When a huge open-pit mine threatened a pristine lake and surrounding forest in British Columbia, Canada, Marilyn Baptiste jumped into action, spearheading efforts to collect environmental impact data and even physically turning away construction crews. Because of her efforts, the Canadian government rejected the mine, leaving wild a part of the Canadian Rockies upon which First Nations communities have depended for generations. Today, Baptiste was honored for her work when she was presented the 2015 Goldman Environmental Prize at a ceremony in San Francisco.
Nemiah Valley lies near the middle of southern British Colombia, about 150 miles (240 kilometers) northeast of Vancouver. Nestled in the shadows of the Chilcotin mountain range, Nemiah’s forests, lakes, rivers, and wetlands are home to First Nations communities, as well as species like sockeye salmon (Oncorhynchus nerka) and grizzly bears (Ursus arctos horribilis). The region also serves as the headwaters for the Fraser River, a major Canadian waterway. But for the past few years part of Nemiah Valley has been under threat as a mining company set its sights on an underlying copper-gold deposit, the largest in the country.
Vancouver-based Taseko Mines Limited (TML)’s project, dubbed “Prosperity Mine,” was to be one of British Columbia’s largest-ever mines. To target the deposit, a low-grade mixture of copper and iron ore measuring 1,500-by-800 meters and extending to a depth of 880 meters, TML planned a huge open-pit mine that would require the draining of nearby Fish Lake.
This did not sit well with Marilyn Baptiste, former chief of the Xeni Gwet’in First Nation. For the Xeni Gwet’in, Fish Lake and the land surrounding it is sacred, a resource from which they gather food, water, and medicine. As Baptiste told the Aboriginal People’s Television Network (APTN), not only would the mine have destroyed the lake, but forest would need to be cleared to make room for roads, transmission lines, and other infrastructure.
“That is a tremendous amount in destruction of our wetlands in the territory,” Baptiste told APTN.
In January, 2010, British Columbia’s provincial government gave TML the go ahead to start mine development – before an environmental review was conducted by the federal government. In response, Baptiste led a First Nations charge in investigating the environmental impacts an open-pit mine would have on the region, gathering information from tribal chiefs and elders, as well as scientists. Their findings were presented at Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency (CEAA) hearings and were incorporated into their report.
According to the CEAA report, Prosperity Mine would have negative impacts on both wildlife and human communities in the area. It asserts mine development would kill Fish Lake’s population of approximately 90,000 rainbow trout, prevent trout and salmon migration through different waterways, and bar the Xeni Gwet’in from accessing and using land on which they’ve depended for generations.
The report also asserts consequential forest degradation due to the mine would supplant valuable habitat for grizzly bears and other species.
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