A couple works to win UNESCO recognition to help save the vast wilderness of Pimachiowin Aki and preserve a culture’s link to the Earth
For millennia, the Anishinaabe people of the Poplar River First Nation, in the Canadian province of Manitoba, have called the boreal forest that surrounds and sustains them Pimachiowin Aki: The Land That Gives Life.
Pimachiowin Aki runs from the eastern shores of the world’s 10th-largest freshwater lake (Lake Winnipeg) deep into an undisturbed wilderness that covers 8.25 million acres. The vast, verdant region crosses a provincial boundary into Ontario and encompasses the traditional territories of several other Indigenous First Nations.
In a world where nature is increasingly diminished and threatened by human activities, Pimachiowin Aki is that rare place with room to breathe. It looks today much like scientists say it did at the end of the last ice age about 12,000 years ago.
Entirely free from mining, logging, or hydroelectric development, this swath of forest forms the largest network of contiguous protected areas in Canada’s boreal shield. More than 5,600 freshwater lakes and 8,000 marshes dot the landscape. The intact forest and wetlands support more than 40 species of mammals, including threatened woodland caribou that require large and isolated tracts of intact habitat to thrive. Wolverines, black bears, minks, and lynxes are abundant, and 220 species of birds populate the trees, shorelines, and wetlands.
The Anishinaabe people have been the keepers of this land for more than 6,000 years, maintaining a culture rooted in respect for an environment that has provided them with the food, water, and shelter they need to survive the harsh northern climate. That relationship with the environment is evident in the Anishinaabe burial sites, long-abandoned settlements, early travel routes, and age-old trap lines that have become part of the fabric of the forest.
The international community has taken notice. In May, two advisory bodies to UNESCO recommended that the organization list Pimachiowin Aki as a World Heritage site in recognition of its “outstanding universal value.” The vast majority of territory within Pimachiowin Aki is already protected from development, but the designation would signal that its preservation is also in the global interest.
If listed, Pimachiowin Aki would be the first World Heritage site in North America recognized for both its cultural and natural values. The listing would also mark the culmination of a decade-long campaign by the First Nations of the region.
The inscription of Pimachiowin Aki on the World Heritage List was on the agenda for the 40th meeting of UNESCO’s World Heritage Committee at its July meeting in Istanbul.
But at the request of Canada, the committee agreed to refer the nomination after one First Nation withdrew from the project, giving time for Poplar River and the other Indigenous communities that support it to regroup and resubmit their bid for recognition.
Even with the recent setback, Pimachiowin Aki was hailed by several nations that said it provided a new model for World Heritage sites occupied by Indigenous peoples. UNESCO declared it a “landmark” nomination that “demonstrates how the indissoluble bounds that can exist between culture and nature might be recognized” on the World Heritage List.
“We will continue to work together for the ‘land that gives life.’ Our commitment to take care of the land for the world and for future generations is as strong as ever,” said Sophia Rabliauskas of Poplar River, a longtime advocate for Pimachiowin Aki.
Sophia and her husband, Ray, have worked tirelessly to have Pimachiowin Aki added to the UNESCO list because of their desire to share Anishinaabeg culture with the world, preserve it for their grandchildren, and protect a forest region that provides critical ecological services to the planet, such as helping to regulate the global climate.
“Anishinaabeg really believe that they’re inseparable from the land because of their sacred connection, because of their sacred responsibility of looking after the land,” Sophia Rabliauskas told Pew, which has shared the couple’s story in its People of the Boreal multimedia series.
The Anishinaabe protect the boreal forest because they are part of it, says Ray Rabliauskas. “The land and the people,” he says, “are the same.”
Jeff Wells, science director for the Boreal Songbird Initiative, is an adviser to The Pew Charitable Trusts’ international boreal conservation campaign.