Caution urged as mining companies eye critical minerals below Quebec boreal forest

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About one million square kilometres of Quebec is covered by boreal forest, roughly 70 per cent of the entire province. In the north, where ecosystems are less likely to have been altered by human activity, those forests have been accumulating and sequestering immense quantities of carbon for centuries.

“In the boreal environment, the forest decomposes very slowly, even more slowly than in the tropics,” said Xavier Cavard, who holds a research chair in forest carbon management at the Université du Québec en Abitibi-Témiscamingue. That means that instead of being released into the environment as carbon dioxide, carbon remains in the soil as dead organic matter. “Indeed, since the boreal forest has a huge surface area, it plays a major role in carbon sequestration at the global level,” Cavard said.

Alison Munson, a professor of forest ecology at Université Laval, said the amount of carbon trapped in soils around James Bay needs to be a factor when resource extraction projects are contemplated. “Before exploiting this region, we must not only consider the forest but also the soils,” she said.

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It is what lies beneath these soils — including critical minerals such as lithium used to manufacture batteries — that has mining companies eyeing the region. Currently, there are nearly 400 mining exploration projects in the boreal forest of the Eeyou Istchee, the traditional lands of the James Bay Cree. It is unclear how many of these will result in operating mines in the coming years, but there is potential, and the government wants to take advantage of it.

La Grande Alliance, a memorandum of understanding signed in 2020 between the Quebec government and the Cree Nation, calls for the construction of about 700 kilometres of railway, a deep sea port and hundreds of kilometres of new roads and power lines through the forest to allow mining companies to access critical minerals.

The construction of roads and the clearing of land to build mines will release carbon that has been stored for centuries, but the quantities remain unknown. “Will there be enough mining to affect the ecosystem’s functions, such as carbon sequestration?” Cavard wonders.

Henri Jacob, an environmental activist and president of the group Action boréale, says the representatives of the Cree Nation and the Quebec government who are promoting La Grande Alliance must avoid “making the same mistakes as in Abitibi.” In that region of northwestern Quebec, the mining industry tore up the boreal forest “without any concern for future generations” and took “possession of 40 per cent of the land,” he said.

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“What we see today are tailings facilities … the residue that often goes into the waterways with heavy metals, and other chemicals and other materials, which often causes the significant degradation of the environment, in some cases irreversibly,” Jacob said, adding, “We must develop mining in a more intelligent way.”

He said extracting critical minerals to manufacture batteries and emissions-free electric vehicles sounds like an obvious benefit for the environment. “We forget to mention that to build it, it will be necessary to exploit mines, whether in Abitibi or further north, which generates a lot of carbon dioxide during exploitation,” he said. “Moreover, after the exploitation, there is no biodiversity left on the mining site.”

Munson says there is no escaping that the energy transition will require critical minerals. “If we want to reach the climate targets and the deadlines we have set for ourselves to stop selling gasoline vehicles, this transition will have to be relatively fast, and, for the moment, the available technologies require lithium extraction,” she said.

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Demonstration over deep sea mining

Environmentalists are also concerned for the wildlife that make their homes in the boreal forest. Jacob points out that in Abitibi and other regions, the forestry industry has removed much of the old-growth forest and replaced it with younger trees, depriving the caribou of its habitat and food. Logging roads are one of the biggest threats to caribou survival, as they facilitate the movement of wolves and other predators. The ecologist hopes that the promoters of La Grande Alliance will plan to close roads after mining operations, so that “animals and plants can come back to life.”

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Cavard agrees that the many roads planned by La Grande Alliance to allow mining companies to exploit the northern part of the boreal forest represents “a major issue” for caribou, which he said are extremely sensitive to the fragmentation of their habitat. “In 2023, one might think that this is the kind of thing we would try to avoid in Quebec,” he says.

The Nottaway woodland caribou herd, whose habitat extends into the ancestral land of the James Bay Crees, was estimated at 282 individuals in the most recent inventory, down eight per cent from 308 in 2016. However, scientific models using satellite telemetry provide more pessimistic estimates. Carl Patenaude-Levasseur, executive director of wildlife management co-ordination at the Quebec Environment Department, says the decline of the herd over the past six years could be anywhere between eight and 28 per cent.

Avoiding the extinction of the woodland caribou is one of the concerns of the promoters of La Grande Alliance, at least on paper.

An interim report on the environmental impacts of La Grande Alliance states that “the ability to ensure that such infrastructure does not provoke development in areas that are sensitive environmentally, culturally or increase risk to vulnerable species is of great importance in avoiding conflict between development and all communities.”

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The report by the James Bay Native Development Corporation and the Cree Development Corporation indicates that 54 terrestrial mammals, 184 bird species and 16 protected species, such as beluga, caribou and polar bears, frequent the study area, which extends between the towns of Matagami to the west, Whapmagoostui to the north and Mistissini to the east.

In the fall, Cree Grand Chief Mandy Gull-Masty told The Canadian Press that species and land protection as well as Cree cultural practices would be paramount in the implementation of La Grande Alliance. She said the proposed development remains “only a memorandum of understanding” and that once the studies are completed, the Cree people will be consulted again “before deciding on the next steps.”

Part of the memorandum of understanding ensures the creation of a system of protected areas that will cover 30 per cent of Cree territory by 2030. “The Crees will therefore delineate what they want to protect for their hunting and cultural heritage,” said Université Laval’s Munson. “The caribou is vulnerable, but they are the ones who have the best knowledge on how to protect it.”

She said that if the alliance materializes, it could serve as a model for Indigenous communities elsewhere in the country who lack control over industrial activities on their territory.

The Canadian Press sought an interview with a representative of La Grande Alliance concerning the project’s potential impact on biodiversity as well as the boreal forest’s ability to counter climate change through carbon sequestration.

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La Grande Alliance spokesperson Samuel Lessard declined, saying that he prefers waiting for the final results of the feasibility studies, which are expected in the coming weeks.

Stéphane Blais received the support of the Michener Foundation, which awarded him a Michener–Deacon Investigative Journalism fellowship in 2022 to report on the impact of lithium extraction in northern Quebec.

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