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Without forests, it is doubtful that human life would continue. Forests are crucial to the survival of numerous animals, plants, birds and other species. Yet forests are under threat everywhere: the Great Northern Forest that links Canada, Russia and Scandinavia; the rainforests of the Amazon, 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. Their rich biodiversity yields food and vital natural medicines. For millions of indigenous peoples and small communities, forests are their physical, cultural and spiritual home. Of course, forests are sources of timber and other traded commodities but above all, they are – or should be – sources of natural beauty and wonder.
Types of damage and activity causing damage
There are two principal types of threat to forests
It may be that forest land is under threat from someone who has alleged that they have bought the land or been granted a lease or concession over it. They may not in fact be entitled to use the land. See the Land section of the website.
Example: 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
Licensing and permits
As with many others cases of land use, you may be able to challenge permits and licenses to use forest land.
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, such as occurred in plantations in Honduras
The Norwegian Pension Fund’s Council on Ethics has shown a willingness to disinvest in companies guilty of deforestation
Where logging affects the nature of a forest, it may be illegal unless and until an EIA (Environmental Impact Assessment) has been carried out, as in this case of logging permitted by the Polish government but held to be illegal under EU law.
Many forests are subject to specific laws protecting the area from logging of 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
Of course in practice there are huge practical problems in enforcing such status.
Even if a forest area is not protected it may be the habitat of species that are, and in protecting that species, the forest may be protected.
Example: CITES – is an international convention regulating trade in endangered species
Legislation on countries other than whether the forest is may be relevant. So for example the US Endangered Species Act includes African lions as a protected species
Much forest is home to indigenous people’ who may have specific rights, under International or Local Law or instruments, which can be used to protect them and their forest habitat from clearances, logging or other activities which threaten them. For example reliance might be placed on a UN declaration as to rights of Indigenous Peoples known as UNDRIP
Example: In Kenya, the Ogiek people have for a long time inhabitated the Mau Forest as their ancestral lands. 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.
Resource: The Forest People’s Programme 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
Many forest regions have laws prohibiting logging or deforestation. Enforcement of these laws may be difficult and dangerous but finding out what the laws are and seeking help local officials than can be trusted may help
Deforestation takes place so that people can use the land for something else – such as cattle ranching or growing crops such as palm oil of soy. Some places and some corporations are subjects to agreement not to use the land for these purposes. This may remove the incentive to clear forest.
Example: In the early 2000s in Brazil farmers from the south and Mato Grosso purchased cheap land from small farmers. Entire communities were displaced as a result of the land-buying “fever” and, in some cases, corruption and violence were used to remove those who did not want to sell their land. This led to deforestation. The soy moratorium is an initiative led by the industry and NGOs to not trade or finance soya originating from land in the Amazon Biome, which has been deforested post July 2006 in order to encourage sustainable production.This commitment would cut off market access for soy farmers who were linked to forest destruction or other abuse. The moratorium monitors 62 municipalities in the Amazon region, covering 8 million hectares and most of the area’s soy production Soy moratorium
The Earth Innovation Institute has a practical guide called Making Corporate Deforestation Pledges Work
Legislation in developed countries regulating “supply chain” may be relevant, particular where it makes it illegal 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: An example is European regulations restricting import or sale of illegally logged timber FLEGT / EUTR The basic effect of these regulations is that it is against the law in Europe to supply timber which has been logged our sourced in a wy which is against the law in the country of origin. The EU FLEGT Action Plan sets out seven measures that together prevent the importation of illegal timber into the EU, improve the supply of legal timber and increase demand for timber from responsibly managed forests. The plan works in conjunction with VPAs (Voluntary Partneship Agreements) between the EU and timber producing countries which define “legal timber” under the country’s laws. This Fern guide tells you how you can use these EU laws in real life to protect forests.
Even where there is no applicable legislation, corporate reputations may also provide a basis for publicising, where the corporation is based or does business, illegal acts or human rights violations committed elsewhere.
Example; 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 those involved in the ultimate financing of and benefit from deforestation. Global Canopy Programme has a Forest 500 index which assesses the conduct and policy of 500 of the main “powerbrokers” in the global deforestation.
In many countries there is a legal right to a healthy environment, which may be invoked to protect forests.
Example. 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.
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. Forests are also “eco-utilities” in a wider sense – for example the trees in the Amazon forest basin have an effect on climate and rainfall patterns there and, according to some research, globally.
The positive impact of forests on climate change, and the corresponding negative impacts of deforestation can sometimes be relied upon in legal cases about forests.
Example: In a case 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”. An explanation is here. REDD projects can be beneficial in terms of conserving forests but there is a danger of abuse by people who are interested only in financial benefits and whose schemes in fact have no beneficial effect on forests and may even result in the abuse of rights of forest dwellers, as reported here. If REDD schemes are planned or implemented in a way that breaks the law or the REDD rules, it may be possible to take court action or raise a complaint, as this report suggests, through the World Bank Inspection Panel, human rights systems, and OECD national contact points.
Obstacles in enforcing the law
What is key is not just the existence of laws to protect forests but the ability and determination to enforce them often in the face of powerful opposition, corruption or government indifference, or actual or threatened violence and oppression.
So for example
Gathering evidence is vital for any type of legal action. For issues with forests, these are some example of “evidence” which you may be able to gather if safe to do so [help please from someone with practical experience – can we make a checklist or practical guide ?]