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Protecting Forests Through Recognition of Indigenous Rights
Protecting Forests Through Recognition of Indigenous Rights
News Apr 3, 2024

Protecting Forests Through Recognition of Indigenous Rights

The interconnection between Indigenous Communities, Forest Stewardship, and Supply Chains – Tsay Keh Dene Nation Led Landscape in British Columbia, Canada

19-minute read

  • Indigenous communities play a vital role in forest stewardship and conservation efforts globally.
  • The Tsay Keh Dene Nation in British Columbia, Canada, exemplifies Indigenous-led initiatives in preserving forests and upholding Indigenous rights.
  • Collaborations between Indigenous communities and companies like 3M, Mars. Inc., Nestlé, and Earthworm Foundation pave the way for sustainable forest management.
  • Earthworm Foundation actively engages with its members and local partners to develop strategies that balance conservation with commercial production.
  • The partnership with Tsay Keh Dene Nation underscores a shared commitment to sustainable practices and the importance of honouring Indigenous knowledge in forest management.
  • Together, these efforts aim to safeguard key areas within Indigenous territories, preserve vital ecosystems, and empower Indigenous voices in forest management decisions.
Tsay Keh Dene citizens hiking along a trail in Chuyaza (Helicopter Lakes). The view ahead shows a cutblock from forestry activity.

Forests are vital to our planet's health and climate, but they face escalating threats from human activities, resulting in loss and degradation. Balancing the need for economic activities and livelihoods with the imperative to protect forests is a global challenge.

Preserving forests requires respecting the rights, well-being and cultures of the Indigenous communities who call them home.

Together, these communities hold an estimated 50% of the world's land area and a large proportion of the remaining natural areas on Earth, including at least 22% of the extent of the world's Key Biodiversity Areas. Indigenous Peoples' lands contain 36% of intact forest landscapes and 35% of terrestrial areas considered essential for biodiversity and climate resilience.

As guardians of a significant proportion of the world's remaining forest carbon, Indigenous-led rights-based approaches play a pivotal role in mitigating climate change.

Kate Shelton (3M), Penny Wise (3M), Madison Vorva (Earthworm Foundation) in conversation with Deeanna Izony, Tsay Keh Dene Nation Executive Director at GreenBiz’s inaugural Bloom Conference.

Deeanna Izony - Executive Director, Tsay Keh Dene Nation, British Columbia, Canada

"The goal should be creating a balance where the impacts on forests and biodiversity do not cause harm and ecological degradation. This is especially important in a changing world where climate change and other environmental challenges caused by humans are impacting everyone, human and non-human. We need to listen and respond to the growing body of scientific and traditional knowledge about the impacts of human activity on the environment and where we see that disturbance levels are causing harm and ecological degradation; we must stop and change how we interact with nature."

Some key aspects of the deep interconnection between Indigenous Peoples and forest conservation:

  • Cultural Significance: Indigenous communities globally share deep cultural, spiritual, and reciprocal relationships with forests, shaping their identities and ways of life. By safeguarding these ties, they play an outsized role in maintaining the delicate balance between human activities and nature.
  • Livelihoods and Economic Development: Forests are a source of livelihoods, offering timber, non-timber forest products, and essential ecosystem services. Sustainable forest management can provide economic opportunities while operating within planetary boundaries and limits to growth.
  • Biodiversity and Conservation: Forests cover nearly 31% of the world and are home to more than 80% of all terrestrial species of animals, plants and insects. Indigenous community stewardship plays a vital role in the stewardship of plant and animal life within those ecosystems.
  • Climate Change Mitigation: Forests act as carbon sinks, absorbing and storing large quantities of above and below-ground carbon. In boreal forest landscapes, the majority of carbon is stored below ground as soil organic carbon. For millennia, Indigenous communities in Canada have developed effective strategies to cope with environmental change and manage forest fire risk through traditional practices, such as cultural burning. Their stewardship role includes managing forests for multiple values to improve resilience in the face of various threats, including climate change.

While challenges such as deforestation, illegal logging, and land-use conflicts persist, proactive solutions can address these issues.

Securing tenure rights, enabling community-company partnerships, grievance monitoring and formulating forest-positive policies and implementation plans that balance conservation and respect human rights with commercial production is at the heart of Earthworm Foundation’s work with member companies and local partners.

Balancing Production and Conservation - The Tsay Keh Dene Nation Led Landscape example

Tsay Keh Dene Nation citizens Violet Messenger and Kirk Miller lead the way on a hike in Chuyaza, during the High Conservation Value assessment of the area.

While much attention is placed on tropical deforestation, subtler degradation in boreal and sub-boreal forest landscapes is of growing concern in the responsible sourcing of forest products.

British Columbia exports most of Canada’s lumber, pulp and paper, and wood pellets. This makes the province a significant geography for many global forest product supply chains. Rising demand for these products is increasing pressure on the boreal and sub-boreal forests here, which include old-growth and intact forest landscapes, as well as forests of high conservation value that are important for carbon storage and biodiversity. The province reports that 20% or 11.5 million hectares of the 65 million hectares of forest are classified as old growth, and within this old growth classification, only 2.6% or 300,000 hectares support large trees.

Partnering with First Nations to ensure that the areas in their territories that they would like to be protected from industrial activities are mapped and respected by suppliers is one way companies can respect human rights in their supply chains and support the enhancement of High Conservation Values (HCVs).

Tsay Keh Dene Nation's traditional Territory in Northern Central, British Columbia

Companies have a vital role to play in requiring suppliers to respect the rights of Indigenous communities who are impacted by their activities.

3M, Mars Inc, Nestlé, and Earthworm Foundation collaborate with the Tsay Keh Dene First Nation in the northern interior of British Columbia to respect their Indigenous rights through community-led management and protection of key areas in their Territory from degrading practices such as forest harvesting and other industrial activities.

Tsay Keh Dene citizens Rita McIsaac and Seymour Isaac sharing stories around an evening campfire with Madison Vorva (Earthworm Foundation) in Chuyaza.

The partnership between Earthworm Foundation and the Tsay Keh Dene Nation began with traceability and supply chain mapping work that Earthworm Foundation carries out with its member companies. This involves carefully tracing products such as pulp, paper, and packaging through a complex network of intermediary suppliers right back to the forest source of the raw materials.

Mars, Incorporated is dedicated to ensuring the responsible sourcing of paper-based packaging and that it is free from deforestation and exploitation of people, as outlined in their Pulp and Paper Action Plan. Earthworm Foundation is helping Mars to identify the origin of its raw materials and engage its suppliers to understand and adhere to the Mars responsible sourcing policy.

"As businesses, we're typically judged on a long track record of success to be named a well-performing company. If we apply the same lens to land stewardship and achieving ecological balance, then we need to look at the work of Indigenous communities.

These communities have the longest and most successful track record in this space, so it was a natural progression for us to collaborate with groups like Tsay Keh Dene Nation to help achieve lasting and positive change in our extended value chain," says Dan Strechay, Director of Sustainability Communications & Engagement for Mars, Incorporated.

Earthworm began engaging with key stakeholders and rightsholders in the town of Prince George, British Columbia, Canada, in 2018 to understand the challenges and nuances around managing intact forest landscapes and critical caribou habitat in the province. These initial conversations led to a key moment in December 2019, the signing of a Memorandum of Understanding between the Tsay Keh Dene Nation and Earthworm Foundation to collaborate together to advance the Nation's decision to establish an Indigenous-led Protected and Conserved Area in their Territory.

What are the benefits of going beyond a certification and tick-box approach to risk mitigation?

Earthworm Foundation and 3M collaborated to develop a robust Forest Products Sourcing Policy and implementation program that surpasses legal harvesting regulations. Earthworm experts actively engage with 3M teams across North America, Asia, Europe, and Latin America to assess regional supply chain risks related to forest product sourcing. This collaboration offers technical support to enhance accountability and transparency across the supply chain, as well as regional supplier engagement support to bolster collaboration throughout the value chain, leading to local transformation through improved forest management, restoration, and conservation.

Kate Shelton - Global Responsible Sourcing and Sustainability Leader, 3M

‘Early in our journey, we learned that relying solely on certified products was not going to be an all-encompassing solution for us, as certifications do not meet every requirement in 3M's policy. Human rights, including the Free Prior and Informed Consent of Indigenous Communities, is a key element of 3M’s responsible sourcing policy and where we’ve put additional attention as it's not consistently held within the various certification schemes globally. What excites me is the journey that we are on…working with Earthworm Foundation, building a relationship with the Tsay Keh Dene Nation and other partners across this space, because the collective effort is just going to be able to amplify the work happening.’

Nurturing respectful and culturally informed partnerships

Violet Messenger showing a culturally modified tree marking a historic Tsay Keh Dene trail.

Practising Free, Prior and Informed Consent (FPIC) in working together, respecting Indigenous cultural and intellectual property rights, and recognising Indigenous communities' individuality, customs and communication protocols are building blocks to building meaningful relationships and communicating together.

‘Only Tsay Keh Dene speak with the authority of who they are. As a convener, Earthworm can create space for the Nation to share their stories directly,’ says Madison Vorva, Earthworm's Regional Social Impact Lead.

In October of 2023, 3M, Tsay Keh Dene and Earthworm attended the GreenBiz Bloom Conference, where the Nation premiered their short film about the Ingenika, part of the Nation's Indigenous Protected and Conserved Area. Kate Shelton of 3M and Deeanna Izony of Tsay Keh Dene Nation also sat on the panel, 'Setting Things Right with Rights-based Conservation,' where they shared their perspectives on the power of collaboration and partnership journey to ensure that commitments made by organizations are backed by tangible community-led action.

Respecting Indigenous communities’ Free, Prior and Informed Consent and their values - the Chuyaza High Conservation Value Assessment

Seymour Isaac and Ruby Davies talking around the campfire after a day cutting trail and taking part in the Chuyaza HCV assessment.

Over the past few years, Earthworm has supported Tsay Keh Dene Nation's forest stewardship vision and, through a High Conservation Value (HCV) assessment, focused on an area of cultural significance known as Chuyaza. This is to ensure that identified HCVs include cultural and social values that are often under-represented in natural resource assessments and management plans. The resulting Indigenous-led management recommendations seek to manage the values identified according to Tsay Keh Dene's traditional knowledge and scientific analysis.

The goal is to mitigate forest degradation that might undermine these values and ensure that industry respects the Tsay Keh Dene's right to Free, Prior and Informed Consent (FPIC) to make decisions on proposed developments and sustainably manage their traditional Territory and resources.

Deeanna Izony - Executive Director, Tsay Keh Dene Nation

‘Communication and collaboration between Tsay Keh and companies is crucial in assessing and solving problems caused by unethical and irresponsible sourcing. Respecting Tsay Keh's rights, including FPIC and its knowledge of the Territory and the impacts of industrial activity, is essential. FPIC means that if Tsay Keh decides that an area is a no-harvest zone, companies and their suppliers respect that decision. If everyone were practising FPIC, it would definitely set the change for everything that we do and how we do things within Indigenous territories like Tsay Keh Dene Nation. It would give us our rights back to be able to be decision makers within our own Territory.’

Respect for Indigenous land rights is also included in Nestlé's Responsible Sourcing Core Requirements. In 2021, Nestlé launched its Forest Positive strategy, which outlines how it will help conserve and restore forests and natural ecosystems while promoting sustainable livelihoods and human rights.

The Tsay Keh Dene are actively involved in identifying the most unique and critical areas of their land for conservation. This process aims to establish agreements with local industry partners regarding responsible tree harvesting on specific sections of the land. At Nestlé, we recognise the indispensable role played by Indigenous communities in preserving biodiversity and maintaining the ecological balance in their traditional territories. It's part of our requirements to drive the respect of indigenous people and local communities in our supply chain," shares Michéle Zollinger, Global Sustainable Sourcing for Pulp & Paper & Climate Forest Lead at Nestlé.

The HCV assessment process was a collaboration between community members from the Nation, TKD’s Department of Lands, Resources and Treaty Operations, Chu Cho Environmental, the Nation's environmental research and consulting company, and Earthworm. The assessment team camped together in Chuyaza to share knowledge and map the presence of important values, like historic trails, cabins, tea camps and wildlife corridors.

Chuyaza is an area of cultural, spiritual and ecological importance to the Tsay Keh Dene, but encroaching industrial development and natural resource extraction threaten the area's integrity. In a proactive effort to protect Chuyaza, Tsay Keh Dene Nation, Earthworm Foundation, and Chu Cho Environmental collaborated to conduct a High Conservation Value assessment within Chuyaza.

"The Nation invited us here to understand and experience the connection between the Tsay Keh Dene and Chuyaza that has flourished since time immemorial,” said Earthworm’s Madison Vorva, who took part in the HCV assessment.

The purpose of this trip was to listen to Elders’ stories and lessons about this place and learn about the significance that it holds to the community. There is no replacement for time spent together to nurture our relationship. It all begins with listening; this is the foundation of our partnership."

The assessment included collecting baseline water quality and biodiversity data to inform the development of a management plan for the larger Indigenous Protected and Conserved Area known as Wədzih Yinè' in the Sekani language or translated as “Caribou Song.” This 110,535-hectare area contains critical caribou habitat.

Map showing Wədzih Yiné’ (Caribou Song), a 110,535 hectare Indigenous Protected and Conserved Area (IPCA) established by Tsay Keh Dene Nation.
Wədzih Yiné’ (Caribou Song) Indigenous Protected and Conserved Area (IPCA) includes the Ingenika, Swanell Valley Connection and Chuyaza. These areas hold deep ancestral and cultural importance to the Tsay Keh Dene people.

Stewards of the world’s biodiversity

Sunset mountain view in Chuyaza

Indigenous communities have a major stake in the conservation and sustainable use of biodiversity on their lands and in Traditional Territories, on which their livelihoods depend and their cultural identities are embedded. Although they comprise only 6% of the global population, Indigenous communities protect and steward over 80% of biodiversity worldwide.

Tsay Keh Dene’s ongoing commitment to achieving recognition for the Wədzih Yinè' Indigenous Protected and Conserved Area not only highlights their current dedication as land stewards but also anticipates their continuous relationship with this area that holds crucial cultural, historical, ecological and spiritual importance to the Tsay Keh Dene people.

Supporting community-led forest management contributes to environmental conservation, fosters social and economic development, and respects Indigenous Peoples' right to self-determination in shaping their own futures. Many First Nations are actively trying to support their communities through sustainable economic activities that support social development (housing, jobs, substance use recovery programs, cultural healing and learning, language revitalisation, etc.).

This is the kind of relationship that companies connected through supply chains should seek to establish with forests, nature, and people.

From Tsay Keh Dene's perspective, the ideal outcome of working with companies is a shared vision of sustainability and a mutual commitment to 'operationalise' that vision in practical ways.

Deeanna Izony - Executive Director, Tsay Keh Dene Nation

"To work together for sustainability, it is essential for companies to recognise Tsay Keh Dene land and other rights and respect the land they are working on and all living things that inhabit it. Working together also means recognising the value of Traditional Ecological Knowledge. In this way, we can build better relationships with industry in the Territory."

Related News:

Areas of work:
Prosperous Landscapes

Pulp & Paper

Nestlé 3M Mars, Inc.

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