Burn and forest boundary

The Northern Hemisphere baked. The polar caps melted. Forest fires raged. Meanwhile the global media broke its self-imposed climate omerta, as the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) warned in their latest report that we have just 12 years left to avert disaster.

This same report highlighted that unless we harness forests’ awesome natural power, runaway climate change is inevitable.

Throughout 2018, Fern presented a positive vision for how to do so: one in which forests sequester carbon on a vast scale without threatening food security, causing ecological catastrophe, or trampling the rights of Indigenous Peoples and local communities.

In October, along with other members of the Climate Land Ambition and Rights Alliance (CLARA), we fleshed out this vision in a landmark scientific report, which showed how the world can limit warming to 1.5°C by combining deep emissions cuts with restoring natural forests, ending deforestation, better agricultural practices, strengthening community land rights and reducing meat consumption. 

Meeting this challenge will require a level of international cooperation unseen in peacetime. And the role of the European Union (EU) – collectively the world’s largest aid donor and biggest trading bloc - will be crucial.

In 2018, there were signs that the EU is moving away from some of the damaging policies that, through our research, campaigning and coalition building, we have sought to end.

On the brink of a breakthrough

A protest against deforestation

In December – following mounting calls from Member States, the European Parliament and over 200,000 citizens - the European Commission finally announced plans to act against deforestation and forest degradation. 

Agriculture is the biggest driver of deforestation on earth, and the EU is the second biggest importer of agricultural goods which cause deforestation, much of it illegal. The urgency of passing laws which eradicate deforestation, land grabs and other human rights abuses from the EU’s agricultural supply chains, is, moreover, intensified by two factors.

Fern team speaking to an EU representative about the EU action plan

As the EU continues to embrace open trade in the face of growing protectionism and trade wars, many of the free trade deals it has signed or is in the throes of negotiating, pose a profound threat to forests and people - unless combatted by specific and bold measures.

Later in this report, we tell the story of our campaign: from the early research we undertook to help expose the EU’s role in agricultural deforestation, through to the often protracted process of building momentum towards meaningful EU action, which we now appear to be on the brink of. 

Civil society on the move

The hard slog that’s invariably a prerequisite for real change is also a feature of our development campaign: supporting structural transformation in societies whose timber industries are blighted by illegality and poor governance – overcoming powerful vested interests, increasing accountability and transparency, giving voices to women and men who have been historically denied them –  often comes incrementally.

And when it happens, it tends to be beneath the radar of publicity. Yet the impact on peoples’ lives is real. 

Two examples from 2018 in countries where we work closely with our local partners illustrate this. 

Pile of logs in Nowak

After eight years of negotiation, Vietnam and the EU finally signed a Voluntary Partnership Agreement (VPA) to end the illegality that’s riddled Vietnam’s timber sector for decades. While huge challenges remain, the process so far has seen Vietnam’s civil society, which has traditionally operated under serious constraints, play an unprecedented role through its work ensuring that the views of poor communities across the country were heard by the deal’s negotiators

Women from a village in Cameroon

And in September, George Weah, president of Liberia -  a nation ravaged by years of devastating civil war and Ebola - signed a new Land Rights Act, which is probably the most progressive in Africa. It is the first Liberian law to recognise women’s rights to land, and if successfully implemented, could enfranchise Liberian women to a degree unprecedented in the country’s history.

Forests, the new coal

Bioenergy power plant in France

In contrast to the relative obscurity surrounding the EU’s flagship anti-illegal timber policy, Member States’ reliance on bioenergy attracted controversy in 2018 as the EU decided to continue to support burning forest biomass, with few caveats.

The forestry and energy sectors have found themselves pitted against increasing public opposition and growing scientific consensus, as the evidence becomes incontrovertible that burning forest biomass harms the climate, forests and biodiversity.

Trees burned in a field

The bioenergy industry has doubled over the last ten years, and is set to increase by a staggering 250 per cent in the next decade, leading to the further industrialisation of forests and increasing harm to the climate – unless it can be stopped.

Inspiring change

Given the scale of the challenges we all face - and the dystopian future that runaway climate change would bring - it’s easy for pessimism to take hold. But we can’t allow it to. 

Friends of Earth protest against deforestation

What inspired me and gave me hope this year was the creative rebellion of young people who poured onto our streets to strike for the climate. Generation Z have shown us what they are capable of, and we must create space for them to continue leading.

But if these are the new branches of the tree, I am also inspired by Fern’s roots, the legacy of our co-founder Saskia Ozinga and our partners who work on the frontline of protecting human rights and preventing forest destruction in Africa, Asia and Europe.

As Fern edges nearer to our 25th anniversary in 2020 – which, significantly, is the same year that the EU has pledged to halt deforestation by – we will continue striving to be agents for hope. Not having hope, but being hope.

Hannah Mowat, Fern Campaigns Coordinator

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