By Lloyd Dolha
An Ojibway First Nations woman from northern Manitoba who spent years fighting to protect the boreal forests of her traditional territory is this year’s North American recipient of the prestigious international Goldman Environmental Prize – the largest prize of its kind.
Sophia Rabliaukas, 47 yr.s, of the 12,00 member Poplar River First Nation, is the only aboriginal Canadian woman to receive the award in its 17 year history and one of the few Canadians to ever receive the award.
A leader of the Poplar River First Nation, Rabliauskas has worked for several years with her people to secure the interim protection of their two million acres of undisturbed forest land on the eastern side of Lake Winnipeg.
In 2004, she and several members of her community led Poplar River in the development of a comprehensive land protection and management plan for their traditional territory which forms a significant part of Canada’s boreal forest.
Led by Rabliauskas under the guidance of her elders, she and other community members developed a full-scale blueprint of how they intended to document, protect and sustainably manage the forests, wildlife and other natural resources in a precedent-setting accomplishment among the first Nations of the boreal region.
“In Sophia’s way of day-to-day living, she embodies the spirit of our culture,” said Vera Mitchell, director of education and former chief. “This includes a sense of rightful ownership of the land. She isn’t one to just talk about something – she goes out and gets it done.”
The land use plan outlines the following core components: respecting traditional knowledge; benefiting from environmental analysis; developing economic development activities, including the protection of traditional hunting, trapping and fishing activities; and creating sustainable tourism opportunities.
One year before the plan’s completion in 2004, Rabliauskas helped secure five more years of “interim protection status” for the Poplar River territory, which continues to prohibit any logging, hydro, gas or mining development within the two million acres.
Rabliauskas and Poplar River’s current efforts are focused on securing permanent protection of their traditional territories from the Manitoba government.
The Manitoba government has announced its intention to grant permanent protection to the Poplar River lands, though have not done so as of yet.
With that victory, the Poplar River First Nation and a half dozen other Ojibway First Nations from Manitoba and Ontario will develop a draft submission proposing the area to be declared a UNESCO World Heritage site.
Canada’s vast boreal forest, which includes the Poplar River lands, plays a vital role in mitigating the negative impacts of climate change. As its intact forests and wetlands store massive amounts of carbon.
Threats to the health of Canada’s boreal forest are numerous: less than ten percent of the boreal is strictly protected from development, and despite growing awareness of the area’s global importance, about one half of Canada’s annual wood harvest comes from the boreal.
Canada’s boreal forest comprises 25 percent of the world’s and more than 90 percent of the country’s remaining large intact forests. They cover nearly 1.4 billion acres – some 58 percent of Canada’s land mass – the boreal forms a massive green belt across the centre of the country, stretching from Newfoundland to the Yukon.
The area is also home to some of the world’s largest populations of woodland Cariboo, wolves and bears, and more than 75 percent of North America’s waterfowl.
Winners of the environmental prize are selected by an international jury from confidential nominations submitted by a worldwide network of environmental organizations and individuals.
Each year, six recipients are selected from the six inhabited continents of the world and receive $125,000 U.S. from the Goldman Foundation to continue their work.
Only three other Canadians have won the award, including former AFN national chief Matthew Coon Come, who led the Quebec Cree in their battle against hydro development in northern Quebec.