Scot Quaranda of Dogwood Alliance spent two months working with Fern as part of efforts to strengthen links across the forest movement. Scot chronicles how Fern has protected forests and peoples’ rights from the heart of Europe for 25 years.

“From two people working out of a shed, Fern now has 20 staff working across three offices in Brussels, Moreton-in-Marsh and Paris, and a budget of €2.5 million, a large portion of which goes to its partners fighting for forests and peoples’ rights around the world. Three quarters of their team are women, and they are a flat structure and so have no director, instead taking decisions by consensus."

In 1995, demand for timber was a major source of deforestation. The existential threat posed by climate change had hardly dented the mainstream consciousness. In the Amazon, 18,000 square kilometres of forests were razed, the highest annual rate ever recorded. Meanwhile the European Union (EU) was moving inexorably towards further integration, as the Schengen Agreement came into force.

A quarter of a century on, what has changed?

The world’s forests are still being felled at staggering rates, though now mostly to clear the way for agriculture. The first effects of the climate crisis have arrived. Deforestation in the Amazon has risen again to its highest level in a decade.

But the seeds of hope are budding: growing movements of people around the world – from striking school children, to Indigenous activists risking their lives and ordinary citizens risking their liberty – have dedicated themselves to halting it. EU politicians are starting to listen, and have made forest protection a political priority for the next five years, but as yet no concrete action has yet been taken.

Small beginnings

Fern was founded in 1995 by Saskia Ozinga, a Friends of the Earth Netherlands campaigner, and Sian Pettman from the European Commission. Like the world around it, the organisation has changed dramatically in the last 25 years, while also remaining true to its founding principles and core purpose.

Before starting Fern, Sian had been instrumental in developing the Commission’s tropical forest strategy, and Saskia had set up the European Rainforest Movement, which later became the Forest Movement Europe (FME), and which still thrives today. By the early 1990s, they both saw - through the lenses of their different but complementary backgrounds - that holding national governments in the EU accountable for their forest policies was not enough because power often lay in Brussels, the heart of the EU.

There were no NGOs monitoring the impact of EU policies on forests, trying to ensure it was a force for good, or able to navigate the often-labyrinthine world of EU policymaking.

To remedy this, and driven by the shared belief that protecting the world’s forests means amplifying the voices of the millions of women, men and children who live in and survive off them, Sian and Saskia began working unfunded out of a cramped shed in Oxfordshire, choosing the name Fern because of the plant’s ubiquity in the world’s forests.

The first decade: 1995 - 2005

From Fern’s early days operating out of a shed, it quickly established itself as the leading organisation scrutinising the impact of EU aid and trade on tropical forests. 

In the 1980s Saskia had learned an invaluable lesson while campaigning to stop timber imports into the Netherlands from Sarawak, a Malaysian State plagued by rampant illegal logging and human rights abuses. The campaign led Malaysian timber imports to drop significantly but had negligible impact on the logging and violations of Indigenous rights on the ground, as Malaysia simply found new markets for its timber. Her lesson was that taking unilateral action without tackling the root causes of a problem was like sweeping the homeless off the streets without giving them somewhere to live. The problem simply shifts elsewhere.

In 2002, she co-authored a blueprint for how the EU should tackle illegal logging: “Any action EU governments embark on should take into account the underlying causes of illegal logging as well as the difficulties involved in defining what is legal and whether what is legal is just; crackdown actions adopted in isolation could simply backfire.”

In 2003, Fern helped coordinate NGOs from Member States and tropical forest countries to raise their voices at the Commission and the Parliament. Their shared vision of strong action to deal with the underlying causes of deforestation was realised with the launch of the EU’s flagship programme to tackle illegal logging: the FLEGT Action Plan. It not only controlled the EU import of illegally sourced timber but used the carrot of trade to help improve forest governance and create space for civil society in timber producing countries.

The second decade 2005-2015

Over the course of its second decade, Fern highlighted the unjust influence that large companies were having over environmental and social laws in host countries when executing large projects, such as the Chad-Cameroon oil pipeline. This campaign was one of the factors that ultimately led to UN guidelines on ‘Norms on the Responsibilities of Transnational Corporations and Other Business Enterprises with regards to Human Rights’. Fern also worked on improving how the EU delivered aid, relevant since the EU is collectively the world’s biggest aid giver. They helped convince the EU to produce environmental impact assessments of aid programmes and also pushed for EU development aid that recognises Indigenous Peoples’ rights and is accessible in small amounts to communities on the ground working to create real change.

Fern convinced the EU to reject the scientifically flawed concept of using forests for “carbon offsetting” to reverse climate change and built a coalition which halted plans for biodiversity offsetting in the EU: exposing the fallacies and inherent dangers of the market mechanism which would allow companies to destroy ancient woodlands, wildlife and vital habitats in one area, so long as they pay to attempt to recreate them in another. 

The third decade in the making 2015-2020

Today tropical forests are being destroyed and land is being grabbed because of the global demand for agricultural products. In response, Fern embarked on a campaign to tackle the EU’s negative role.

This led to the March 2015 publication Stolen Goods: The EU’s complicity in illegal tropical deforestation, which estimated that in a single year the EU imported €6 billion worth of agricultural products grown or reared on land illegally cleared of forests in the tropics – almost a quarter of the total world trade in such products.

In 2019, after years of campaigning by Fern and others, the EU appears on the brink of at last taking meaningful action on this by introducing regulations to tackle it.

Fern has also been a leader on pushing for forests’ complex role in the climate emergency to be taken into account and making sure that we focus on restoring –not burning – forests for a healthy climate. Fern immersed itself in the highly complex – yet critically important – area of accounting for emissions from land and forests, otherwise known as Land Use, Land Use Change and Forestry (LULUCF). Thanks to Fern’s advocacy, in 2018 the EU agreed to ensure EU countries remove approximately three billion tonnes of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere between 2020 and 2030, almost equivalent to the European Union’s total emissions for one year. We also worked with other NGOs to ensure that burning wood in the largest and most inefficient power stations is not considered a renewable form of energy and not incentivised.

2020 and beyond

Twenty-five years on – despite huge advances in some areas – the threats facing forests and forest peoples are more acute than ever. It will require deep political will, driven by unwavering pressure from campaigners, forest communities, scientists and the general public, to produce the change needed to avert the ongoing destruction of the world’s forests, with its catastrophic consequences for all.

Thanks to years of tireless collective action, forests are finally at the top of the EU agenda. In 2020, Fern will work to ensure the forest and rights movement effectively use this opportunity.

Fern is well-placed to do its part in meeting this challenge: in 2018, Hannah Mowat succeeded Saskia as Campaigns Coordinator, and from two people working out of a shed, it now has 20 staff working across three offices in Brussels, Moreton-in-Marsh and Paris, and a budget of €2.5 million, a large portion of which goes to its partners fighting for forests and peoples’ rights around the world. Three quarters of their team are women, and they are a flat structure and so have no director, instead taking decisions by consensus.

Over the coming decade Fern will work on the increasingly urgent task of protecting and restoring the world’s forests. This means pushing the EU to challenge its consumption habits and adopt regulations to ensure its imports are not destroying forests. This also means being the catalyst for a new era of forest restoration, and the realisation of Fern’s vision of the Return of the Great European Forest. In one important respect, Fern’s belief that strengthening local communities’ tenure rights is the best way to stop forest destruction has only increased in the past two decades. And the evidence is now overwhelming. It is therefore one of Fern’s touchstones that forest peoples should control their own resources.

As the causes of forest destruction evolve, Fern will surely evolve too, and meet the challenge of combatting them - as it has done so admirably over the past 25 years.

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