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From a sustainability perspective, the expression “can’t see the forest for the tress” comes with a certain irony. While the expression captures the inability to see beyond minor details, sustainable natural resource management requires the ability to deal with a complex interaction of big and small issues.
That complexity is also what has led researchers to point out weaknesses in the EU’s efforts to prohibit the import of illegal timber.
In a study recently published in the journal International Environmental Agreements, centre researcher Claudia Ituarte-Lima together with colleagues Amelie Dupraz-Ardiot and Constance McDermott warn that the European Union Timber Regulation (EUTR) risks enforcing laws that negatively affect forest biodiversity and small-timber enterprises and forest-dependent people in developing countries.
A possible solution, according to Ituarte-Lima and her colleagues, is to align EUTR with the UN Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD). The convention, which is ratified by 196 countries, serves as a key source of international principles and commitments on safeguarding the planet’s biodiversity and local livelihoods.
“The CBD contains a wealth of guidance for forest governance, ranging from the general to the specific,” Ituarte-Lima explains.
This includes the Akwe: Kon voluntary guidelines on how to assess development impacts on sacred lands and waters traditionally occupied by or used by indigenous and local communities. Other examples include the CBD Addis Ababa principles and guidelines which encourages the sustainable use of habitats and ecosystems, and the CBD guidelines for safeguards, which can serve to connect forest diversity with human rights principles in biodiversity financing.
Incorporating biodiversity principles and rights-based approach can help us lift from a focus on legality to a focus on legally empowering local forest producers to exercise their human right to a healthy environment
Claudia Ituarte-Lima, lead author
Throughout much of the 1990s and early 2000s, the EU was a strong proponent for an internationally, legally binding convention on sustainable forest management. However, some countries opposed the idea arguing it would affect their sovereign right to pursue their own priorities. In an attempt to get around this issue, the focus was put on more neutral law enforcement which opened the door for individual governments to enforce their own understanding of what was an illegal product. But such legal approach privileges the role of the state authority as opposed to established customary laws.
A significant portion of the timber classified as “illegal” in national legal systems, especially in low income countries, is produced for domestic and local consumption rather than export to the EU. Furthermore, the timber was previously governed by customary law which, without the consent of the state, enabled local women, men and youth to engage in sustainable use and conservation.
The EUTR effectively squeezed out these groups in favour of legal, industrial production. This is why Ituarte-Lima and her colleagues argue it is important to question and evaluate what impact the EUTR law framework impacts both biodiversity, small-scale timber enterprises and forest-dependent people in developing countries.
“Such assessments will better position the EU to achieve its broader goals, and its member state commitments under international agreements such as the CBD and human rights treaties,” Ituarte-Lima argues.
This is also because states have substantive obligations to adopt laws that effectively protect against harm to forest biodiversity. Such harm can have disastrous consequences for indigenous peoples, forest-dwellers and other people who rely directly on the forest products for their food, fuel and medicine,” Ituarte-Lima continues.
Through the analysis of both the EUTR and the CBD, the authors reveal that opportunities for better alignment lie in the nexus between procedural rights, of which law enforcement forms part of a broader vision of rule of law and conflict resolution, and the strengthening of substantive rights that benefit local forest use and conservation.
The purpose of incorporating a stronger focus on biodiversity and local user rights into the EUTR is, according to the authors, not only to prevent possible negative impacts, but also to positively promote the development of laws and regulations that support “healthy and diverse forest ecosystems and thriving human communities”.
“Incorporating biodiversity principles and rights-based approach can help us lift from a focus on legality to a focus on legally empowering local forest producers to exercise their human right to a healthy environment,” Ituarte-Lima says. More open debate is needed that gives these forest right holders a voice and power to impact EUTR decisions that affect them, she argues.
Ituarte-Lima, C., Dupraz-Ardiot, A. & McDermott, C.L. 2019. Incorporating international biodiversity law principles and rights perspective into the European Union Timber Regulation. Int Environ Agreements (2019) 19: 255. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10784-019-09439-6
Claudia Ituarte Lima is researcher in international law specialising in legal and governance transformations for sustainable development and environmental justice.
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