‘Keepers of the land’: How Indigenous-led conservation can boost biodiversity

Shawanaga Island is set to become an Indigenous Protected and Conserved Area — a model experts say protects the environment and advances reconciliation
By Charnel Anderson - Published on Nov 04, 2021
Shawanaga First Nation is in the process of establishing an Indigenous Protected and Conserved Area on Shawanaga Island, in Georgian Bay. (Steven Kell)



For generations, Anishinaabe people have been stewards of Shawanaga Island, a 1,020-hectare island off the eastern shore of Georgian Bay dotted with white pines and wetlands, where wild rice and cranberries grow. Now the area — home to such at-risk species as the Massasauga rattlesnake, the Blanding’s turtle, and the Algonquin wolf — is poised to become Ontario’s newest Indigenous-led conservation area.

Indigenous-led conservation is not a new concept: many communities have cared for their territories in a sustainable way for millennia. But the approach has recently found increased support through the Indigenous Protected and Conserved Areas model adopted by the federal government. Experts say it is transforming the conventional approach to conservation across the country — and helping to advance reconciliation by honouring Indigenous governance and legal rights.

According to the Indigenous Circle of Experts, a group assembled to advise the federal government on achieving its biodiversity targets, IPCAs can take a number of forms. The Tŝilhqot’in, for example, are developing a management plan for the Dasiqox Tribal Park in British Columbia; the Haida Nation, also in B.C., manages 18 “protected areas,” including a national park.

mossy trees
Gwaii Haanas National Park Reserve in British Columbia is managed by the Haida Nation in partnership with the Government of Canada. (Dale Simonson, CC BY-SA 2.0)

Such initiatives have three things in common: they’re Indigenous-led, represent a long-term commitment to conservation, and elevate Indigenous rights and responsibilities, including, as ICE states, “the right to benefit from the bounty of the natural world and the reciprocal responsibility to care for and respect the land and water.”

In 2018, Canada began supporting Indigenous-led conservation initiatives through its Quick Start program, which provided funding to establish dozens of protected areas across the country. Since then, in an effort to conserve 25 per cent of land and 25 per cent of freshwater by 2025, Canada has provided funding to 27 Indigenous communities to establish IPCAs. In 2019, the federal government approved Shawanaga First Nation’s $1 million, four-year proposal. (Three other communities and one organization in Ontario have received federal funding for preliminary work.) The IPCA “acknowledges their history and their rights and responsibilities as keepers of the land,” says Chris Burtch, Shawanaga’s IPCA coordinator.

A spokesperson for Environment and Climate Change Canada tells TVO.org via email that the federal government is “committed to achieving reconciliation with Indigenous Peoples through a renewed nation-to-nation and government-to-government relationship based on recognition of rights, respect, co-operation, and partnership as the foundation for transformative change.” Through a grounding in “science, Indigenous knowledge and local perspectives,” they state, “Canada is committed to conserving 25% of marine and coastal areas by 2025, working toward 30% by 2030.”

Agenda segment, July 16, 2021: Can Indigenous knowing help solve climate change?

This marks a dramatic change from earlier federal approaches to conservation. The origins of the national-park system “really came out of North American settler colonialism,” says Robin Roth, the principal investigator of the Conservation Through Reconciliation Partnership, a group that supports Indigenous-led conservation in Canada. Rachel Plotkin, Boreal project manager for the David Suzuki Foundation, notes that “when protected areas were first established in Canada … they kicked Indigenous people out and banned them from hunting. Protected areas were mostly seen in the beginning as a place to restock games for white hunters.”

IPCAs, though, are geared toward “reconnecting humans to nature in a way that elicits an ethic of care and a sense of responsibility towards nature,” says Roth, who’s also a professor in the Department of Geography, Environment and Geomatics at the University of Guelph. “That’s distinctly different from what a classic protected area would be about. State-run protected areas, which have really become the gold standard of conservation around the world, are largely about protecting nature from humans.”

Though governmental approaches to conservation vary, maintaining ecological integrity tends to be the goal of Canada’s national-park system, which, as Roth explains, “continues to be understood as nature operating without humans.” This is evident in parks that are operated using “fortress conservation” or the Yellowstone model of conservation — what Roth calls the “classic state-run protected area model” — which allows people to “recreate” in the park, but otherwise limits them from creating a long-term reciprocal relationship with the land.

a lake and rocky shore with trees
Shawanaga First Nation’s IPCA aims to protect and conserve the plants and animals on Shawanaga Island. (Steven Kell)

It’s that kind of reciprocal relationship that Shawanaga First Nation aims to foster by encouraging “use of the island, especially for ceremony and culturally significant causes,” Burtch says. Some Shawanaga members feel disconnected from the land because of the residential-school system, he notes, “and the IPCA is an important step in re-establishing this connection between the people of Shawanaga and the island” while also acknowledging the history of Anishinaabe peoples as its stewards.

The community began the process of establishing an IPCA in 2019 and is currently working on a long-term management plan, which will balance conservation and protection with responsible use of the island;  Burtch says it’s expected to be in place by March 2023.

The First Nation has a species-at-risk research program that is identifying and supporting such species as the Massasauga rattlesnake and the Blanding’s turtle. During this summer’s construction season, for example, the team collected turtle eggs laid near the road, incubated them, and later released the hatchlings back into the wetlands. “Other protection measures will be made official once the IPCA has been finalized,” says Burtch.

closeup of hand holding two small turtles
This summer, Shawanga First Nation’s species-at-risk team enlisted the help of community members to release turtle hatchlings back into the local wetlands. (Shawanga First Nation Administration/Facebook)

Research suggests that Indigenous-managed lands are better at supporting biodiversity than state-run protected areas. A 2019 study that compared vertebrate biodiversity on Indigenous-managed land and government-protected areas in Canada, Brazil, and Australia discovered that “Indigenous-managed lands were slightly more vertebrate species rich than existing protected areas in all three countries, and in Brazil and Canada, that they supported more threatened vertebrate species than existing protected areas or randomly-selected non-protected areas.” The researchers also cite others studies that have found “curtailing Indigenous management involving fire, forestry, fishing, or hunting practices can cause declines in species diversity and ecosystem productivity.”

Unlike state-led conservation, Indigenous-led conservation doesn’t necessarily prohibit resource extraction. “There could be gathering of logs for non-industrial extraction, or small hydroelectric activities, or ecotourism,” says Plotkin.

That’s something Shawanaga First Nation is considering for the future. Burtch says that the community may eventually offer ecotourism, possibly involving guided canoe trips and overnight camping: “We would only use campsites that are already established so that we’re not disrupting anything else.”

For Roth, the rise of Indigenous-led conservation represents a shift in the way conservation is understood. “Western science has caught up to this — if we spend more time in nature, we’re healthier. But we also get reconnected to it, and we start making different decisions about how to live and how to be in relation with non-human nature. We start to see ourselves as part of it,” says Roth.

“That’s what’s missing right now. You could lock up 40 per cent of our territory in rigid protected areas, but we’re still going to have a climate problem. We’re still going to have a biodiversity problem, because, in essence, our culture is such that we’ve gotten to a point of constant extraction from nature, and we need to reconnect to it.”

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