The ecosystem approach in practice: developing sustainable forestry in Central Labrador, Canada

Larry Innes and Len Moores 1

"For us, it is always good policy to leave alone what we do not understand. Not only us humans depend on forests, but all life depends on them. We let things be, and let the forests grow naturally. This is our approach. All your science will not save you if you continue to take away what is there and what keeps us here. I know that everything depends on everything...this is the best science I can give you."


The ecosystem approach has been adopted internationally as a strategy for the integrated management of lands and resources that promotes conservation and sustainable use in an equitable way. Within Canada, ecosystem-based forest management is a recent policy innovation, and there are few examples of large-scale applications of this approach. This paper examines one recent example of large-scale ecosystem-based planning in central Labrador, Canada. Under an innovative agreement, the Innu Nation and the Government of Newfoundland and Labrador concluded an ecosystem-based forest management plan for 7.1 million ha in 2002. The central features of this plan are ecological and cultural protected area networks that were developed over a range of spatial scales. Over 60% of the planning area is reserved to protect ecological and cultural values. The remaining area will be jointly managed by the Innu and the government in a rare example of cooperation between local indigenous communities and state management agencies. This case is an illustration of how internationally accepted principles can inform conflict resolution and cooperation at the local level, resulting in progress towards the achievement of global goals for the conservation and sustainable use of the boreal forest.

Background and Introduction

The Innu, like indigenous peoples around the world, belong to a particular place. Nitassinan2, the Innu homeland, stretches from the Labrador Sea to Ungava Bay and south to the St. Lawrence River. According to archaeologists, the ancestors of the Innu occupied the newly de-glaciated landscapes of what is now northeastern Quebec and Labrador at the end of the last Ice Age, over 8000 years ago. Since that time, the Innu lived as part of these forests, as a nomadic hunter-gathering society intimately connected to the land (Armitage 1990, Fitzhugh 1973, Mailhot 1993).

Today, the forests of Nitassinan are the largest intact primary forests in eastern North America. These forests are dominated by black spruce (Picea mariana (Mill.) B.S.P.) and balsam fir (Abies balsamea (L.) Mill.), and occur within a highly diverse landscape.

Over the past decade, the Innu and the Governments of Canada and Newfoundland and Labrador have been negotiating a modern treaty within the framework of Canada's comprehensive land claims process. One outcome of these negotiations will be greater Innu control over the management of lands and resources in their territory.3

Throughout these negotiations, resource development issues have been a source of significant conflict. The forests of Labrador are a site of many competing interests and values. For many Innu and other local people, Labrador's forests represent both the foundation and future of their traditional ways of life, while others see an untapped source of tremendous economic potential. The future of Labrador's forests is also a matter of global concern, as less than 25% of the world's primary forests remain (Bryant 1997, UNEP 2001).

This paper describes the innovative process through which competing priorities were effectively reconciled by the Government of Newfoundland and Labrador and the Innu Nation.

Conflict and Change

In the mid-1970s, large-scale logging was carried out in central Labrador to supply roundwood to a linerboard mill on the Island of Newfoundland. This venture was a commercial failure, but it succeeded in liquidating some of the best and most accessible forests and alienating the local population.4 Subsequent attempts to re-establish an industry in the late `80s and early `90s met with strong opposition from the Innu Nation, who viewed these efforts as a direct threat to their land and way of life (Wadden 1991, Richardson 1989). Blockades of logging roads and other forms of protest ensued until an agreement was reached between the Innu Nation and the government, resulting in a situation of détente: for most of the 1990s, harvesting was capped at 1992 levels (approximately 50,000 m3/year), no new logging roads were built, and no new commercial operating permits were issued.

However, 1990s were also a period of significant change in forest policies and practices, both internationally and in Canada. The 1992 Rio Declaration and the Non-Legally Binding Authoritative Statement of Principles for a Global Consensus on the Management, Conservation and Sustainable Development of all Types of Forests ("The Forest Principles") led to a broad recognition that forests were inextricably situated at the crossroads of sustainable development. Over a decade of dialogue has followed, but "on the ground" mechanisms for addressing the range of environmental, social and economic and rights-based issues that sustainable forestry engages are only now emerging.

Sustainable Forestry and the Ecosystem Based Approach

For Canada, the adoption of the Rio Forest Principles in the national Forest Accord meant a significant evolution in thinking about forest management. Iinternational consensus on the need for sustainable forestry catalyzed a number of changes within Canada. Forest managers moved away from the mid-20th century management doctrine of "sustained yield management", and have recognized that sustainable forestry must have broader purposes (Canadian Forest Service 2000; World Commission on Forests and Sustainable Development 1999).

This shift in national policy towards sustainable forestry directly affected the situation in Labrador. In 1997, the Government of Newfoundland and Labrador formally adopted an ecosystem-based approach to forest management. The province also adopted guiding principles to support this new approach, and serve as a foundation for building an ecosystem-based forest management framework within Newfoundland and Labrador.

Broad Public Participation

Another significant shift was the recognition by governments of the importance of direct public participation in forest management. For much of the 20th century, forest management has been the exclusive concern of the forest industry and state resource management agencies. In Labrador, this changed in 1994, when the province adopted a stakeholder-driven forest management planning regime, in part as a response to sustained Innu opposition to government-developed management plans.

Recognition of the Identity, Culture and Rights of Indigenous People

The most significant change was the international recognition of the importance of indigenous participation. In Canada, a central role for indigenous people in achieving forest sustainability was recognized in the 1998 National Forest Strategy, which stated:

The adoption of these three significant internationally recognized principles: sustainable forestry, broad public involvement, and recognition of the important role of indigenous and local communities into Canada's national forest policies, created a bridge between the Innu Nation and the Government of Newfoundland and Labrador This bridge meant that progress on forestry issues was not only possible, but allowed the parties to recognize that they had an incredible opportunity to put these principles into practice in central Labrador.

The Forest Process Agreement

On January 30, 2001, the Government of Newfoundland & Labrador and the Innu Nation signed a Forest Process Agreement. This Agreement was designed to enable and facilitate effective communication, information sharing and the dispute resolution, leading to improved planning and management practices and the implementation of ecosystem-based forest management in Labrador. Under the Forest Process Agreement, a number of mechanisms were established to ensure effective participation by the Innu Nation in this process.

Funding under the Agreement enabled the Innu Nation to retain and recruit technical expertise, and to hire and train several community members as "Forest Guardians". The Forest Guardians were vital in facilitating participation by Innu community members in the planning process. Most importantly, as consensus was gradually achieved between the Innu Nation and the government on environmental standards, the Guardians played an active role in the design and layout and monitoring of harvesting blocks according to Innu priorities.

The second mechanism established under the Forest Process Agreement was a Planning Team. Both the Innu Nation and the government were respectively represented on the Planning Team by a forest planner and a senior policy advisor, who collectively shared the responsibility for the development of the ecosystem-based management plan (hereafter, "the Plan").

Concurrent with these activities, Innu Nation and government officials negotiated a co-management framework. The co-management agreement will be in force until until it is replaced by a permanent regime once the Innu Nation's comprehensive land claim is concluded.

Application of the Ecosystem Based Planning Approach

Ecosystem-based approaches are relatively new ways of thinking about forest management. Unlike more conventional approaches which have concentrated on timber resources, the ecosystem-based approach accepted by Parties to the Convention on Biodiversity is:

Careful though was given by the Planning Team to the effective representation of ecological, cultural and economic values in the Plan, as reflected in their vision statement:

The Planning Team recognized from the outset that management objectives are a matter of societal choice, but that sustainable management always occurs within inherent ecological limits (Hammond 1993). Disturbance and change were recognized as natural and important ecological processes in boreal forests, but human-induced disturbance and change must occur within the range and variability of natural disturbance regimes (Grumbine 1994).

There was broad local support for an ecosystem-based approach. To facilitate consensus on the range of management principles and objectives to be included in the Plan, an innovative public participation model was adopted. Biweekly public workshops and focus meetings were rotated between the communities in central Labrador to identify key issues and discuss management options. Specific sessions were held in the Innu language to ensure participation by elders and other members of the Innu community. Experts and other resource people were engaged to assist in the process.

The public process resulted in recommendations on how key issues could best be reflected in the Plan (Table 1):

Table 1: Ecosystem-Based Planning Objectives adopted for District 19


Ecosystem-Based Planning Objectives

Ecological Integrity

Respect the ecological limits of various ecosystems to human disturbance. Natural biological diversity and natural disturbance regimes will be protected and maintained through historic range and variability in order to maintain natural forest functioning.

Hierarchical Context

Ensure that all plans and activities protect, maintain and where necessary restore forest functioning at the Landscape, Watershed and Stand level scales.

Ecological Boundaries

Focus on the ecological features to retain and utilize ecological boundaries at all levels of planning.


Aboriginal and non-aboriginal cultural values will be respected and protected.

Humans Embedded in Nature

Plan and carry out diverse, balanced activities to encourage ecological, social, and economic well-being and stability. The maintenance of ecosystem health is recognized as the basis for sustaining cultures and economies.

Adaptive Management

Apply the precautionary principle to all plans and activities utilizing monitoring, assessment and adaptive management.

Data Collection

Research on ecosystem structure, function, sensitive habitats, disturbance regime dynamics and impacts of timber harvesting will be carried out.

Interagency Cooperation

Ensure effective communication and cooperation channels are created between management organizations. Ensure all management organizations accept and support the listed guiding principles.

Organizational Change

Management organizations will strive to adapt past practices and operating structures in order to facilitate an EBP approach and build trust between other management organizations.


Review and evaluate the success of all forest activities in meeting the previous nine principles.

Ecosystem-Based Management Planning: The Landscape Approach

A major challenge in applying the ecosystem-based approach arises from the fact that ecosystems and human cultures interact dynamically at different ecological and temporal scales. To address this challenge, the Planning Team described the ecological, cultural and economic features of the planning district as inter-related "landscapes" existing over a range of nested spatial scales, and attempted to identify management objectives for each of these three broad thematic sections of the Plan.

Ecological Landscapes

A Protected Area Network was developed to protect ecological functioning at three distinct spatial scales. Ecologically significant landscape features and wildlife habitat requirements were identified for protection at each scale, and included within a network of "core reserves" and "connecting corridors" (Hammond 1993; Noss 1996; Schrader-Frechette 1994; Holt 2001).

The initial work in designing the Protected Area Network was carried out by Silva Ecosystem Consultants, and involved integrating previous ecological land classifications with new remote sensing interpretations. Sensitive and unique landscape features were identified. Where data was available, consideration was also given to ensuring habitat protection for keystone species identified as important management priorities by the public (Silva 2001).

For example, the survival of the region's threatened Woodland caribou (Rangifer tarandus) herds was identified by participants as a key management goal.5 Woodland caribou are wide-ranging, migratory animals which require a wide variety of habitat types over the course of a year. Protecting Woodland caribou required identifying habitat requirements and migratory patterns at small map scales (1:250,000-1:500,000). The Planning Team used expert advice from both scientists and traditional knowledge holders to identify these features. Other species have much smaller ranges, and depend on finer-scale features. Accordingly, their habitat needs were considered at the watershed scale, at mapped scales of 1:50,000. Finally, at the finest level of detail, consideration was given to protecting site-specific features, such as rare plant communities and small-order fish-bearing streams at the stand level, at the 1:12,500 map scale. Figure 1, below, shows an example of this multi-spatial planning approach.

Figure 1. Multi-spatial scale protected area reserves and corridors

The Protected Area Network was peer reviewed by leading experts in ecosystem-based approaches,6 and presented for further discussion in public sessions by the Planning Team before it was incorporated into the Plan (Silva 2002).

Cultural Landscapes

The cultural character of central Labrador is a diverse blend of indigenous and non-indigenous peoples who have interacted with the land, plants, animals, and with each other for hundreds, and in the case of the Innu, for thousands of years. Traditions of "living off the land" are important in this region, and the Planning Team recognized the critical importance of protecting and respecting indigenous and local heritage within the Plan.

As a companion analysis to the Ecological Protected Area Network, a Cultural Protected Areas strategy was developed to ensure that sensitive cultural use areas and values were protected. This strategy was reviewed and approved by Innu and by other local participants in the public sessions.

Economic Landscapes

The Economic Landscape described in the Plan was an analysis of forest-based activities which have a direct market value as products and services, including: timber harvesting, sawmilling and value-added wood production, as well as outfitting and eco-tourism. The timber and tourism industries each contribute approximately $6 million dollars annually to the central Labrador economy. Balancing the often competing interests of the tourism and timber sectors was accomplished by specifically including priority areas for eco-tourism within the Cultural Protected Area Network, and permitting tourism and related activities, where appropriate, to occur within the Ecological Protected Area Network. Areas outside of the Ecological and Cultural Protected Area Network were zoned for different forms of commercial timber management.7

Key Outcomes of the Planning Process

The Plan required careful consideration and appropriate balancing of ecological, cultural and economic values. After nearly two years of effort, this process resulted in a number of significant achievements, including:


Forests have global significance, but they are also fundamentally local in character. In this respect, they are an important nexus between international, national and local interests. Resolving competing goals and conflicts at each of these levels is a fundamental challenge for the development of sustainable forestry.

The Forest Process Agreement between the Government of Newfoundland and Labrador and the Innu Nation is an example of a new kind of forest management that takes into account global, national and local interests. This case demonstrates how the application of an ecosystem-based planning approach, the involvement of local communities and in particular, the direct participation of indigenous peoples in forest management decisions, can resolve competing goals and conflicts in situations of considerable complexity. Most fundamentally, it illustrates how ecosystem-based planning for sustainable forestry is not just a vision, but that it can become a reality.


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1 Innu Nation, Colquitz Avenue, Victoria, BC V9A 2L9 Canada. [email protected].

2 Literally "our land" in Innu-aimun, the Innu language.

3 These negotiations are pursuant to Canada's Comprehensive Land Claim Policy and the Framework Agreement concluded between the Governments of Canada, Newfoundland and Labrador, and the Innu Nation in March, 1996.

4 The Labrador Linerboard operation required shipments of roundwood by barge from Labrador to a mill in Stephenville, Newfoundland, over a distance of approximately 1000 km, through waters that remained ice-free only six months of the year. Over 300,000 m3/year of wood was harvested in central Labrador to support this operation.

5 The boreal population of Woodland caribou was listed as Threatened in Canada in 2000.

6 Reviewers included Drs. Reed Noss. Stan Rowe, William Pruitt, Jim Schaeffer, Louise Hermaneutz, Ellen MacDonald, Marie-Josee Fortin, and Rob Otto.

7 Domestic, Selective-Commercial, Commercial, Visual Management, and Conservation Emphasis Timber Management Zones were identified.