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Unesco’s Wood Buffalo progress report may still be months away


The UN’s cultural agency says its latest report on the condition of Wood Buffalo National Park does not yet have a fixed publication date, four months after inspectors paid a visit.

Unesco is evaluating whether the world heritage site status of Canada’s largest national park – straddling the NWT-Alberta border west of Fort Smith and Fort Chipewyan – should be considered in danger.

Among the threats being assessed are plans to release tailings from Alberta oil sands into the watershed of rivers that flow through the park.

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Parks Canada developed an action plan after Unesco first expressed concern in 2016. The latest inspection, in part assessing the outcome of actions in that plan, ran from August 18 to 26.

More: Read about August’s inspection and Indigenous communities’ concerns

Clare O’Hagan, a Unesco spokesperson, said on Monday that there remains “no exact date” for the new report to be published but it is expected “within the next few months.” (At the time of the inspectors’ visit, Unesco said the report was “expected to be finalized within several weeks following the mission and will be made public.”

The inspectors’ findings will be presented at the next World Heritage Committee later this year. The committee will “decide on the safeguard measures to be taken.”

What the report says will be critical. Parks Canada could be found to be turning the situation around, inspectors could decide nothing has changed, or they could find that conditions have deteriorated.

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Should Wood Buffalo National Park be considered in danger as a world heritage site, Parks Canada will be given a further list of corrective actions required to save its status.

The Salt Plains in Wood Buffalo National Park in August 2021. Sarah Pruys/Cabin Radio
The Salt Plains in Wood Buffalo National Park in August 2021. Sarah Pruys/Cabin Radio

In the past, Unesco has urged Parks Canada to foster closer collaboration between the federal, territorial, and provincial governments and the Indigenous communities surrounding and in the park.

In particular, Unesco requested urgent assessments of the environmental and social impacts of industry and climate change on the park, its peoples and the Peace-Athabasca Delta.

If those actions were not carried out with sufficient speed, Unesco said, the park would be placed on a list of world heritage sites in danger.

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Parks Canada says its action plan to address those concerns was devised in collaboration with the 11 Indigenous communities that have connections to the park and its land and water.

However, some communities continue to express concern.

“They worked very hard. They were very intense, they were observant, they paid attention to every single person, especially the land users who were telling them their concerns,” Lori Cyprien, the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation’s director of rights and lands, said in August of the three inspectors who visited the park.

“I feel like they were really responsive and understanding of all our issues, and I hope that it comes out to be something in our favour and we can continue to work on the action plan.”