Six First Nation communities are planning a blockade in the Ring of Fire to halt further mineral exploration on their traditional lands.
“Exploration on our traditional land is getting out of hand,” said Marten Falls Chief Elijah Moonias, explaining there are more than 100 mineral exploration companies with staked claims in the Ring of Fire area. “Mineral Exploration companies are not respecting our interests.”
First Nation leaders and representatives from Marten Falls, Webequie, Long Lake #58, Ginoogaming, Eabametoong and Aroland will be closing operating camps and ice landing strips beginning Jan. 18 to make it impossible for mineral exploration companies to continue their work.
“We believe there will be development happening in this area, but we want to be a part of the development so we can benefit from it in the long term,” Moonias said.
The blockade will be held at Koper Lake, which is located in the Ring of Fire area about 128 kilometres north of Marten Falls. The Ring of Fire is considered one of the largest potential mineral reserves in Ontario, covering more than 1.5 million ha by some estimates. Over 35 junior and intermediate mining and exploration companies are now active in the Ring of Fire, making it the recent hotbed of mining activity in the Far North.
“Right now, mining activities are superseding the protection of ecological and cultural values,” said Anna Baggio of CPAWS Wildlands League in a Dec. 2009 press release. “There is very little government oversight, no environmental assessment process, and no mechanism for First Nation control.”
CPAWS Wildlands League, Ecojustice and Mining Watch Canada are concerned development in the Ring of Fire is exploding due to inadequate control under Ontario’s antiquated Mining Act, calling the situation a “Wild West free for all.”
The three public interest groups are concerned the mining exploration activities are causing the following problems: inadequate waste management, garbage disposal and fuel spills in several mineral exploration camps; polluting of nearby lakes and wetlands; inappropriate and possibly illegal use of mining claims to map out two competing railway routes; and increased danger for species at risk like woodland caribou and wolverine that need large intact areas of Boreal Forest to survive.
“We are hearing reports of 200 fuel drums sinking into the wetlands because they were placed clumsily on bog mats,” Baggio said. “Who will be responsible for cleaning up and restoring these lakes and wetlands.”
The three groups are worried that because claims and leases will be grandfathered into any land use planning processes, local First Nations communities will have little room to manoeuvre. They are also concerned efforts to protect globally significant, carbon rich bogs and forests, intact watersheds and endangered species’ habitat will be undermined.
“There is a complete lack of legal rules guiding activity in the Ring of Fire,” said Ecojustice staff lawyer Justin Duncan. “First Nations need to lead land use planning over the whole area and rules need to be established to manage development, otherwise the heart of Ontario’s northern boreal could be severely impacted and First Nations will bear the brunt of any long-term harm.”
The three groups want Ontario to immediately withdraw lands in the watersheds affected by the Ring of Fire exploration projects, outside of the areas already claimed, so First Nations can work with the government to create an ecosystem-based land use plan and gain control over the implementation of industrial activities.
“The impact of mining activity in this region will have a legacy that will last hundreds of years into the future and there is the potential for irrevocable harm,” said Ramsey Hart, MiningWatch Canada’s program co-ordinator. “We have this opportunity, at this juncture, to do it right, with proper planning, environmental controls, and consent and accommodation of First Nations. This is an opportunity we can’t afford to lose.”
The three groups feel the withdrawal of the lands not already claimed would minimize negative environmental impacts, protect the public interest, help prevent conflicts and ensure meaningful long-term benefits to the people that live there.