UNESCO bid worth the effort and money: Manitoba Premier Greg Selinger

WINNIPEG – The Manitoba and Ontario governments are defending their decisions to commit more than $15 million to get UNESCO recognition for a large stretch of boreal forest along the interprovincial boundary.

Having Pimachiowin Aki designated a UNESCO world heritage site will attract tourists to the remote area and make it easier to protect it from development, Manitoba Premier Greg Selinger told reporters Monday.

“It gives you another level of protection and it gives you world-class recognition for what’s being done in Manitoba.”

The site could “fill a gap in boreal forest representation in the world heritage system,” Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources spokesman Michelle Nowak said in an email.

The attempt to get a stamp of approval from the United Nations agency has been in the works for almost a decade. It hit a snag recently when two advisory groups to UNESCO’s world heritage committee said there were problems with the bid and recommended that the issue be deferred for at least a year. The committee will consider that recommendation later this month.

The Manitoba government has committed $10 million toward a trust fund for Pimachiowin Aki — an Ojibwa phrase that translates as “the land that gives life” — and has spent another $4.5 million over the last decade. The Ontario government has contributed $850,000 to date.

The 33,400-square-kilometre area is almost half the size of New Brunswick and is home to five First Nations communities of between 500 and 2,000 people each.

The bid for UNESCO approval is a somewhat rare hybrid — combining a pristine natural environment with a cultural aspect that centres on traditional First Nations land use. UNESCO currently recognizes more than 900 places around the globe as world heritage sites — everything from the Great Barrier Reef in Australia to the fishing town of Lunenburg, N.S., to an old deciduous forest in Belarus — usually on either environmental qualities or cultural history.

Among the UNESCO advisory groups’ concerns is whether the region is truly unique, because there are other areas of pristine boreal forest in the world as well as other areas with similar aboriginal land use. One advisory group is expected to return to the region this fall to do more research.

That prompted Manitoba Opposition Leader Brian Pallister to ask Monday whether the government had done its homework before helping to submit the bid.

“UNESCO has approved hundreds of project sites and they have used a process for doing so,” Pallister said.

“The government must have known what the process was at the outset, and the government should be making sure that, with all this money being invested on behalf of Manitoba taxpayers, that we’re getting results for that money.”

Selinger said the problem lies with UNESCO’s approval process and pointed out that one of the advisory bodies said that the current rules make it hard for a site to be judged simultaneously on both cultural and natural factors.

The advisory group recommended UNESCO review it rules, but maintained its concerns that Pimachiowin Aki may not be unique in the world

As for environmental protection, Selinger acknowledged that the province already has the authority to protect areas from development through legislation. But he said a UNESCO designation would put more public pressure on any future government that wanted to open up the area.

“It adds global protection to these unique ecosystems,” Selinger said.

He pointed to the public outcry that erupted in Newfoundland and Labrador in 2009 when that province’s government wanted to run hydro lines through Gros Morne National Park, another UNESCO world heritage site. The government backed down.

Selinger also expressed confidence that the area will attract tourists, because ecotourism is a growing industry.

A consultant’s report done for the Pimachiowin Aki Corporation, the non-profit agency behind the UNESCO bid, predicts the remote, fly-in region may attract fewer than 1,000 people a year.

“Expectations must be managed to recognize that tourism will not likely generate either large numbers of visitors or large revenue for communities,” the report from Marr Consulting said.

A Manitoba delegation will head to Cambodia later this month to make their case to the UNESCO world heritage committee’s annual meeting.