Manitoba will spend at least another $234,000 in a second attempt to convince a UN body the boreal forest on the east side of Lake Winnipeg should be deemed a World Heritage Site. That’s on top of some $15 million that was budgeted for the process and in addition to nearly $1 million contributed by Ontario, where at least one-third of the land is located.
UNESCO had previously told the Manitoba government and the aboriginal peoples who occupy the land that the initial application didn’t provide the evidence to justify proclaiming the land a natural and cultural treasure.
The initial reports on the application were not encouraging, but Manitoba was allowed to present new information by Feb. 1, a deadline it will not meet. That means the issue will not be considered again until 2016.
The decision to pursue the UNESCO bid is directly related to the NDP government’s decision to build a transmission line on the west side of the province, rather than the east side, a decision primarily justified as an appeasement of American environmental lobbies but at an additional cost to Manitoba ratepayers of more than $1 billion. The declaration of the land as a UNESCO heritage site would have deflected criticism from the government’s wasteful decision, which explains why the government is sparing no expense in the pursuit of a dubious goal.
If UNESCO turns down the province, however, Premier Greg Selinger will have to explain why he didn’t pursue an alternative approach, including negotiations with the aboriginal communities about linking their disparate communities with roads as part of the Manitoba Hydro expansion megaproject. The roads were promised after the fact, at additional expense to Manitobans. The social and economic benefits to Manitoba, and the east side in particular, would have been much greater than those derived from a successful UNESCO declaration.
The world body used separate firms to analyze the twin aspects of Manitoba’s application — the natural and cultural elements. Each company said it could not support a positive judgment. The experts said the case for natural and cultural uniqueness was not compelling and they were puzzled by the province’s plan to build the all-season roads on the east side. “Such developments can have negative environmental impacts,” said the report by the International Union for Conservation of Nature. “While assurances were made that access would not lead to future problems, the ramifications of increased road building are of concern.”
A report by the International Council on Monuments and Sites, which evaluated the cultural issues, echoed those concerns. “The new roads will provide opportunities for unrestricted movement, particularly of tourists and this increased access may accelerate acculturation. Road construction constitutes the most significant imminent change to the area.”
The reports also had problems with aboriginal plans for forestry, peat extraction, tourism and possible mining near the proposed exclusion zone. “These proposals pose potential conflicts with the traditional land uses and associations.”
It seems clear Manitoba and its aboriginal partners are caught in a dilemma.
On the one hand, they want the land east of Lake Winnipeg recognized as unique in cultural and natural terms because of the benefits that might flow from such a designation. But they also want opportunities for economic development and growth.
It’s not clear if these conflicting goals can ever be resolved, at least in ways that satisfy the demanding standards that must be met for world heritage status.
Whatever happens in 2016, nothing will change the fact the province has bungled the Hydro development file and cost taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars needlessly.
» A version of this editorial ran recently in the Winnipeg Free Press.