How a complex process of determining responsible land use in Nunavut might show the world how to do it well
A complex process of determining a responsible land use plan in Nunavut can show the world how to do it well
IT WAS THE HEADLINE ON THE ANNOUNCEMENT OF the report that hit me hard. “Human well-being at risk,” it read. The logic, when I read further, contained two points. The first: biodiversity — the dizzying variety of life forms on the planet — continues to drop in every single region of the world. The second: these declines are impairing nature’s ability to keep people going.
The report, by the Intergovernmental Science-policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES), which came out in March, is the blue-ribbon scientific examination of the state of nature, if you exclude what’s happening in the open ocean and right at the poles. More than 500 scientists contributed from more than 100 countries.
The organization’s chair, Robert Watson, an eminent environmental scientist at the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research at the University of East Anglia in the U.K., takes pains in the announcement to convince us that biodiversity matters to humans in a literal, if not poetic, sense. Homo sapiens needs the dance of other creatures on the planet to give us food, clean water and energy. Nature “contributes” to people. When nature suffers, therefore, so do people.
It’s a bid to make us care about the loss of biodiversity, one of the toughest environmental concepts to sell to the public. I guess, for some, it’s easier to imagine that nature “contributes” to us than to think that other creatures have their own intrinsic worth and the right to be here. I remember interviewing people a few years ago about the growing number of species on the brink of extinction, only to have one of them declare, without irony, that when another species goes extinct, it means humans are winning.
But if you do care about biodiversity, a report like this one can be instructive. For example, in the Americas alone — according to a regional analysis co-chaired by Jake Rice, who was chief scientist for Canada’s Department of Fisheries and Oceans until he retired a couple of years ago — populations of the average species are 31 per cent smaller than they were when Europeans arrived centuries ago.
That’s the result of such stresses as landscape degradation; pollution of air, water and land; invasive species taking hold. By 2050, as the effects of climate change kick in even more, that will rise to 40 per cent, a dramatic deepening of the biodiversity crisis.
Unless something changes. And here is where the report offers a few glimmers of hope. It is possible to slow the trend of loss. In some cases, it’s possible to restore biodiversity. Examples from every corner of the world show that when smart and thoughtful policies are established and enforced, things can get better. That’s especially true when Indigenous and local knowledge are brought into play.
In Canada, the potential policy superstar is the Nunavut land use plan. This is the blueprint for which parts of Nunavut will be opened to industrial development and which parts — and their creatures — will be protected.
Planning has been going for about a decade, and the latest word is that nothing will be final until 2022. When that happens, it will be binding on all levels of government, an unusual feature of any policy. This will be environmental and biodiversity policy writ large and firm. It means the key is to get it right before it’s passed.
The process to do that has been methodical, if necessarily messy. It involves extensive consultations with all 25 Inuit communities in Nunavut, as well as with the Dene in northern Manitoba and Saskatchewan, with the Inuit of northern Quebec and with other governments and their scientists, plus industry. It’s all happening even as the carbon-dioxide-heated Arctic continues to thaw and as pressure for industrial development grows.
More than most people on our planet, the Inuit of Nunavut know precisely how nature “contributes” to their lives. Many live off the land. They cherish their ability to feed their families through hunting and fishing. Will the new plan succeed in protecting traditional ice travel routes, important caribou calving grounds and critical bird habitat?
Conservationists and scientists the world over are holding their breath. This one part of Canada — the territory of Nunavut born along with the new millennium — has a fair shot at getting things wholly right for the species that matter, based on the best science we can muster.
If that happens, there will be celebrations across Canada’s three coasts and beyond. And not just for biodiversity, but for the heroic communities that showed the rest of the world how to keep it safe.1
ACCORDING TO A REGIONAL ANALYSIS BY THE DEPARTMENT OF FISHERIES AND OCEANS, POPULATIONS OF THE AVERAGE SPECIES IN THE AMERICAS ARE 31 PER CENT SMALLER THAN THEY WERE WHEN EUROPEANS FIRST ARRIVED