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The battle for the ‘breathing lands’: Ontario’s Ring of Fire and the fate of its carbon-rich peatlands

Originally published in The Narwhal

11 July 2020

Northern Ontario’s muskeg serves as home to dozens of First Nations, stores immense amounts of carbon and sits on top of vast mineral deposits. Whose vision for the bogs and fens will win out?

Compared to the Amazon or Great Bear Rainforest, the sprawling peatlands of Ontario’s Far North might seem a bit, well, boring.

“People don’t wake up and go ‘oh yeah, woohoo, decomposing organic material is the best!’ says Anna Baggio, the director of conservation planning for Wildlands League, in an interview with The Narwhal. “It’s not sexy. But it’s hugely valuable and we can’t even begin to get our heads around it.”

It’s true: Ontario’s peatlands — or muskeg, as the wetland ecosystem is often called — offer a mind-boggling range of ecological benefits. 

Like tropical and temperate rainforests, the peatlands sequester a huge amount of carbon, storing an estimated 35 billion tonnes of carbon in Ontario’s Far North alone (that’s equivalent to annual emissions from seven billion cars). The peatlands also serve as critical habitat for wildlife including caribou, wolverines and many migratory birds. 

These benefits derive from the fact that bogs and fens in northern Ontario — especially in the Germany-sized Hudson Bay Lowlands, the world’s second largest peatland complex — remain relatively undisturbed, unlike many other places that have drained them for agriculture or flooded them for hydroelectric dams. 

But that may be changing quickly. 

Climate change is expected to lead to longer droughts, which will dry out peatlands and undermine carbon storage functions. Permafrost thaw may also accelerate carbon emissions.

Long-planned mining development in the region, an area about 540 kilometres northeast of Thunder Bay referred to as the “Ring of Fire,” could also result in severe impacts to peatlands due to the extraction process and related infrastructure, such as roads and transmission lines.

Combined, these changes are bringing to a head long-standing tensions about who has decision-making powers over the region: the pro-mining province, the conservation-leaning federal government or the dozens of First Nations throughout the Far North — many of which have conflicting views about industrial development in their homelands.

“We want to look after our own selves, with all the resources at our disposal: the air and the muskeg within our traditional lands,” says Chief Bruce Achneepineskum of Marten Falls First Nation, whose leadership supports development, in an interview with The Narwhal. “Therefore we must have a say in it.”

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