Clearcutting Canada’s boreal forest threatens Indigenous Peoples’ rights, the survival of wildlife like the iconic boreal caribou, and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s commitment to combat climate change, according to a new report by the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC). The “Amazon of the North” stores more carbon than the world’s tropical forests, locking in more carbon than the world releases in three decades of burning fossil fuels and making its continued existence critical for limiting the worst impacts of climate change.
“The significance of Canada’s boreal forest to the survival of the planet cannot be overstated: this ‘Amazon of the North’ is stopping a global climate bomb,” said Anthony Swift, Canada Project Director for NRDC. “Yet every year, more than 1 million acres of intact boreal forest are lost to logging, mining, and oil and gas. For too long, Canada has traded on its reputation as an environmental leader, while gambling with the future of the boreal and the world as we know it. Canada must act now to protect a forest that will help save the planet,” said Swift.
Located just below the Arctic Circle, the boreal crowns the earth’s Northern Hemisphere, accounting for one-third of the world’s forested areas and 1 billion acres of Canadian lands.
Preserving the boreal forest must become a global priority for Canadian federal and provincial governments, as well as U.S. corporate customers and consumers of boreal wood products globally. NRDC, which has worked to protect Canada’s environment alongside Indigenous Peoples for decades, recommends the following steps to protect the boreal:
- Canadian policymakers should partner with Indigenous communities to take immediate action to protect the boreal forest through mandatory and enforceable caribou protections and Indigenous-led management;
- Canada’s federal government should account for logging’s negative climate impacts and address those impacts in its national strategy to limit carbon emissions;
- Corporate customers in the international marketplace – particularly U.S. companies, which purchase eighty-percent of Canada’s boreal forest product exports – should use their purchasing power to urge Canada’s governments to prioritize boreal protection and Indigenous-led land management.
Boreal and Indigenous People’s Rights
The boreal forest is home to more than 600 Indigenous communities, whose cultural identities are entwined with the forest. Because of colonial legacies related to land rights and the fact that many remaining commercially viable forests in Canada are located on Indigenous lands, Indigenous Peoples often suffer the worst of Canada’s unsustainable logging. Despite logging’s devastating impacts, many Nations and communities are largely excluded from decision making about development in their territories. However, to protect their homelands, many Indigenous Peoples are leading land-use planning initiatives, including protected area development, frameworks for caribou management and others that have become models for sustainable economic development across Canada.
“The Boreal forest is home to over six hundred Indigenous Communities who have maintained and evolved in a balanced relationship with this vital ecosystem for over ten thousand years,” said Valerie Courtois, Director of the Indigenous Leadership Initiative. “ As Indigenous Peoples, we have the cultural responsibility of ensuring its health and vitality for future generations, and as Nations, our Rights and Titles need to be recognized and upheld.”
Chief Christian Awashish of the Atikamekw First Nation of Opitciwan said, “It is important to understand that we are not against economic development nor do we oppose forestry. However, we believe that the management of the natural resources within our ancestral territory, Nitaskinan, must be carried out only under our consent, at our own pace, and according to our values. The boreal forest is our pantry; respect for our Mother Earth is our first priority. The preservation of traditional practices such as hunting, fishing and gathering is critical to our people and to our culture. We believe that it is possible to find the right balance between extracting natural resources and respecting our cultures, without disturbing the delicate balance of our territory.”
Boreal and Climate
Canada’s boreal forest is extremely effective at storing carbon when forested areas remain undisturbed and soils are intact - there is as much carbon stored in its trees and soils as is in all the world’s recoverable oil reserves combined. But when the forest and soils are heavily logged and degraded, greenhouse gases are released into the atmosphere and the forest’s ability to continue storing carbon is hampered. Canada says it wants to be a climate leader, but it’s unclear how destroying one of the world’s largest natural carbon storehouses will achieve this.
Between 1996 and 2015, more than 28 million acres of boreal forest were logged, an area roughly the size of Ohio. Clearcutting in the boreal forest is undermining Canada’s efforts to combat climate change, by adding annual greenhouse gas emissions equivalent to those of 5.5 million vehicles to the country’s already accounted-for emissions. While Prime Minister Trudeau and his Environment Minister describe themselves as crusaders against the worst impacts of climate change, an analysis by NRDC concluded that each year, clearcutting accounts for 12 percent of the annual emissions Canada agreed to cut by 2030 under the Paris Agreement.
Boreal and Wildlife
Clearcut logging removes nearly all trees from an area, degrading intact forests and leaving ranges greatly diminished for species like the American marten, Canada lynx, wolverine and boreal caribou. Logging’s impact is best illustrated by the decline of the boreal caribou, an “indicator species” for the health of the forest more broadly. Boreal caribou have declined significantly due to habitat loss, particularly from logging, and now occupy only half their historic range. Of Canada’s 51 boreal caribou ranges, only 14 are currently considered sufficient to support self-sustaining populations. However, not a single Canadian province or territory has finalized a conservation plan to protect boreal caribou habitat, despite the federal government’s call to do so under the Species at Risk Act. Without policies that protect the critical habitat for this species, scientists and government reports predict that boreal caribou populations will continue to decline.
Boreal and the International Marketplace
International demand for wood products, especially demand from the U.S., is a major driver of the Canadian forest industry’s push into previously undisturbed boreal forest. The international market accounts for more than half of the revenue Canada brings in from the industry, with two-thirds of this coming from the U.S. Much of boreal clearcutting ends up in throwaway landfill products like tissue, toilet paper, and newsprint.
Since last fall, 21 companies with a combined annual revenue of more than $140 billion have written to provincial and federal government officials urging action in partnership with Indigenous Peoples to protect boreal caribou habitat. These companies voiced their desire for “materials that are free of controversy and have been acquired through sustainable harvesting.” Today, companies continue to press federal and provincial governments to fulfill their obligations to protect the boreal caribou.
For a French translation of this press release, please go here.
- Cutting It Close: How Unsustainable Logging in Canada’s Boreal Forest Threatens Indigenous Rights, Wildlife, and the Global Climate
- NRDC Report Calls on Canada to Protect the Boreal Forest
- NRDC: Save the Canadian Boreal
The Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) is an international nonprofit environmental organization with more than 3 million members and online activists. Since 1970, our lawyers, scientists, and other environmental specialists have worked to protect the world's natural resources, public health, and the environment. NRDC has offices in New York City, Washington, D.C., Los Angeles, San Francisco, Chicago, Bozeman, MT, and Beijing. Visit us at www.nrdc.org and follow us on Twitter @NRDC.