17 April 2018 was a good day in court for EU democratic principles and forests: in the dispute (FW 233, guest blog) surrounding ‘forest management operations’ – a near-tripling of timber harvests – in Poland’s Puszcza Białowieska Natura 2000 site, the Court of Justice of the European Union upheld the Commission’s action in its entirety. It found that Poland violated its obligations under EU Habitats and Birds directives, resulting in the loss of part of that site. Confronted with possible fines of several million euros, the Polish Government announced its intention to respect the decision but seems to be drawing up a ‘compromise solution’ for the ancient forest. The EU Commission will keep a close eye on Poland’s response to the decision, while environmentalists monitor the legal actions against some 300 activists who protested the logging.
On 25 April 2018, European and international NGOs sent an open letter to the European Commission calling for the EU to put human rights and sustainability at the forefront of the Free Trade Agreement (FTA) with Mercosur. The following day, some 2,000 of Brazil’s indigenous people marched through Brasilia to protest what they say is an unprecedented governmental assault on their rights and lands for the benefit of agribusiness. If concluded as it stands today, the EU-Mercosur FTA will increase pressures on land and natural resources, drive additional deforestation and conflicts over land, and undermine climate objectives. The letter urges the Commission to prioritise sustainability and human rights over trade.
Fern is deeply preoccupied with the deteriorating situation in Bangui, Central African Republic (CAR), where its local partner, Centre pour l’Information Environnementale et le Développement Durable (CIEDD), is based. On 1 May 2018 Bangui experienced a new outbreak of violence: an attack by armed men during a religious service left at least 16 dead and 99 wounded, including a local priest closely related to a CIEDD member. Fern’s thoughts are with CIEDD staff and other civil society workers whose relentless efforts to improve forest governance are hampered by chronic instability and insecurity. CIEDD believes that the persistent violence serves powerful interests opposed to more transparent and equitable management of CAR’s vast resources. Nevertheless, in April, representatives from local communities and indigenous groups travelled to Bangui from remote forest areas to attend official Voluntary Partnership Agreement (VPA) meetings, and to insist on an effective seat at the table when it comes to decisions affecting their local forests.
Civil society leaders from Africa, Asia and Europe who work on FLEGT Voluntary Partnership Agreements are calling on the European Union to increase efforts to stop deforestation and halt illegal logging in the tropics. The call followed a March policy tour, facilitated by Fern, to Bonn, Brussels, Paris and The Hague to share insights and challenges surrounding forest management and forest peoples’ rights, as well as opportunities and gains brought by the VPAs. The leaders pointed to the EU’s shared responsibility to protect global forests due to its consumption patterns, and asked for new measures to reduce deforestation, to develop ambitious diplomatic strategies linking forests and climate, and to release the European Commission FLEGT work plan. They discussed the shrinking space for non-state actors and the surge in measures designed to stifle NGO work on governance and rights (e.g., the draft law in the Republic of Congo), and the continued marginalisation of and discrimination against forest and indigenous communities.
In a landmark ruling invoking the rights of future generations, Colombia’s highest court recognised the Amazon as an entity with rights and entitled to protection. It gave the government four months to act on deforestation. The legal consequences of putting this vast natural resource on a more equal footing with multinational corporations – legal personhood – could have broad repercussions if the line of judicial reasoning develops. This decision came after 25 young Colombians sued the government for failing to protect its forests. Although Colombia’s President Juan Manuel Santos committed in 2015 to reach zero net deforestation by 2020, deforestation in the Amazon region leaped by 44 per cent from 2015 to 2016. Climate litigation, such as the 2015 Urgenda case where a Dutch court ordered the government to ramp up climate ambition and the lawsuits now being brought against oil companies, is an increasingly important tool in the fight against climate change.
During the international climate talks in Bonn, 14 NGOs working on land, rights and climate called for rights to be respected in forest restoration initiatives. The organisations recognise that to avoid catastrophic climate change we need to increase the amount of carbon dioxide that forests remove, and that supporting protection and restoration of natural forests is the best way to achieve this. There is also an urgent need to stop land grabs and conversion of natural ecosystems. The NGOs call for the full participation and leadership of local communities in efforts to relieve the pressure on forests.