We take care of the land, and the land takes care of us: Indigenous-led conservation

A member of the Taku River Tlingit First Nation Land Guardians program looks for invasive species in northern British Columbia. Photo Credit: IBCC

The Hewlett Foundation has been supporting locally led conservation work to protect the Boreal forest in Canada for nearly a decade. The Resources Legacy Fund, a Hewlett partner, manages that grantmaking program, the International Boreal Conservation Campaign, with the goal of identifying and supporting local Indigenous leadership for conservation solutions. Valérie Courtois, member of the Ilnu community of Mashteuiatsh, is one of a group of Indigenous leaders who came together in 2013 to launch the Indigenous Leadership Initiative (ILI) to strengthen Indigenous nationhood, fulfill Indigenous cultural responsibility to the land, support a new generations of Indigenous leaders, and help communities develop the skills and capacity that they will need as they continue to become fully respected and equally treated partners in Canada’s system of governance and its economic and social growth.

Valerie Courtois
Valérie Courtois (Photo credit: J.P. Moczulski)

Resources Legacy Fund, with support from the Hewlett Foundation, the Pew Charitable Trusts, Ducks Unlimited Incorporated, the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation, and other philanthropies, supports this critical effort. Courtois is director of ILI and a registered professional forester who specializes in Indigenous issues, forest ecology and ecosystem-based management and planning. She has served as a forestry advisor for the Assembly of First Nations of Québec and Labrador, forestry planner for the Innu Nation, and as a consultant in Indigenous forestry, including certification and spatial planning, and caribou planning. Here, she shares a perspective on why Indigenous conservation matters.


In the heart of the Northwest Territories, the Łutsël K’e Dene First Nation has led the creation of one of the biggest protected areas in Canada. Three times larger than Yellowstone National Park, the area unfolds along the eastern shores of the Great Slave Lake. Towering cliffs rise out of the water, and broad waves of boreal forest give way to stretches of tundra. Caribou, musk oxen, moose and tens of thousands of birds find a home on these lands. A mosaic of lakes and wetlands provide clean waters for the entire region.

Last August, the Łutsël K’e Dene First Nation signed an agreement with the Government of Canada and the Government of the Northwest Territories to permanently protect 6.5 million acres of these vibrant lands. The entire area, called Thaidene Nëné, is an Indigenous protected area. Parts of it are also designated as a national park, territorial park, and wildlife conservation area. All 6.5 million acres of it will be co-managed by Łutsël K’e Dene First Nation.

The new protected lands show the scale of what can be achieved when Indigenous Nations take the lead on conservation: The biggest, most ambitious proposals for conserving lands in Canada are coming from Indigenous Nations and provide a model for the world of a new kind of land and water stewardship.

In the Northwest Territories, the Dehcho First Nations helped expand the Nahanni National Park Reserve fourfold to include the entire 7.8 million-acre watershed. (Photo credit: Peter Mather)

I’ve seen this movement building over the past 20 years. Dozens of Indigenous Nations across Canada and worldwide are proposing new Indigenous-led protected areas. A year ago, the Dehcho First Nations passed a Dene law to create the Edéhzhíe Dehcho Protected Area—a sweeping stretch of boreal forest, headwater lakes and caribou grounds west of Yellowknife in the Northwest Territories.

Dehcho elder Jonas Antoine called Edéhzhíe “a gift for the future.”

North of the Dehcho in the Upper Mackenzie River Valley, the Sahtu Dene are proposing Indigenous protected areas that would conserve over 25 million acres of boreal forest. These lands store enormous amounts of carbon in soil, wetlands, and permafrost—the equivalent of almost 35 years of Canada’s annual greenhouse gas emissions.

And in northern Manitoba, the Sayisi Dene First Nation has proposed protection of over 12 million acres of the Seal River watershed which provides habitat for millions of nesting birds and tens of thousands of migrating waterfowl, endangered caribou and other important species.

These nations are not alone. I’ve visited communities across the country—from Ross River in the west to my own Nation’s Nitassinan in the east—who are using cultural protocols, Indigenous laws and innovative tools to conserve the land.

The Indigenous Leadership Initiative is dedicated to supporting this work. ILI

works with dozens of First Nations to support their stewardship and help foster anew generation of Indigenous leaders because we believe fulfillment of the Indigenous cultural responsibility to lands is an essential part of Indigenous nationhood.

It is in our shared interest to ensure our lands remain healthy and vibrant for generations to come.

Now is the time

We need this model of conservation now more than ever. The United Nations Global Assessment Report on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services found that more than 1 million plant and animal species are facing extinction. Yet the report also identified an important bright spot: lands and waters managed by Indigenous Peoples tend to be healthier and more vibrant.

A recent University of British Columbia study had similar findings. Researchers looked at land and species data from Canada, Australia, and Brazil and found that the number of birds, mammals, amphibians, and reptiles were highest on lands managed by Indigenous communities.

Indigenous stewardship works because it honors the relationship between people and the land. It recognizes that caribou herds, salmon runs, and songbird nesting grounds benefit from respectful management. In Indigenous communities, that management is guided by Indigenous law, generations of traditional knowledge, and cultural responsibility.

We take care of the land, and the land takes care of us.

Many Indigenous protected areas are managed by Indigenous Guardians who are trained in Indigenous and western science. These guardian programs literally transform people’s lives and communities. Young people grow up knowing they can find jobs that ensure their culture can thrive. Women and men gain professional skills and support their families with good wages. And people of all generations see that reconnecting with culture, healing from trauma and feeling pride in identity— is rooted in the land. By honoring the cultural responsibility to the land, Indigenous Peoples are strengthening our communities and expressing our nationhood.

A member of the Dehcho K'ehodi Indigenous Guardians program tests water quality in the Northwest Territories. (Photo credit: Amos Scott)

We are also helping Canada meet its commitment to protect at least 17% of lands and freshwaters by 2020—a vow made in 2015 to help to stem the loss of animal and plant species around the globe. Should those targets be revised in future international agreements, Indigenous Peoples are poised to contribute to that goal.

It starts on the land, in Indigenous communities across the Boreal forest.

Ethel Blondin-Andrew, former Member of Parliament and now the chair of the Sahtu Secretariat in the Northwest Territories said: “We are incomplete without our environment, which should be healthy. It occurred to me that guardians need the land, and the land needs guardians.”

Valérie Courtois is a registered professional forester who specializes in Indigenous issues, forest ecology and ecosystem-based management and planning. She is a member of the Ilnu community of Mashteuiatsh, located on the shore of Peikuakami, or Lac-St-Jean. Courtois has been the Director of the Indigenous Leadership Initiative since 2013 and lives in Happy Valley—Goose Bay in Labrador, Canada.

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