The Current

'A reaffirmation of what we know': Grim UN biodiversity report unsurprising to many scientists, First Nations

A new UN report paints a grim picture of the amount of damage done to the earth's biodiversity at the hands of humankind. Unnerving, yes, but are these findings unexpected? Not for First Nations communities and scientists, community members tell us.

'Our elders have been talking to us about an extinction event for many years now,' says Eli Enns

Many groups of caribou are threatened across Canada, including woodland caribou. (The Canadian Press)
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Indigenous people in Canada and scientific communities say the findings in the UN's first comprehensive report on biodiversity are troubling, but not surprising.

"Our elders have been talking to us about an extinction event for many years now. My uncle sang a song of sacred urgency to me years ago, and that sacred urgency has stayed in my heart since then," said Eli Enns, a Canadian expert in biocultural heritage and member of the Tla-o-qui-aht First Nation on Vancouver Island.

"So this report is a reaffirmation of what we know," he told The Current's guest host Matt Galloway.

The UN report, released Monday, paints a grim picture for over one million species of plants and animals, which are at risk of extinction — many within decades, UN scientists say. The report emphasizes that a radical shift in conservation efforts is needed to mitigate a mass species extinction.

After a deadly 2017 summer, there were no right whale deaths in Canadian waters in 2018. (Center for Coastal Studies)

In terms of conserving and using nature sustainably, the report highlighted that areas held or managed by Indigenous communities have been less severely impacted.

"It's been working. I mean, it's not perfect, but certainly, we've seen a lot of progress … I certainly have not given up. And if we know who we are, if we believe in ourselves and we're bold for future generations, I think we can turn this around," said Enns, who works with the Iisaak Olam Foundation, a biological and cultural diversity conservancy in Victoria.

Meares Island, the rainforest forms the gateway to Clayoquot Sound, is still in tact as a result of an injunction obtained by the the Tla-o-qui-aht and Ahousaht First Nations in 1985, which ceased logging operations. (Clayoquot Sound Conservation Alliance)

Sally Otto, a zoology professor at the University of British Columbia, says a report of this stature has the power to open people's eyes.

"Many of us have been living and watching these declines. The scientific literature has been very clear," she said.

"We really need a transformational change here in Canada as well as globally ... We need to be strengthening and really building a resolve and a vision that is reciprocal, and that we don't continue to expand and extract wherever we want."

To discuss the UN's biodiversity report and what it means for the future of our planet, Galloway spoke to:

  • Eli Enns, a member of Tla-o-qui-aht First Nation and president of the Iisaak Olam Foundation, a biological and cultural diversity conservancy in Victoria, B.C.

  • Stuart Pimm, professor of conservation ecology at Duke University and world leader in the study of present-day extinctions and what can be done to prevent them.

  • Sally Otto, UBC zoology professor and Canadian biodiversity expert, former director of Biodiversity Research Centre at the University of British Columbia.

Click 'listen' near the top of this page to hear the full conversation.


Written by Émilie Quesnel. Produced by Julie Crysler, John Chipman and Julianne Hazlewood.