy critical habitat for the threatened boreal caribou, and degrade an ecosystem crucial to mitigating global climate change.
A Major Threat to the Waswanipi Cree Way of Life
The Broadback River watershed—ground zero for Quebec’s logging plan—is part of Eeyou Istchee, the traditional territory of the Crees. The Cree have relied upon and been caretakers of the Broadback for millennia, and, as Waswanipi Chief Marcel Happyjack stated, the “Cree way of life still connects us very strongly to the land.”
The Waswanipi Cree have already suffered immensely as a result of clearcut logging operations in their territory. Today, only three of the Waswanipi Cree’s 62 traplines—areas essential for hunting, fishing, and trapping—remain undisturbed by logging and roads. Mandy Gull, former Deputy Chief of Waswanipi and now Deputy Chief for the Cree Nation Government (CNG), once described the devastation, “When we see these large spaces that are clearcuts … we often consider them to be dead zones. There’s no wildlife in these areas. The vegetation doesn’t grow back.”
Now, Quebec is proposing to allow clearcutting in an area with some of the last intact forest the Waswanipi have left—what the Waswanipi call the Mishigamish—which the Waswanipi have fought tirelessly for more than 15 years to protect. Safeguarding this region, as the Waswanipi have told the Quebec Government, is an essential means of “protecting the traditional Cree way of life.” The Waswanipi proposal to protect the Mishigamish is also supported by the CNG and surrounding Cree communities.
By approving logging in the Mishigamish, Quebec would signal that its commitments to Indigenous Peoples are capricious at best and take a backseat to the logging industry. Under Schedule C of the 2015 Agreement to Resolve the Baril-Moses Forestry Dispute, Quebec agreed to “meaningfully discuss” the creation of a protected area in Waswanipi territory. Since then, the Quebec Government has met with the Waswanipi to discuss the creation of a protected area only once—more than two years ago. The proposed plan also conflicts with the terms of the Agreement Concerning a New Relationship between Le Gouvernement du Québec and the Crees of Québec (“Paix des Braves Agreement”). The Paix des Braves Agreement commits Quebec to adapting its forestry regime to consider the Cree way of life. It also contains provisions for protecting “sites of special interest” that Quebec has ignored in its proposed plans.
The Destruction of Critical Boreal Caribou Habitat
Quebec’s proposed logging plans not only ignore Indigenous rights, but they also jeopardize the future of boreal caribou herds in the region. These herds are already suffering from severe habitat degradation, and are unlikely to survive long-term without strong plans for habitat recovery. Further disturbance to their ranges under the proposed logging plan could be devastating and is especially irresponsible considering that Quebec missed the federal deadline to submit science- and traditional knowledge-based boreal caribou range plans in October 2017. Approving the proposed logging plan would irrevocably trade away crucial opportunities to recover these herds.
Without a boreal caribou recovery plan in place, the last thing Quebec should do is open up new habitat areas to logging. The Cree have long demanded that Quebec protect caribou habitat in Eeyou Istchee. Given the paramount importance of boreal caribou to the Cree, robust recovery plans are essential to ensuring that Quebec’s logging plans align with the province’s commitments in the James Bay and Northern Quebec Agreement (JBNQA) to protect “the Cree people, their economies and the wildlife resources upon which they depend.”
The decline of boreal caribou in the Broadback is particularly troubling because caribou are an indicator species. This means that their populations serve as a barometer of the health of the broader boreal forest. Failing to protect the caribou ranges in the Broadback by allowing additional logging would threaten myriad other treasured species, such as black bears, golden and bald eagles, and wolverines—all of which depend on intact boreal habitat to survive.
The Degradation of a Vital “Shield Against Climate Change”
Quebec’s proposed logging plan would degrade forest regions vital to the global fight to keep temperature rise below 2 degrees Celsius. Waswanipi territory, as Chief Happyjack has outlined, “is literally a shield against climate change.” The boreal forest helps to mitigate climate change by both absorbing and storing carbon. The Canadian boreal’s soils, plants, and wetlands hold more than 12 percent of the world’s land-based carbon stock—an amount equivalent to more than 36 years of global carbon dioxide emissions from burning fossil fuels.
Quebec’s logging plan would simultaneously diminish a crucial resource for carbon storage and release vast quantities of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. As a 2017 report and technical paper from NRDC demonstrated, a clearcut acre of boreal forest acts as a net source of carbon dioxide for decades following harvest. Expanding logging into more intact forests in the Broadback would severely undermine Quebec’s aspirations to be a climate leader in Canada.
Quebec should not allow industrial development to come at the expense of the traditional Cree way of life, iconic species, and the global climate. Quebec should immediately withdraw plans to log in and near the Waswanipi proposed protected areas and resume nation-to-nation discussions with the Waswanipi Cree and the CNG under Schedule C of the 2015 Baril-Moses Agreement. A plan for the permanent protection of the Mishigamish should be jointly announced by July 2018, the third anniversary of the 2015 Agreement. We also urge Quebec to implement mandatory and enforceable protections for the caribou herds in Eeyou Istchee and across the province.
Once again, Quebec is prioritizing logging at the expense of Indigenous Peoples, species, and climate commitments. It is imperative that Quebec reconsider its irresponsible logging plan and take action to protect this precious intact forest regions, along with the communities and species that depend on it.