I rolled out of bed at dawn, awoken by the orange light filtering in through a small window. Outside, the sunrise painted a bank of low clouds with orange and red hues in the east. Turning west, a full rainbow extended above, touching the horizon in two places. It seemed a miracle of serendipity, or perhaps a bold expression of superlatives by the place I was visiting: Pimachiowin Aki, the land that gives life. The community was named Poplar River First Nation, located on the banks of the Poplar River, Manitoba, Canada.
Pimachiowin Aki is a UNESCO World Heritage site on the shores of Lake Winnipeg and straddling the Canadian provinces of Manitoba and Ontario. It became a World Heritage site in 2018 and was the first site recognized for both cultural and natural heritage. In fact, the application submitted by the government of Canada on behalf of four Anishinaabe First Nations and two provinces led to changes in the way mixed (natural and cultural) nominations are evaluated. Today, the entire 29,040 km2 protected area, the largest in the boreal shield ecoregion, has just over 6000 inhabitants and is managed by a non-profit corporation with representation from the two provincial governments and the Poplar River, Bloodvein River, Little Grand Rapids, and Pauingassi First Nations.
The previous afternoon Dr. Brooke Bateman, a colleague at Audubon, two Pimachiowin Aki Land Guardians, Brad and Luke, and I traveled up the Poplar River by canoe. We stopped along the way and replaced SD memory cards on two autonomous recording units hung on trees to record birdsong in the mornings. The recordings can then be ‘collected’ and analyzed by Audubon scientists with software produced by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology to determine the bird species found there and their relative abundance. This is one of many ecological monitoring activities conducted as part of the Land Guardians program. Others include monitoring water quality, and the moisture and organic composition of peatland soils. The Guardians serve as stewards and scientists and are central to a landscape-level monitoring program that pairs data collection with Indigenous ecological knowledge to track changes across the site over time. In addition to birds, they have documented the drying of peatland soils in response to climate change.
Pimachiowin Aki is the largest protected area located in the boreal shield of Canada, a physiographic formation formed by glaciers a few million years ago. It’s a broad, undulating landscape of over 3,000 lakes larger than 8 hectares, 5,000 freshwater marshes, and nearly 32,000 km of shoreline marshes. There are millions of birds from 200 different species born in Pimachiowin Aki each year, including 10 threatened species. There are 90 fish species, 55 mammals, 8 amphibians, and 14 reptiles that have been documented here. And protecting the carbon currently stored in the soils and trees in these forests from forest loss and degradation is key to global climate change mitigation.
Later that morning after the rainbow had disappeared and the sky cleared, we traveled by boat with a local fisherman, Justin, to a handful of islands on Lake Winnipeg. Formed by glaciers, the lake is shallow and dotted with low-lying islands of granite rock, some bald and some covered with trees, shrubs, moss, and lichens. All were teeming with insects and as it was early September there were many migratory birds about, Palm Warblers the most abundant.
Reconnecting to their land, language, and Traditional teachings was led by Community Elders, who also led the UNESCO application from start to finish. Elders shared with us that the communities are now recovering their cultural heritage through these spiritual camps and other community activities. Much was lost during programs of forced assimilation and re-education practiced for over 50 years by the Canadian government. These programs ended in 1998. In the 2010s, Poplar River was fortunate to receive funding to support a series of community retreats where everyone could participate in spiritual camps and begin to heal from the wounds of discrimination and forced assimilation. The Land Guardians program within each community provides employment opportunities for people to work on and care for their lands. The federal government helps to fund these programs, and now Pimachiowin Aki provides technical support along with some additional funding. Today, these Land Guardian programs are collectively known as the Pimachiowin Aki Guardians Network.
As a scientist and conservationist, I enjoyed visiting and experiencing the natural beauty of Pimachiowin Aki. And, I walked away from the visit understanding that we must fight for the preservation of rare cultures with the same vigor that we pursue the preservation of birds and biodiversity if we are truly interested in the future of the Earth.