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Management at Pimachiowin Aki: A Three-Pronged Approach

By Hannah Sisk

A large landscape invites any number of management approaches: nature conservation, cultural resource management, community stakeholder engagement—the larger the landscape, the more robust and diverse a heritage practitioner’s toolbox must become. A thoughtful practitioner, though, will learn to employ these tools or approaches concurrently, in relation to each other, to develop an integrated management plan. Pimachiowin Aki, a large landscape in Canada, demonstrates this, as different approaches are deployed in conversation with each other to yield a strong yet flexible system of management. 

Spanning two Canadian provinces and 11,212 square miles, Pimachiowin Aki is clearly conceived as a large-scale entity and was successfully inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage List in 2018 (Pimachiowin Aki World Heritage Project, 2016, p. iv). Equally important, the site’s management innovatively stems from a joint understanding of nature and culture—it’s one of only 39 “mixed” natural-cultural landscapes recognized by UNESCO—and via a bottom-up partnership between four Anishinaabe First Nations communities and provincial government representatives (Pimachiowin Aki World Heritage Project, 2016, p. iv). This blog will look at this three-pronged management system—large-scale landscape designation, nature-culture relationships, community-centered partnerships—with the hope that it might inspire more inclusive, sustainable heritage practices in the United States. 

Large-scale landscape designation: This first prong is perhaps the most straightforward on its face. The decision to “scale-up” to a larger landscape yielded an entity that more accurately represents its complex realities, particularly from an ecological stance. Pimachiowin Aki is “a vast area of healthy boreal forest, wetlands, lakes, and free-flowing rivers” (UNESCO, 2021, para. 5) and hosts multiple ecosystems over a boundaried landscape that includes two provincial parks, a conservation reserve, and multiple protected areas stewarded by Anishinaabe First Nations communities (Pimachiowin Aki World Heritage Project, 2016, p. 106-107; Asuncion, 2020, para. 1). The flora and fauna living within these 11,212 square miles are codependent and migratory: “wildfire, nutrient flow, species movements, and predator-prey relationships are key, naturally functioning ecological processes that maintain an impressive mosaic of ecosystems” (UNESCO, 2021, para. 5). Previously, the land was divided under either provincial or First Nations control, with little interaction. Beginning in 2002, discussions between different manager stakeholders slowly moved towards a cooperative, transboundary model (to be discussed below), largely based on the realization that a larger-scaled vision would ultimately “[provide] for ecological resilience, [especially] in the context of a changing climate” (Pimachiowin Aki World Heritage Project, 2016, p. 106-107; Gilmore, 2020, para. 5-9). This scaled-up approach yields a united front and more comprehensive understanding of the systems at play.

Nature-Culture Relationship: Pimachiowin Aki’s integrated approach towards natural and cultural resources provides the second prong. As described above, the landscape is home to a complex ecological system of natural resources. Pimachiowin Aki also includes ancestral lands of Anishinaabe First Nations communities, 6,400 of whom live within the site’s boundaries today (Pimachiowin Aki, 2021a). These community members have been, and continue to be, stewards of the land (to be discussed below), and their cultural heritage is inherently tied to the natural resources. This is reflected in the Anishinaabe cultural tradition of Ji-ganawendamang Gidakiiminaan (“Keeping the Land”), a commitment to “honouring the Creator’s gifts, observing respectful interaction with aki (the land and all its life), and maintaining harmonious relations with other people,” which forms the basis of site management (UNESCO, 2021, para. 2). This is also reflected in the process that led to the site’s formal recognition as a UNESCO “mixed natural-cultural landscape.” Using Criterion III, VI, and IX, the nomination emphasizes the place-based importance of the site’s cultural features, demonstrating that cultural traditions cannot exist without the natural environment, and vice-versa (UNESCO, 2021, para. 3, para. 5). The discussions surrounding this mixed nomination received “worldwide attention,” challenging UNESCO to reconsider the often-overlooked relationship between nature and culture (Pimachiowin Aki, 2020, para. 9; Pew Charitable Trusts, 2014). For heritage practitioners, it’s a reminder to work against the assumed—yet false-—dichotomy between culture and nature. 

Community-Centered Partnerships: This third prong is arguably the most important—the centering and prioritization of Anishinaabe First Nations communities in the management of Pimachiowin Aki. This is accomplished through an innovative series of partnerships and programs that focus on bottom-up, community-driven management. Prior to the formal recognition of Pimachiowin Aki, different areas of the landscape were managed by different stakeholders: First Nations communities worked “individually on their own land management plans” and provincial managers handled the park lands in Manitoba and Ontario (Pimachiowin Aki, 2020, para. 11). As conversations regarding a new, scaled-up approach began, these local management plans were maintained—thus respecting the unique needs of the different stakeholders they represented—but also brought into conversation with each other. A series of compromises and partnerships were developed, yielding the Pimachiowin Aki Corporation, a non-profit charity organization responsible for safeguarding the landscape’s natural and cultural resources through cooperative measures and financial support (Pimachiowin Aki World Heritage Project, 2016, p. 227; Pimachiowin Aki, 2021b). Most notably, the Pimachiowin Aki Corporation’s Board of Directors includes a First Nations members majority (Pimachiowin Aki, 2021, para. 1), representing four Anishinaabe First Nations communities within the site (the remaining two seats are granted to Provincial park representatives). The Board of Directors has created a “consensual, participatory governance structure…and management framework for the property” and  “acts as a coordinating management body and enables the partners to work in an integrated manner” (UNESCO, 2021, para. 18). This focus on coordination and empowerment, rather than top-down directives, allows for management to remain bottom-up and community-driven, which is significant given Pimachiowin Aki’s massive size (Pimachiowin Aki, 2021c, para. 1). Anishinaabe traditional management practices are honored, as keenly seen in the newly-developed Indigenous Guardians program, modeled after similar Indigenous stewardship programs elsewhere in Canada and in Australia (Indigenous Leadership Initiative, n.d., para 1). But, equally significant, provincial law and policy do play a role, too, though decidedly in support of First Nations (UNESCO, 2021, para. 16)—legislative protections enacted in 2009 and 2010 granted important land management agency to First Nations communities (Pimachiowin Aki World Heritage Project, 2016, p. 95). These cooperative partnerships, with a centering towards Indigenous communities, are key to providing a reflexive, effective, and sustainable system of management. 

Pimachiowin Aki promotes a management system that simultaneously scales-up and stays grounded, thereby amplifying community voices. While each management tactic is important on its own, demonstrating bold and thoughtful approaches, the true strength in Pimachiowin Aki’s site management is that these approaches work in conversation with each other. It is this three-pronged framework that has enabled the sustainable, community-driven management practices that work to safeguard both cultural and natural resources at Pimachiowin Aki. For site managers and heritage practitioners, it is a reminder to work cooperatively and creatively, and to prioritize the communities who give life to these living cultural landscapes.


Asuncion, A. (2020, April 1). Pimachiowin Aki: The Protection of Intact Forest Landscapes as an Effective Policy Tool. Ontario Planners. https://ontarioplanners.ca/blog/planning-exchange/april-2020/pimachiowin-aki-the-protection-of-intact-forest-landscapes-as-an-effective-policy-tool

Gilmore, D. (2019, March 20). Pimachiowin Aki: A Journey. Ontario Parks Blog. https://www.ontarioparks.com/parksblog/pimachiowin-aki/

Indigenous Leadership Initiative (n.d.) Indigenous Guardians. https://www.ilinationhood.ca/guardians

Pew Charitable Trusts (2014, June 17). Canadian Boreal Forest Site Sparks UNESCO Rules Review. https://www.pewtrusts.org/en/research-and-analysis/articles/2014/06/10/canadian-boreal-forest-site-sparks-unesco-rules-review 

Pimachiowin Aki (2020). We’ve Answered Your Questions: World Heritage Sites Explained. https://pimaki.ca/weve-answered-your-questions-world-heritage-sites-explained/

Pimachiowin Aki (2021). About Us: Board of Directors. https://pimaki.ca/about-us/board-of-directors/  

Pimachiowin Aki (2021a). About Us: Communities. https://pimaki.ca/about-us/communities/  

Pimachiowin Aki (2021b). About Us: Pimachiowin Aki Corporation. https://pimaki.ca/about-us/pimachiowin-aki-corporation/

Pimachiowin Aki (2021c). Keeping the Land: Our Work. https://pimaki.ca/keeping-the-land/our-work/

Pimachiowin Aki World Heritage Project (2016). Nomination for Inscription on the World Heritage List. https://pimaki.ca/wp-content/uploads/nomination-document.pdf  

UNESCO (2021). Pimachiowin Aki. https://whc.unesco.org/en/list/1415

Hannah Sisk is a collections management professional based in the Philadelphia area. She is currently Assistant Registrar at The Frick Collection (NYC), previously having held positions at the American Philosophical Society Museum (Philadelphia) and the Museum of Fine Arts (Boston). She received her M.A. in Cultural Heritage Management from Johns Hopkins University and her B.A. in archaeology from Brown University, where she co-founded a student group for the Haffenreffer Museum of Anthropology. Hannah is interested in “big-picture” questions related to collections management practices, notably how collections procedures and policies can become more bottom-up, inclusive, and sustainable.