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What the Amazonian Kayapó Have in Common With Indigenous Peoples of Canada's Boreal

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The Kayapo homeland in Brazil stands out as an island of intact forest against a surrounding onslaught of deforestation (fires highlighted in red, which were previously rare before development in the surrounding area). Photo Credit: NASA

At the recent World Wilderness Congress in October in Salamanca, Spain I had the opportunity to meet and talk with Barbara Zimmerman. Barbara is a Canadian tropical ecologist who has devoted the last 22 years of her life to joining with the Kayapó people of Amazonian Brazil in their struggle for the right to make their own decisions about the future use and governance of the Amazonian rainforest that their 8,000 citizens have called home for thousands of years.

The eleven million hectare homeland of the Kayapó--that's an area almost the size of Pennsylvania or twice the size of Nova Scotia -- was only 30 years ago a region remote and unthreatened by logging, ranching, and mining. In fact, until the 1960s, the Kayapó had minimal contact with any non-indigenous outsiders. They succeeded in organizing and achieving recognition of their rights to the land from the Brazilian government in the 1980s and 1990s.

But since then a tsunami of changes has engulfed the land surrounding the Kayapó homeland. Its boundaries are now stark lines--the lack of forest beyond their land contrasts sharply with the Kayapó's healthy, intact forest. The Kayapó continue to successfully thwart attempts by mining companies, oil and gas interests, cattle ranchers and others, to make inroads into their lands.

I was struck by the similarities of the Kayapó experiences and the stories of many indigenous peoples in Barbara's own country of Canada. There the Kitchenuhmaykoosib Inninuwug people of northern Ontario were jailed just a few years ago for peaceably trying to assert their rights to prevent Platinex, an industrial mining company, from developing a platinum mine on their lands without their consultation and consent. The Kitchenuhmaykoosib Inninuwug eventually prevailed (at least in the short term) and mining is not taking place in their homeland. Since then the community voted to declare 1.3 million hectares of their traditional lands to be off limits for development until further notice.

In the Sacred Headwaters region of northern British Columbia the Tahltan people have struggled to stop or slow a line-up of global mining and hydropower projects that they do not support. Blockades and protests over many years finally deterred Shell from its plans for a vast 400,000 hectare coal bed methane development on their lands but other projects have moved forward despite the Tahltan's opposition. Several Tahltan bands declared part of their traditional lands to be the Sacred Headwaters Tribal Heritage Area and wished to have it made off-limits to industrial development but the issue remains unresolved as a number of mining and energy companies continue their efforts for industrial development in the region.

The Dehcho First Nations of the Northwest Territories refused to agree to the routing of a 1,200-km natural gas pipeline across their land without a settled lands claim agreement for their 20 million hectare traditional territory. The Dehcho developed a leading-edge comprehensive land-use plan that identified new protected areas and other conservation zones that would have protected over 50% of their lands. Working with this vision, the Dehcho succeeded in expanding the Nahanni National Park Reserve, and are now finalizing both their land use plan and new protected areas within their region with the federal and territorial governments.

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Nahanni National Park in the Northwest Territories. Photo Credit: Steve Kallick

In the eastern part of the Northwest Territories, despite objections by The Lutsel K'e Dene First Nation, Yellowknives Dene First Nation, Deninu Kué First Nation and the Tlicho Government, the Canadian Federal Government recently gave approval for a new diamond mine to proceed.

The Inuit of Nunatsiavut have produced a plan to place 1.4 million hectares off limits to development for ten years but the government of Newfoundland and Labrador has rejected the recommendation and started a new process to limit the amount of land that is under conservation protection. This plan went to judicial review at the request of Nunatsiavut and recently the Supreme Court of Newfoundland and Labrador ruled that indeed the provincial government had not fulfilled their obligations.

The Grand Council of the Crees and the member communities of Waswanipi, Nemaska, Ouje-Bougoumou, Mistissini, and Waskaganish in Quebec have resisted the continued inroads of logging companies into their lands that has led to a decline in Woodland Caribou. They have recently released a plan to halt further losses by proposing conservation measures including establishing 930,000 hectares of new protected areas in the Broadback River Watershed but the plan has not been moved forward by the Government of Quebec.

The communities of the Matawa First Nations Council and the Mushkegowuk Council in northeastern Ontario are facing a massive onslaught of mining activity because their homelands overlap with what the mining industry calls "The Ring of Fire" an extensive series of potentially lucrative deposits of chromium. The communities are struggling to complete individual land-use plans but there is no framework in place to assess the total cumulative impacts from the various projects and proposed transportation infrastructure. There is a proposal in place to build a 300 km railway into this currently still ecologically intact area without full consideration of its long term impact or the desires of the impacted indigenous communities.

The countless Impact Benefit Agreements and other cooperative agreements that indigenous governments across Canada have signed with mining, forestry, pipeline, and hydro companies bears clear witness to the fact that Canadian indigenous peoples are not against development. But they are against development at any cost and without their meaningful say in whether and how a development should proceed on their lands. Indigenous peoples around the world from Brazil to Canada and beyond are showing a leading path toward how to balance industrial land-use and the need to maintain healthy lands, waters, and wildlife for future generations. All of us, but perhaps especially government and industry decision-makers, need to start paying attention to their leadership and start being more responsible to ensure our collective future.