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How Can I Use Legal Action to Protect Our Forests?

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Humans, animal and plant life depends on forests. But forests are under threat everywhere: the Great Northern Forest that links Canada, Russia and Scandinavia; the rainforests of the Amazon, the Congo Basin and Southeast Asia; the forests of Europe, Australasia and the Americas.

Forests fight climate change by providing “carbon sinks” that absorb CO2.  They generate rainfall.  They provide us with food and vital natural medicines. For millions of indigenous peoples and forest-dwelling communities, forests are their physical, cultural and spiritual home.

This section of the guide aims to give you the tools to use legal action to protect our forests!


Threats to Our Forests

Forests are being threatened all over the world by companies and government who care more about profit than protecting our environment.

The main types of threats to forests are:

  • Logging. This removes trees. The infrastructure and equipment needed for logging is itself often very damaging to the natural environment
  • Destruction and degradation of forest in order to make alternative use of land for agricultural or other uses (palm oil, soy, other crops, livestock, buildings, roads, dams)
  • Forest fires. Fires are often caused directly by destructive business practices but also more indirectly by climate change and related extreme weather events and droughts.

Illegal Use of Land

Forest land can be threatened by people who have alleged that they have bought the land or been granted a lease or concession over it.

Example: Challenging Land Acquisition in Papua New Guinea

Local people challenged the validity of a lease granted over forest land to a palm oil plantation develop.

The court declared the lease void and criticised the ministry’s failure to make proper inquiries before granting it and to consult proper with local people

A. Challenging Licences and Permits to Use Forest Land

You may be able to challenge permits and licenses that allow companies to use forest land.

Example: Reviewing Palm Oil Licenses in Indonesia

Court action compelled a review of licences to plant palm oil plantations in forested land in Indonesia.

It may also be possible to take action against institutions financing deforestation.

Example: Honduran Farmers Suing the World Bank

The IFC has been sued in the US for its role in financing a Honduras businessman who is alleged to have used widespread violence against local farmers who claim the land now used for palm oil plantations.

B. Environmental Impact Assessments

Where logging affects the nature of a forest, it may be illegal unless and until an EIA (Environmental Impact Assessment) has been carried out.

If forest land is being used and you don’t think an EIA has been taken, you may be able to take legal action. This could result in the activities being stopped until an EIA is carried out.

Example: Challenging Logging Permits in Poland

ClientEarth has effectively challenging logging permits given to companies by the Polish government.

These were held by Polish courts to be illegal under EU law.

C. Laws Against Illegal Logging

Many countries have laws prohibiting logging or deforestation in protected forests. Other laws require people to have a licence/permit before they can cut down trees.

If a company is logging in a protected area, is logging without a licence, or is not obeying the conditions on their licence, legal action can be taken to stop the illegal logging.

D. Constitutional and Human Rights

In many countries there is a legal right to a healthy environment, which may be invoked to protect forests.

Example: The Right to a Healthy Environment in Uganda

In the Ugandan case of Advocates Coalition for Development and Environment (ACODE) v. Attorney General  the court used this right together with the notion that the Butamira Forest Reserve was held on trust for the people to protect a forest area.

E. Corporate Commitments

Although not laws, corporate commitments can be used in campaigns and to support legal arguments in cases brought against companies for illegal logging. Use the differences between what companies say and do to you advantage.

Key Resource: The Earth Innovation Institute’s Guide on Making Corporate Deforestation Pledges Work

This guide gives you further information and practical tips on how to use corporate commitments as part of your strategy to stop deforestation.


Protected Forest Status

A. Protected Parks

Many forests are subject to specific laws protecting the area from logging or other industrial activity.

Example: Many parts of the Congo basin are protected areas as shown in The Global Forest Atlas

An example of a specific law is the Central African Republic Forest Code

Legal action can be taken when these laws are broken.

B. Protected Species

Even if a forest area is not protected it may be the habitat of species that are. Logging or other extractive activities in forests may also harm the animals in the forest. Laws protecting these species can also be used to protect the forest as a whole.

Example: CITES – is an international convention regulating trade in endangered species

Legislation on countries other than where the forest is located may also be relevant.

Example: US Endangered Species Act

The US law includes African lions as a protected species. This law can be used against US companies working in other countries.


Indigenous People

Much forest is home to indigenous people’ who may have specific rights which can be used to protect them and their forest homes from logging or other activities which threaten them.

Example: The Ogiek Case in Kenya

The Ogiek people have lived in the Mau Forest, their ancestral lands. They got kicked out of their lands to make way for development projects.

Following an eight-year legal battle, in 2017 the African Court found that the The Ogieks were “Indigenous People” and that the Kenyan government violated seven separate articles of the African Charter, including rights to property including land, rights not to be discriminated against, and rights to practise traditional religion which was closely linked to the forest environment.


Key Organisation: The Forest People’s Programme

The FPP has a range of publications designed to assist Forest and Indigenous Peoples uphold their rights, including a report, Securing Forests, Securing Rights, documenting case studies from 9 countries in Africa, Asia and Latin America


Supply Chain

In Europe, Australia and other countries, there are laws that make it illegal to import illegally harvested timber (i.e. wood from trees that have been illegally cut down in the country of origin). in that country if imported goods (such as timber) have been produced in a way that is contrary to laws in the country of origin

Example: EU Timber Regulations

The regulations make it illegal within the European Union to supply timber which has been logged in a way that is against the law in the country of origin.

Legal action can be taken when these regulations are broken.

This Fern guide tells you how you can use these EU laws in real life to protect forests.


Example: Australia’s Illegal Logging Prohibition Act
This law requires businesses to conduct due diligence by way of a verification and certification process and imposes civil and criminal penalties on an importer or processor who “intentionally, knowingly or recklessly imports or processes illegally logged timber”.

Even where there are no laws against importing timber, campaigns can be used to hurt the corporate reputations of companies that import illegal timber.

Example: US Timber Campaigns

US retailers of timber products committed to product changes following allegations of links to indigenous rights abuses and illegal logging activities in Papua New Guinea

Any legal action can be more effective if combined with campaigns directed at people involved in the ultimate financing of and benefit from deforestation.

Example: Forest 500 Index

Global Canopy Programme has a Forest 500 index which assesses the conduct and policy of 500 of the main “powerbrokers” in the global deforestation.


Climate Change and Forests

A. Climate Change

Forests are very important to climate change. They are carbon sinks, absorbing CO2 from the atmosphere. Destruction or clearance of forests usually involves the emission of significant quantities of CO2.

The positive impact of forests on climate change and the negative impacts of deforestation can sometimes be used when taking legal action to stop deforestation.

Example: Climate Litigation and Forest Protection in India

The  National Green Tribunal  has been requested to require the Ministry of Environment, Forest & Climate Change to develop a plan “with priority actions aimed at reducing GHG emissions including by protecting forests, and engaging in massive reforestation and other methods of natural carbon sequestration such as improved agricultural and forestry practices.


REDD and REDD+ is a mechanism developed in International Climate Change negotiations. It stands for “Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation”.

REDD projects can help conserve forests but the projects can be abused by people who are interested only in financial benefits and whose schemes have no positive impact on forests and may even result in the abuse of people who live in the forest.

If REDD schemes are planned or implemented in a way that breaks the law or the REDD rules, it may be possible to take legal action.

Key Resource: Report on the REDD+ Complaints Mechanism

CIEL and the Rainforest Foundation have useful information on how to use the REDD+ complaints mechanism if you think REDD projects are negatively impacting your rights.


Helpful Organisations

The following organisations have lots of useful information on how to use legal action to protect forests and may be able to support you and your community.

  • ClientEarth is an organisation that specialises in using legal action to protect the environment, including forests.

Image result for forest peoples programme

  • Forest Peoples Programme is a human rights organisation working with forest peoples across the globe to secure their rights to their lands and their livelihoods.
  • They support forest peoples in campaigning and taking legal action to protect their forest homes.

  • Greenpeace use legal action, campaigns and advocacy to protect the environment.
  • They have teams that specialise in forest protection in different countries across the world.

  • The Rainforest Foundation is an organisation that using advocacy and campaigning to protect the rights of communities who live in forests.
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