Indigenous Perspectives on Conservation Offsetting: Five Case Studies from Ontario, Canada
By Larry McDermott and Anne Bell; published by Ontario Nature, Plenty Canada and the Indigenous Environmental Studies and Sciences Program at Trent University
Conservation offsetting is gaining attention around the world as a promising yet risky means of
compensating for the negative impacts of development on biodiversity. Simply put, conservation
offsetting involves a trade-off: accepting harm to a species or an area of conservation value on the
condition that beneficial actions will be undertaken to counterbalance any losses to biodiversity or
to affected communities. Fraught with uncertainty, conservation offsetting is viewed with both
hope and apprehension, especially in light of its poor track record to date. Indeed, according to
the International Union for Conservation of Nature, conservation offsets “have the potential to
provide net gains in biodiversity in the right context, but this has rarely yet been realised in
Since 2013, Ontario Nature has worked with multiple partners across the private, public and
voluntary sectors to build collective understanding of the risks and benefits of conservation
offsetting.2 This work has entailed research, workshops and other fora to explore key issues and
opportunities, the outcomes of which are summarized in three reports, available online.3 Ontario
Nature has endeavoured to involve Indigenous communities from the outset of this initiative, and
since 2015, with the generous support of MEC, has been able to focus its efforts on this important
area of engagement.
The purpose of this work has been to learn from and raise awareness among Indigenous
communities and organizations and to develop tools to support decision making about
conservation offsetting at the community level, building the capacity to achieve positive
community outcomes. A secondary objective has been to build understanding of Indigenous
perspectives and interests among non-Indigenous parties, and to inform offsetting standards,
protocols and practices across sectors as these emerge locally, provincially and nationally.
A significant first step was to work with members of several Indigenous communities to develop a
set of principles intended to provide important reference points for communities considering
involvement in conservation offsetting (see “Guiding Principles for Engagement in Conservation
Offsetting,” page 3). These principles champion high standards and are meant to support decision
making so that conservation offsetting initiatives serve to safeguard species, ecosystems and
Indigenous cultural values while creating opportunities for community-led restoration, conservation
initiatives and the development of cultural capacity. Once drafted, they were refined in light of
substantial and insightful feedback from members of the Walpole Island Heritage Centre Advisory
Committee during a one-day meeting in June 2016.
In the summer of 2016, Ontario Nature commissioned Larry McDermott, executive director of
Plenty Canada and a member of Shabot Obaadjiwan First Nation, to conduct the case study
research. The case studies involved in-depth interviews with several members of the First Nations
involved. Through the interviews a number of topics were explored, including details of the
offsetting project; the reasons for involvement; the challenges faced and efforts made to overcome
them; intentions and outcomes; and overall satisfaction with the conservation offsetting
The case study findings were presented and discussed at a gathering held in Peterborough,
Ontario, from October 17 to 18, 2016, co-hosted with the Indigenous Environmental Studies and
Sciences Program at Trent University, the Walpole Island Land Trust and Plenty Canada.
Seventeen members of 11 Indigenous communities and organizations attended the gathering, as
well as 23 non-Indigenous representatives from government and non-profit organizations, and staff
and students from Trent University. Several of the participants in the case studies were present to
elaborate on their experiences with conservation offsetting. The conversations over those two
days have helped to shape and inform this report, especially in terms of key points of emphasis in
the discussion section.
Like other elements of society, Indigenous communities hold a variety of views on conservation
offsetting and how or whether to participate in it. As the case studies illustrate, many issues must
be considered, including food sovereignty, access to traditional medicines, maintenance and
renewal of cultural practices, the protection of sacred sites and the responsibility for the
continuation of all life. Choices are neither straightforward nor easy, especially given imbalances in
decision-making power, the all-too-common failure to integrate Traditional Knowledge, and the
lack of information available on Indigenous experiences with conservation offsetting. On one hand,
many Indigenous people are troubled by the prospect of the compromises that offsetting entails.
On the other, there is hope that, under certain conditions, offsetting can offer opportunities to
restore healthier relationships with the earth, in accordance with traditional values. Certainly there
is evidence of both desirable and undesirable outcomes in the case studies that follow.
Regardless, the need to respect Indigenous responsibilities to the land and the associated
Traditional Knowledge, cultural values, and Indigenous rights and interests are all critical
components in the process of reconciliation between mainstream society guided by Western
values and the Indigenous peoples who share this land called Canada.
TO READ THE COMPLETE REPORT:
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