The boreal forest of Canada just got a whole new crop of defenders—and not a moment too soon. The stakes for the world’s largest remaining intact forest have never been higher as every minute the Canadian logging industry strips away seven NHL hockey rink-sized areas of boreal forest, with dire consequences for wildlife, the global climate, and the Indigenous Peoples who depend on it for their food and culture. Much of the logging goes to supply U.S. demand, including for single-use products like toilet paper. The Canadian government and provinces have mostly continued business as usual, failing to implement scientifically recommended protections for key species such as the boreal caribou. But now, thanks to CAD $6.4 million in government funding for an Indigenous Guardians Pilot Program, the boreal forest and its species will have a more robust network of protectors to safeguard, monitor, and research some of its most precious intact areas.
Study after study have shown that, where Indigenous Peoples manage the land, biodiversity is greater and carbon stores better protected. The same is true in the boreal forest of Canada, where Indigenous Peoples have long fought to protect their boreal forest homelands from industrial threats like logging, mining and tar sands extraction, and to manage their land on their own terms. As Indigenous Leadership Initiative (ILI) Director Valerie Courtois, has said, “The most innovative, boldest creative conservation solutions have all come from Indigenous Peoples.” The Indigenous Guardians Program, a network of “moccasins and mukluks on the ground,” is a prime example of this leadership. For years, under ILI’s guidance, communities have developed Guardians programs to monitor, protect, and learn about their land and empower their people. With the new federal funding, the Guardians Program will be able to have an even greater impact.
The CAD $6.4 million will fund twenty-two Guardians programs across Canada. Some, like the Innu Guardians Program, have been around for years, while others, like the Cree Nation and the Kitigan Zibi Anishinabeg First Nation programs, will be brand new. Each program will have a slightly different structure and focus, depending on the threats and needs in the area. The Kitigan Zibi Guardians program, for example, will be more focused on monitoring, intergenerational education, and capacity-building. The Cree Nation’s program, meanwhile, will help the Nation’s ten communities develop local capacity to manage their territories and weigh in on industrial development proposals in critically important regions like the Broadback River Watershed.
Not only do Guardians programs benefit the forests, but they empower and strengthen Indigenous communities, both economically and culturally. They create much-needed jobs in remote regions and have the potential to generate $3.70 in conservation, social, and economic benefits for every $1 invested. Through Guardians programs, younger generations have new opportunities to learn from elders and connect the land and their ways of life.
This is an important first step, but the Guardians Program will need a lot more funding to meet the demands of caring for the boreal forest and Canada’s other ecosystems. In some cases, the federal government’s funding will only cover one or two Guardians for territories spanning areas larger than Grand Canyon National Park. In contrast, Australia’s Indigenous rangers program, which provided a model for the Guardians in Canada, received $250 million in funding from the federal government to cover 2018-2021. Australia is 25 percent smaller than Canada.
The Canadian government also needs to provide the Indigenous Guardians with backup; the fate of the boreal forest and the global climate can’t rest entirely on the Guardians’ shoulders. Canada needs to finally put the brakes on some of its runaway development through meaningful boreal caribou habitat safeguards, more Indigenous Protected Areas, and climate policies that account for the significant carbon emissions from logging. It also must fully recognize Indigenous Peoples’ rights to their land, including to free, prior and informed consent (FPIC). Failing to do so will continue to erode its reputation as a sustainable source of forest products.
Canada and the rest of the global community have a lot to learn about how to effectively care for our environment. For too long, we’ve envisioned ourselves as above earth’s limitations, with carte blanche to use our forests and other ecosystems as we please. As we face the reality of our environmental crises and search for pathways toward sustainability, we have to learn from those who have a much better, longer track record as environmental stewards. Now, thanks to an even more robust Indigenous Guardians program, we have a chance to learn from the experts and follow their leadership.