Few of you reading this will ever see Ontario’s Far North. Yet this vast region matters to everyone as much as their own backyard. As one of Earth’s last great, undisturbed expanses of forest and wetlands, the Far North regulates the climate, stores and cleans huge quantities of fresh water, and sustains animal and bird species being decimated elsewhere. It’s home to 24,000 First Nations people who rely on the land and have an inherent right to determine its future.

While they pay lip service to environmental protection and First Nations, governments and industry have been rushing to exploit the Ring of Fire’s mineral riches in the conventional way that’s caused so much destruction around the planet. We must ensure industrial activity is allowed only after thorough assessments of all its impacts and in a manner that sustains this irreplaceable environment and the people who inhabit it.

You’ve likely heard about the Ring of Fire boom in Ontario’s Far North. What seemed a race to extract chromite, nickel and other minerals from beneath the pristine boreal forest and tundra appears to have slowed to a stroll.

The main reason is that the biggest player in the region, Cleveland-based Cliffs Natural Resources Ltd., has suspended work on its project, blaming delays in legal processes and negotiations with governments and First Nations, but also because of its own financial troubles and low ore prices.

The slowdown creates an opportunity in the effort to protect the environment and the rights of First Nations. Development is delayed, not dead. A pause offers time to ensure it’s done right, but only if we take advantage of it.

While we’re cautiously optimistic about the high-level negotiations being held between former federal Liberal Leader Bob Rae, representing local First Nations, and retired Supreme Court of Canada Justice Frank Iacobucci, for the province, we must ensure they’re fully informed of the issues. It’s imperative that we all also keep active in the environmental assessments and all other parts of the approval process.

Delay or not, the stakes remain high: We’re talking about the future of an irreplaceable environmental treasure.

We cannot afford here to repeat the devastating mistakes of the past. Development can be allowed only with a clear, solid plan that keeps the environment intact and thriving, and benefits the region’s human inhabitants. For that, we first need to learn much more about what’s actually there, then, create a blueprint that accounts for the impacts of all the potential projects over the entire region.

Without a plan worthy of Ontario’s ‘largest mining development in a century, great rivers will be put at risk, caribou habitat will be sacrificed and the global cooling benefits of peat lands will be compromised.

The Ring of Fire’s mineral wealth isn’t going anywhere. But there’s great potential for devastating damage from a stampede to develop it.

A full assessment is imperative. The provincial and federal governments should issue no further approvals to Cliffs Natural Resources or any other company until a thorough, region-wide environmental assessment is completed.

Such regional assessment must:
• be done with the full involvement of First Nations and public hearings, and incorporate the advice of experts such as the Far North Science Advisory Panel;

• include explicit and robust cumulative effects design for the sensitive environmental and cultural values of the region; and

• ensure a clear commitment to transparency in decision making and protection of the public interest

It will also be critical for the provincial and federal governments to enact measures to protect three of Ontario’s last great, undeveloped rivers, the Albany, Attawapiskat and Ekwan prior to any mining approvals; and, ensure any activities in Ontario’s Far North help sustain rather than harm species at risk, including Boreal woodland caribou.

By Anna Baggio, Director of Conservation Planning, CPAWS Wildlands League

**Originally posted on HuffingtonPost.ca on September 30, 2013**

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