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Where are forests in Europe’s plans to make the Sustainable Development Goals a reality?

by Indra Van Gisbergen

In September 2015, after the largest consultation in the history of the United Nations, more than 150 world leaders agreed on a new agenda to “free the human race from the tyranny of poverty”.

The Sustainable Developments Goals (SDGs) lay out 17 universal goals, targets and indicators to frame the agendas and policies of UN member states for the next 15 years.

Launched amid great fanfare with the support of celebrities from Beyoncé to Usain Bolt and Stephen Hawking, the SDG’s aims include ending “poverty in all its forms everywhere”; achieving “food security and improved nutrition and promoting sustainable agriculture”, and taking “urgent action to combat climate change and its impact”.

But between outlining these lofty ambitions and realising them, lies an enormous gulf: the daunting and fiendishly complex task of agreeing on the policies required.

The European Union is now immersed in this task.

This week the EU reached an important staging post in deciding how it will meet its SDG commitments, with the release of a series of communications on the measures it plans to take. The broad sentiments expressed in these plans are laudable. As ever, the devil lies in the detail and what is omitted.

There is no doubt that forests should occupy a paramount role if the SDGs are to be achieved. Protecting forests means mitigating climate change. It means preserving vital biodiversity and terrestrial ecosystems. And it means improving the lives of the 1.6 billion people dependant on forests.

Until now, the EU has been a great defender of forests, particularly through its innovative Forest Law Enforcement, Governance and Trade (FLEGT) programme, and a major contributor to their destruction, largely through its consumption of agricultural products.

In March 2015, Fern showed how the EU’s consumption patterns are driving illegal tropical deforestation, revealing that in a single year the EU imported EUR six billion worth of agricultural products (such as palm oil, soy, beef and biofuels) grown or reared on illegally deforested land.

So how much do the EU’s new plans to reach the SDGs focus on forests - and do they begin to address the EU’s own role in their destruction? Some things are immediately clear:

  • Specific references to forests and deforestation are worryingly rare. Significantly, there is no reference to clarifying forest ownership and improving forest management. There is no support expressed for the FLEGT Action Plan, which is unique in using trade to address illegal logging and its root causes, which include corruption and a lack of clarity over land tenure rights.
  • The proposals do at least leave open a space for new initiatives and regulations. As a matter of urgency, these should include an Action Plan to Protect Forests and Respect Rights that addresses the EU’s critical role in the gravest current threat facing the world’s tropical forests: their destruction for agriculture. The EU is at least separately undertaking a feasibility study on this, and it should be among the key policies flowing from the SDGs.
  • While the latest plans rightly emphasise the EU’s support for “improving access for all to land, food, water and clean affordable energy without damaging effects on the environment”, there is no reference on whether this means upholding the more clearly defined aim of ensuring that products entering the EU market are the result of zero deforestation.    
  • Similarly, the plans aspire to protect “the resilience of vulnerable populations in the face of environmental and economic shocks” but make no specific reference to the forest communities who continue to suffer from the ongoing devastation of the forests which are the source of their livelihoods. A vast body of evidence shows that the best way to protect forests is to put them in the hands of the indigenous and local communities who live in them. To achieve the SDGs’ aims, the EU and its Member States must recognise this, tackle forest land grabbing and prioritise support for the strengthening of local communities’ rights.
  • Finally, the latest plans stress that the “agenda must be implemented as a whole and not selectively” and “implementation must be based on a rules-based global order, with multilateralism as its key principle and the United Nations at its core”. In an increasingly atomised world – with the UK voting to exit the EU and threats from the United States to withdraw from the Paris Climate Change agreement – this represents an explicit assertion of the need for unity and internationalism to fight the supreme challenges of our time.

Yet as welcome as this may be, to achieve the SDGs a far greater focus must be placed on the role of forests. Otherwise the danger is all the grand aims could end up as empty rhetoric, and in 15 years the planet will be in even greater crisis.