UNESCO to review hydro, oilsands threats to Wood Buffalo National Park

UNESCO to review hydro, oilsands threats  to Wood Buffalo National Park
The world’s largest beaver dam is located in the heart of Wood Buffalo National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site.Photo courtesy of Parks Canada.

The United Nations’ UNESCO world heritage committee is urging Canada to delay any decisions on development projects that could irreversibly impact Wood Buffalo National Park, including BC Hydro’s Site C dam, in response to a petition put forth by the Mikisew Cree First Nation.

The Mikisew petitioned the UN body for education, science and culture to add the world heritage site to its list of sites in danger in December 2014, citing impacts from hydroelectric dams and oilsands mining on the Peace-Athabasca Delta. That petition was backed by former Parks Canada officials, scientists, NGOs and other indigenous groups.

Last week, the committee met in Bonn, Germany and decided the petition merited a fact-finding mission to the park, which has been a UNESCO site since 1983.

“It’s been overwhelming. Just being here this week, we’ve received a lot of support,” Melody Lepine, director of Mikisew’s government and industry relations, told the Journal from Germany. “We’re just really pleased with the draft decision that went through so quickly and without any changes. There was no debate, no discussion; it just went through so easily.”

In its decision, the world heritage committee noted the lack of First Nations participation in oilsands monitoring efforts, and affirmed concerns raised in the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s (IUCN) 2014 World Heritage Outlook about the impacts of dams on the delta.

The committee has requested that Canada undertake a strategic environmental assessment to address the cumulative impacts of hydro and oilsands development within the park, and to “not take any decision related to any of these development projects that would be difficult to reverse.”

“When I read that, it almost sounds like Canada shouldn’t be giving any approvals,” Lepine said. “How Canada’s interpreting that, though, is to be determined.”

A joint monitoring mission composed of UNESCO and IUCN representatives will now be visiting the park to review the impacts of development, evaluate its state of conservation and to carry out more in-depth conversations with Parks Canada, the Mikisew Cree First Nation, provincial governments and other stakeholders, like BC Hydro and oilsands companies.

“It seems thorough, that they’re independent and unbiased. They’re going there to study and determine if the impacts we’ve indicated in our petition are what they are, so that’s their way of going there and validating everything,” Lepine said.

Parks Canada will also be required to submit an updated report on the state of conservation in the park for UNESCO examination by Dec. 1, 2016.

Concerns ‘overstated’: Parks Canada

In its submission to the UNESCO committee, Parks Canada called the concerns raised by Mikisew “overstated,” and said the conservation situation is far from critical.

“The petitioners refer to a number of specific proposed developments outside the park, including the proposed Site C Dam on the Peace River in British Columbia and proposed mining activity in proximity to Wood Buffalo’s southern boundary. It is important to recognize that Canada has – at both the federal and provincial levels – robust environmental assessment and permitting processes,” states the letter from Parks Canada’s George Green, head of the Canadian delegation to the world heritage committee.

“The governments of Canada and Alberta are committed to developing the oil sands…in an environmentally responsible way,” Green added.

Since Mikisew filed its petition, Green said Parks Canada outlined a number of new commitments in relation to issues raised by the First Nation, which include continued monitoring of water levels on the Peace River and delta; enhanced monitoring and research on the effects of flow regulation and climate change on biodiversity in the delta; and increased discussions with Aboriginal groups, BC Hydro and the Alberta and B.C. governments on management practices to protect the delta.

Management actions needed now: Mikisew

Though Mikisew is aware of those commitments, Lepine said there has been no indication that they’re being implemented. While Mikisew participates in Park’s Canada’s Peace Athabasca Delta Environmental Monitoring Program (PADEMP), she said there are few management outcomes.

“PADEMP doesn’t seem to have a lot of funding and it doesn’t seem to be operating under a management process in dealing with anything that they do find. They’re strictly just focused on monitoring, so how does that tie into any legislation and reporting from Canada to UNESCO on how they’re managing this world heritage site?” Lepine said. “Canada’s made some commitments of working further with us. We’re yet to see what that looks like because we haven’t had any conversations yet about those commitments.”

Apart from the petition, Mikisew is one of many First Nations who have filed judicial reviews of the Site C dam approval in B.C. If constructed, the BC Hydro project would be the third dam on the Peace River. Land-users in the Peace-Athabasca Delta have complained of massive landscape changes due to existing hydro projects and fear a third will have irreversible impacts on the delta and their traditional way of life. Construction is expected to begin this summer.

“We feel there has been no consultation, and specifically because we’ve been asking Canada throughout the whole process regarding Site C to assess the impacts on the delta, on the world heritage site,” Lepine said. “For Canada to say it’s not going to impact this site and the delta, they have no evidence to prove that because they didn’t even include the delta in their regional study area. They didn’t look at impacts that far downstream.”

Lepine said Mikisew is now preparing for next year’s world heritage committee meeting in Istanbul, Turkey, where the findings of the mission will likely be presented and a decision could be made on the request to have the park listed as a UNESCO site in danger.

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