How could privately funded conservation work in the NWT?

Last modified: June 10, 2022 at 10:26am


Indigenous, territorial and federal governments are discussing a new, privately funded conservation model for the Northwest Territories.

The model is called Project Finance for Permanence, or PFP. It partners private investors with communities and governments to design a localized, long-term conservation model.

PFP tries to build a conservation economy where a community’s economic growth comes from the environmental protection being simultaneously developed.

Advertisement.

Proponents say PFP challenges more traditional conservation models that can place projects at odds with economic development.

They point to the use of PFP to protect ecosystems like sections of Brazil’s Amazon rainforest and the Great Bear rainforest in British Columbia.  

Last month, officials from participating governments met with representatives of the Pew Charitable Trusts – an organization representing donors interested in financing Indigenous-led conservation in the NWT – to explore what shape PFP might take in the territory.

“The Government of the Northwest Territories is ready to explore this opportunity that could support a healthy, sustainable future for all northerners,” NWT environment minister Shane Thompson said in a statement.

“We value our partnerships with Indigenous governments and we look forward to exploring other ways to diversify the NWT economy and support Indigenous stewardship over the long term.”

Advertisement.

Discussions are being facilitated by the Indigenous Leadership Initiative, the organization originally approached by the donors’ trust about the project.

The leadership initiative, known as ILI, has established a working group that will meet over the course of the next year to see if the project can go ahead and how it might look.

NWT ‘well-positioned’ for PFP

Governments in the NWT have already established internationally recognized Indigenous-led conservation projects like Edéhzhíe and, most recently, Thaidene Nëné.

In a news release, ILI said the territory is an ideal candidate for private environment protection investment as donors can already see a strong drive toward unique conservation efforts.

Advertisement.

“It’s this opportunity to take a really big-picture approach to our relationship to the land and water in the NWT,” said Dahti Tsetso, deputy director of ILI.

At the Dehcho First Nations, Tsetso worked on the Dehcho K’éhodi Stewardship and Guardians Program and Edéhzhíe national wildlife area.

She drew a link from environmental protection to social well-being, arguing Indigenous-led conservation initiatives can develop young leaders and strengthen cultural identities, offer new opportunities for addictions support and prevention strategies, and ultimately decrease demand for healthcare support.

“It can help build a bridge between our communities and knowledge systems and broader society,” Tsetso said.

“Here in the North, we’re trying to sort out not just climate change issues and rights recognition, but also how we will have a sustainable, healthy future for future generations.”

Dahti Tsetso, deputy director of the Indigenous Leadership Initiative. Photo: Amos Scott

Prior to the first meeting of the working group last month, ILI spoke with Indigenous governments across the territory to get a sense of interest in this kind of financing.

Tsetso said there was strong interest in initial discussions to share priorities for a long-term conservation model.

One theme she heard throughout those consultations was capacity-building, including training opportunities and investments in equipment and infrastructure.

The PFP model represents “an opportunity to strengthen our culture, languages, and ways of life here in the NWT,” she said.

“I think it’s important that that we start working together at all levels to find viable solutions that will enable a healthier future, and not just for land and water, but also for people.”

Insights from Great Bear Rainforest

British Columbia’s Great Bear rainforest is protected under a similar conservation model to the one being considered in the NWT.

While each privately funded project is unique, Great Bear illustrates how private donors, industry, environmental groups and various levels of government – including First Nations – can be brought together to pursue shared conservation goals.

The Great Bear rainforest is about the size of Ireland. The coastal region, combined with the Haida Gwaii island cluster, is home to one of the largest remaining temperate rainforests on the planet.

It is also the unceded traditional territory of more than two dozen First Nations.

Before establishment of a conservation agreement, little of the rainforest was protected from clear-cut logging.

In 2007 – after more than a decade of negotiations – the BC government, First Nations, environmental groups and forest industry representatives agreed how the rainforest would be managed and conserved.

The result was the Great Bear Rainforest Agreement which, since its creation, is reported to have protected 85 percent of the forest from all logging activities.

PFP ‘puts more tools’ in Indigenous hands

The conservation agreement secured $120 million of private and public money to transform the region’s economy from one based in resource development to one based in conservation.

Coast Funds was the organization created to manage this money.

The $120 million was broken down into two separate funds. The first $60 million was raised by private donors and placed into a conservation endowment fund. Since the initial investment, this fund has grown to $95 million.

The second $60 million was contributed by provincial and federal governments later in the negotiation process. This money was put into an economic development fund. Fifteen years later, $11.5 million of this fund remains.

Dallas Smith of the Tlowitsis Nation was an architect of the Great Bear agreement. He was one of two negotiating parties representing the 27 First Nations involved.

He said he was skeptical, when discussions began, of protecting the environment with private funds.

“Nothing’s ever really changed for the better for us since colonization has happened,” Smith said.

“It was important for us to really understand: ‘What are they trying to buy? What is this money for? You know, how’s it going to be spent?’ And that was quite a rigorous process.”

By the time the agreement was finalized, Smith said he realized donors’ intentions were good.

“This model put more tools in our hands to actually manage the areas and develop our own conservation-based economy,” he said, “whereas other traditional models were simply just about the protected area itself, not about enhancing First Nations opportunities.”

Dallas Smith of the Tlowitsis Nation, right, was an architect of the Great Bear rainforest agreement. He now chairs the board responsible for managing the conservation funds. Photo: Province of British Columbia

Funding received through the agreement gave communities a financial foundation on which to develop more extensive eco-tourism and land stewardship operations.

Stewardship officers have been installed in many communities and trained to collect and analyze environmental data.

“While the fund gives us a good start, we’ve taken some of our own revenue that we’ve developed through other avenues and are investing it to have more boots on the ground in our territories,” Smith said.

He estimates that since the agreement was first created 15 years ago, around 1,100 jobs have been created.

“When we first started training guardians in our territory, it was displaced and out-of-work fishermen or forest workers who lost their jobs because of some of the protection that we brought in,” Smith said.

“Now we have youth who are getting university educated to continue to be stewards in our territory… It’s really been transformational.”

The challenge now, he said, is to keep the momentum going and continue fuelling the economy created through the agreement.

He said Coast Funds plans to raise money to extend similar protection to the marine world.

Transparency around funds management

Smith said working out a proper system for allocating and managing the money was critical in gaining his trust.

Both the endowment and economic development fund are managed by a board of directors, of which Smith is the chair. Directors are appointed by First Nations, the BC government, and the various environmental foundations involved.

The second operating body within Coast Funds is a members’ committee featuring representatives of the original funders and participating First Nations communities.

These members convene once a year to look over the board’s strategic plan and ensure funding is being spent as planned.

Smith said three of the eight member seats are held by First Nations leaders and new committee members are brought on fairly frequently.

“Over the 10 years, most of the communities have had a chance to sit in that oversight role and be able to see how it actually works,” he said.

Guardians from six First Nations participate in a marine spill response training exercise hosted by Na̲nwak̲olas Council. Financing from the Great Bear Rainforest agreements is supporting First Nations develop stewardship programs like this throughout the region. Photo: Na̲nwak̲olas Council.

A formula was created to establish how much funding each community could receive. A community is entitled to receive more money if it is conserving a larger piece of land.

“Each of the 27 First Nations has a certain allocation that is theirs, that they can apply for on a yearly basis,” Smith explained, adding it is up to each First Nation to apply each year.

Smith said when the board was first established, he felt there were “colonial” administrative demands placed on communities to track and report spending.

“In hindsight, while a lot of those things looked restrictive in the beginning, they’ve actually been good for the due diligence and management of the money,” Smith said, adding that since the agreement was created, reporting methods have become more accessible.

Coast Funds has set up a team that works with communities to develop the proposals needed to access their allocation. Some communities do that work on a yearly basis, while others amalgamate several years of funding into the right project when it comes up.

“In the beginning, it was something that was set up for Indigenous people,” Smith said.

“Now, it’s an Indigenous organization.”