First Published in the Sudbury Star May, 2011
Julee Boan and Justin Duncan
The Ring of Fire represents a huge economic opportunity for Ontario. But more surprisingly, it also represents a big environmental opportunity.
As perhaps one of the world’s most valuable chromite deposits, the area represents a chance to open up a whole new field for the Canadian mining industry. With global demand for minerals soaring, there’s a tremendous opportunity in the Ring of Fire to create new jobs and economic opportunities after some hard years in Northern Ontario.
The environmental opportunity is less well-known. Ring of Fire is located in the heart of one of the largest remaining intact ecosystems left on the planet. That’s a pretty astounding statement and sounds like something you would more likely hear about the Amazon.
But careful mapping of the world’s intact forests has zeroed in on the boreal forests and lowlands of Ontario’s far North as one of our last chances to protect a natural system where all the pieces are still in place and working; from wolves and caribou to millions of nesting birds and lakes jumping with fish.
The opportunity, therefore, is to find a smart way to combine resource development with ecosystem protection. We don’t have to sacrifice healthy wildlife populations, healthy lakes and rivers and interconnected systems for economic opportunity. But we do have to take the time to plan development to ensure that conflict with ultra-valuable natural services –like clean water and climate control — are compromised as little as possible.
After all, the Ring of Fire does not just contain significant mineral deposits, it is also located in a globally important ecosystem that is a last refuge for sensitive species like woodland caribou that are now gone from half their original habitat in Ontario and is also within the largely intact watersheds surrounding the Albany and Attawapiskat rivers.
This region is not a big empty spot on a map — it is the traditional territories of several First Nations that have constitutionally protected rights to be consulted on resource and land use.
Companies ignore that reality at their own risk. We have already seen a number of protests against mineral exploration taking place in the region. The responsible approach is to create a planning process where First Nations can shape development to fit their culture, their desire to protect the health of their people, lands and waters, and their right to benefit from resource extraction taking place on those lands.
Leading mining companies know that proper planning means much more than staking a claim or applying for a site development permit. They know that it requires looking at the Ring of Fire in the context of its place within Ontario’s boreal ecosystem and then mapping out where, how quickly and under what conditions development should occur.
It means evaluating various infrastructure options so that they have the least impact on wild rivers and wildlife and coming up with one infrastructure and access corridor, not three or more.
It also means deciding what areas should be permanently protected to conserve sensitive species, critical ecosystems or waterways and other values.
Conservation science, land-use planning and mining technology have all progressed a good deal in the last 30 years. In many areas of the world today, mining companies are working to ensure that comprehensive planning for the region precedes development. Such an approach is often now required to secure financing, as well as being the right thing to do. Top ranked companies understand the benefit of solid ecosystem protection regulations for protecting their international reputations and investor confidence. Farsighted political leaders also understand the many additional benefits that proper planning can bring.
The desire to see jobs created right now is perfectly understandable. But good planning will actually mean fewer delays by providing a clear roadmap for how and where development should proceed. Without it, any number of challenges –from impacts on species at risk and threats to waterways to First Nation objections –could stop progress in its tracks, maybe for years.
Better yet, this thoughtful approach is also a chance to ensure we don’t fall into the trap of poorly planned development that leaves communities paying a huge price in water and air pollution and ecosystem destruction as the legacy of here today, gone tomorrow development.
In a nutshell, we will have only one chance to get it right for all our kids and grandkids. A little care now will leave them with a healthier and more prosperous world tomorrow.