"We belong to the land; the land doesn't belong to us"
— Chief Clarence Easter, Chemawawin Cree Nation
This story first appeared in The Nature Conservancy's 2017 Global Annual Report.
Stretching across northern Canada from the Yukon to Newfoundland and Labrador, the country’s boreal forest is the largest intact forest remaining on Earth. This vast, interconnected landscape provides habitat for billions of birds every spring, gives room for moose and herds of woodland caribou to roam, and stores 208 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide—the equivalent of 26 years of global carbon emissions.
For thousands of years, First Nations communities thrived within the richness and sustenance of the boreal as the land’s original stewards. But as demand for resources grew, their authority over their traditional territories was challenged, their economies were destabilized and their immemorial way of living was threatened. Chief Clarence Easter leads the Chemawawin Cree Nation in Manitoba, Canada, which is partnering with TNC Canada: “We belong to the land; the land doesn’t belong to us. I’ve always lived off the land. Growing up, the land was your provider, your mentor, your healer; the berries you pick, the medicines you get, everything you got from the land … you didn’t rely on anyone else."
“In 1964, the Chemawawin people were relocated by the government to make way for a dam. We had no say. That’s what people don’t like, and they’ll resist it—all the way. They damaged our area with the flooding before; now they are going to desecrate it with cutting all the trees down. To me that’s not right. I’m not anti-development, but we need to maintain a healthy forest as well. How do we do that? That’s where we need some capacity.
“I need some science to be able to understand it, and be able to say yes or no—to government, to industry. That’s what I want to bring to the table. I’m hoping we can change some minds. That’s what I want from this agreement with TNC Canada, not just for our people, but for everybody else out there.
"We need to turn over a new leaf. The caribou, the moose, the ducks, the muskrat, the rabbits—they provided for us a long time before; now we have to do something to provide for them. I want to be able to come back in my next life to a clean environment that our grandchildren can live in, that will help them make a living. That’s what keeps me going; that’s the whole essence of why I am here.”
Boreal wetlands near The Pas, Manitoba, harbor more than 230 bird species and are an important staging area during migration. © Eamon MacMahon/TNC
The Nature Conservancy envisions a future where indigenous rights form the root of community-led conservation and economies. We support the leadership of the Chemawawin Cree and 12 other First Nations of the region, and are working to strengthen their decision-making authority over management of 35 million acres within their territories.
This year, we held discussions to better understand the goals of each community. We brought representatives together at a workshop to discuss sustainable forestry, and offered training on natural resources planning.
Next year, we will continue to foster relationships with the First Nations and support them in realizing their goals. We will investigate sustainable economic development opportunities through adopting improved forest management practices, including forest carbon markets. We will help protect the habitat of moose, a cultural mainspring, by lending scientific expertise. And we’ll facilitate community-based planning by sharing best practices among indigenous stewardship networks and assisting with financing.
Our hope is to create a new model of sustainable forest management, and ensure the boreal’s original inhabitants remain its primary caretakers. You can support this critical work to conserve Canada's vast boreal forest by donating to TNC Canada.