COMMENTARY: Yukon’s healthy land and forests are essential services

Joe Copper Jack & Katarzyna Nowak

Special to the News

As essential services go, keeping land intact and healthy is vital to all of us. The health of our communities depends not only on the functioning of our healthcare system but also on vigorous, functioning ecosystems. Acknowledging that land is a source of health means starting with, rather than “incorporating,” Indigenous knowledge.

“Natural ecosystems are infrastructure,” says B.C.-based biologist Eric Balke, who advocates for salt marshes as protection against floods. The Yukon’s healthy ecosystems are protection against drought, famine and climate chaos.

Healthy wild fields and forests contribute to human diets well beyond animal protein. Spruce tips, fireweed shoots, rose petals, last year’s cranberries, and morels are all foods people have harvested and eaten since spring began in the Yukon. These wild foods have been freely consumed at a time when the food and agricultural sectors have been deemed essential services all over the world during COVID-19. The Yukon’s wild foods are the products of productive soil, land and forests, creating food security and resiliency. A study led by the Center for International Forestry Research demonstrates that wild fruit is consumed at a frequency of more than twice that of domestic fruit in countries such as Zambia.

In the Yukon, applications for hunt permits for animals are up by some 30 percent this year. People may be concerned about food security and wanting to stock up before a second wave of the novel coronavirus. They are turning to the land and the animals it sustains: moose, sheep, caribou, salmon, which rely on large, unencumbered landscapes and free-flowing rivers.

Access to safe, clean water results in good sanitation and hygiene in the Yukon. We cannot take this for granted given how many of the world’s people, including more than 100 First Nations communities across Canada, must boil water or have do-not-consume water advisories. The Yukon’s pristine air means no exposure to air pollution, which has been linked to COVID-19 mortality. The boreal forest, like the Amazon rainforest, is one of the world’s lungs.

In the Yukon, health is and will continue to be synonymous with the integrity of land, forests, and permafrost. If Canada and other world governments want to “build back better,” then they would do well to invest in land health, a nature-based solution to many contemporary problems: climate change, deteriorating mental wellness, and disease emergence. Some countries are already doing this — Australia just committed $650 million to Indigenous rangers programs, New Zealand is fast-tracking the construction of new wetland systems, and Scotland is promoting outdoor learning as key to reopening and recovery.

As we continue to discuss COVID-19 relief and recovery plans, keeping land healthy, restoring land-peoples’ relationships, and forging respectful partnerships between western and Indigenous knowledge systems must be central to our discussions. Primary pandemic prevention means healthy interactions between people, other animals, and our shared environments. This “One Health” holistic approach — that public and environmental health are so intertwined as to be one — is a framework that we can all agree on.

We must behave as part of nature, because we are. This means responsibility and recognition that among the Yukon’s essential services is healthy land. When we take care of the land, the land takes care of us.

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