The Jesuit Centre for Faith and Justice has made a submission to the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine on the ‘Agriculture Appeals (Amendment) Bill 2020’. With this submission we hope to contribute to the to the ongoing discussion of the importance of maintaining and enhancing the ecological integrity of our ecosystems through appropriate and sensitive use of our natural resources, whether in forestry, agriculture, or our built environment.
The proposals presented in this Amendment Bill, brought forward by Green Party Minister, Pippa Hackett, intend to achieve an ‘aligning’ between the forestry licensing and appeals processes with the planning processes. However, it is clear that the primary intention here is to reduce the number of challenges to planning decisions, rather than addressing the underlying issues that has led to the high number of appeals being taken.
Careful reading of the Green Party’s vision for Irish forestry in its ‘Close to Nature Forestry’ policy shows us that the party understands that the current forestry system is not fit for purpose in terms of the ecological and societal issues associated with it. There is recognition of the need to change the system to make it work better for our climate, communities, farmers, and the forestry industry. There is no mention within this document of the need to amend the appeals process. However, this Amendment Bill, which is the first major legislative change that Minister Hackett is tabling, does not in any way progress any of the recommendations that are listed in the Green Party’s policy and instead concentrates on reducing the right to appeal licensing decisions.
Implication of this Amendment Bill
There are two major implications of this amendment: the ecological impact of the forestry industry and the contravention of the Aarhus Convention as it relates to access to environmental justice.
Key changes envisioned in the Bill will result in fewer appeals being made against licensing decisions but will not reduce the ecological impacts of these decisions. The forestry industry faces a myriad of ecological issues which vary based on individual contexts including soil drainage, biodiversity loss, pesticide use, sedimentation, and soil acidification.
These issues would be ameliorated if the mentality of the ‘right tree, right location’ was taken throughout the entire licensing procedure. The type of forestry approved (mixed species etc.), the location of the forestry, soil type, type of ecosystem the forestry would replace, method of harvesting, and other concerns all need to be appropriately assessed before the license is granted. Ensuring that ecologically sound forestry practices are accounted for throughout the licensing process would result in reduced numbers of appeals against decisions. It would also encourage a more economically sustainable industry, long-term. While there have been some positive changes within the Department in terms of recruiting more ecologists and a programme to increase native woodland in public areas, this attack on the right to appeal will be ultimately damaging to the industry as a whole and the associated communities.
In the ‘Close to Nature Forestry’ policy document, short rotation forestry, resulting in single age monocultures which are clear felled, are identified as a problem. The October 2019 report on felling decisions noted that all approved licenses (apart from one approval for thinning) were for clear felling. Appeals against these decisions are therefore unsurprising, considering the consequences to the surrounding ecosystem of this type of harvesting. Such appeals are positive, and should be welcomed.
Reducing the right to appeal may reduce the number of appeals in the system, but that is only the problem if you think the purpose of forestry is short-term profit. The core issue here is a forestry system that facilitates un-ecological forestry practices. Un-ecological is not an abstract category dreamed up by academics. When we prune this industry towards the lowest-cost approaches, we guarantee it will be environmentally devastating, economically under-productive, and short-lived.
Instead of concentrating on reducing the rate of appeals using the blunt instrument of hindering citizens’ access to justice and right to appeal, the Department of Agriculture, Food, and the Marine should seek a reduction in the rate of poor licensing decisions. This Bill should be revised to prioritise improving the quality of licensing decisions by addressing longstanding and well recognised failures in the system, and by correctly applying environmental legislation. The creation of a new forestry programme which recognises community and environmental concerns should be the main priority.
As well as having ecological impacts there are several aspects of the Bill which would restrict the right to a person to appeal licensing decisions. This bill seeks to define who will be able to appeal licencing decisions, which if successful sets a disturbing precedent in limiting the access of communities to environmental justice. The introduction of fees will also function to dictate who is able to appeal decision, and who is not, reducing the access to environmental justice to those who can pay. Do we really want to create a situation where your ability to protest is dependent on your ability to pay? Ireland has signed up to the Aarhus Convention, which guarantees our citizenship access to environmental justice. Why would a government which includes a Green Party undermine that?
It is important to cultivate the forestry industry in Ireland. Any efforts to do this by disregarding ecological impact or lessening democratic access will fail in the long-term. The restrictive nature of these proposals raises serious concerns over the negative impact that they will have on the right of access to justice in environmental matters. Now is the time to concentrate on supporting farmers and landowners to plant the ‘right tree in the right place’, not place a gag on the objectors.