• Waverley Birch

Making the Invisible Visible: Wetlands and World Water Day 2022

Today is known as World Water Day, an annual United Nations Observance that celebrates water and raises awareness of the 2 billion people that live without access to safe water worldwide. This year’s theme is “Groundwater: Making the Invisible Visible”. Many groundwater-dependent ecosystems (GDEs) exist, and this blog focuses on one ecosystem that can be a GDE: wetlands.

We have the privilege of helping clients review wetland impacts that are occurring across their territory. Across the lands known as Canada, wetlands are impacted for a variety of reasons, including peat harvesting, urban development, and mining. As an example, the most populated part of these lands is in southern Ontario, where less than 28% of pre-European Settlement wetland extent remains. Colleagues and I recently showed that these losses are continuing, indicating a need for greater wetland protections.

Blue flag iris in a rocky Georgian Bay vernal pool, surrounded by peat

As Indigenous peoples have long since known, relationships with wetlands are crucial. In the western world, we refer to “ecosystem services”, which the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Commission on Ecosystem Management describe as “the benefits people derive from ecosystems” (4). While this definition begins to recognize benefits like the ability of wetlands to prevent flooding, it doesn’t seem to recognize these “services” as being gifts of the earth, which we have a responsibility to live in reciprocity with. Robin Wall Kimmerer’s Braiding Sweetgrass teaches us this in the following:

Dishonourable harvest has become a way of life – take what doesn’t belong to us and destroy it beyond repair”… “The Honourable Harvest asks us to give back, in reciprocity, for what we have been given”

This begs the question: how does general society live in reciprocity with wetlands, especially when damages have been so great? There are many possibilities here, with a clear one being the need for Indigenous leadership in all wetland management decisions. Ontario’s 2020 Provincial Policy Statement (PPS) Policy 1.2.2. states that “Planning Authorities shall engage with Indigenous communities and coordinate on land use planning matters”. Many decisions that implicate wetlands are made at the local level (e.g., municipality, conservation authority), which must consult with Indigenous governments that have rights and interests related to wetland ecosystems.

Unfortunately, consultation and engagement on these matters often comes far too late in project processes. This was the case with a heavily publicized Ministerial Zoning Order in Ontario (Lower Duffins Creek) in 2020, where the Mississaugas of Scugog Island First Nation (MSIFN) led to successfully defend a Provincially Significant Wetland from warehouse development, yet the Ontario government had failed to consult MSIFN on this issue. How can we possibly live in reciprocity with ecosystems and waters when western governments can’t seem to consistently live in reciprocity with Indigenous Nations?

Every day we continue further into the UN Decade on Ecosystem Restoration, this decade’s global campaign to prevent, halt, and reverse the degradation of ecosystems worldwide. We also continue on a path of increasing emissions while there is an ever-intensifying need to drastically limit greenhouse gas emissions to stay below a dangerous 1.5 C of global warming. In these times, Robin Wall Kimmerer again gives us excellent guidance to “go beyond cultures of gratitude, to once again become cultures of reciprocity”.

This reciprocity grows increasingly important with the above-mentioned intensification of human-driven climate change. Wetlands can act as important carbon sinks, but if disrupted, can turn into sources of notable greenhouse gas emissions that global carbon budgets can quite simply not afford. The territory of many Indigenous Nations includes vast peatland ecosystems, the integrity of which is of key importance to everyone in this shared global climate. Reciprocity with ecosystems and climate requires a departure from business-as-usual, from destruction to restoration, and from looking at ecosystems as the other, to living in relationship with them.

Cottongrass in a peatland

Cultivating relationships with less visible components of the world is vital, especially when these components might not be the most charismatic. In the case of wetlands, Robin Wall Kimmerer also offers an sentiment to this fact:

“Amphibians offer few of the warm fuzzy feelings that fuel our protection of charismatic mammals that look back at us with Bambi’s grateful eyes”…“Each time we rescue slippery, spotted beings we attest to their right to be, to live in the sovereign territory of their own lives. Carrying salamanders to safety also helps us to remember the covenant of reciprocity, the mutual responsibility that we have for each other”

So, as we braid together towards a path of reciprocity, let us spend the time to make the seemingly invisible visible, whether it be wetlands, groundwater, or the jurisdictional boundaries of Indigenous rights holders. It is only in equitable relationship that we can move towards a dominant culture of reciprocity that will ensure we give back to the shared lands and waters that we all rely on.