Environment laws have failed to tackle the extinction emergency. Here’s the proof



Koalas are among the threatened native species worst affected by habitat loss.
Taronga Zoo

Michelle Ward, The University of Queensland; April Reside, The University of Queensland; Hugh Possingham, The University of Queensland; James Watson, The University of Queensland; Jeremy Simmonds, The University of Queensland; Jonathan Rhodes, The University of Queensland, and Martin Taylor, The University of Queensland

Threatened species habitat larger than the size of Tasmania has been destroyed since Australia’s environment laws were enacted, and 93% of this habitat loss was not referred to the federal government for scrutiny, our new research shows.

The research, published today in Conservation Science and Practice, shows that 7.7 million hectares of threatened species habitat has been destroyed in the 20 years since the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation (EPBC) Act 1999 came into force.

The Southern black throated finch, one of the threatened native animals worst affected by habitat loss.
Eric Vanderduys/BirdLife Australia



Read more:
Koalas can learn to live the city life if we give them the trees and safe spaces they need


Some 85% of land-based threatened species experienced habitat loss. The iconic koala was among the worst affected. More than 90% of habitat loss was not referred or submitted for assessment, despite a requirement to do so under Commonwealth environment laws.

Our research indicates the legislation has comprehensively failed to safeguard Australia’s globally significant natural values, and must urgently be reformed and enforced.

What are the laws supposed to do?

The EPBC Act was enacted in 1999 to protect the diversity of Australia’s unique, and increasingly threatened, flora and fauna. It was considered a giant step forward for biodiversity conservation and was expected to become an important legacy of the Howard Coalition government.

A dead koala outside Ipswich, Queensland. Environmentalists attributed the death to land clearing.
Jim Dodrill/The Wilderness Society



Read more:
Queensland’s new land-clearing laws are all stick and no carrot (but it’s time to do better)


The law aims to conserve so-called “protected matters” such as threatened species, migratory species, and threatened ecosystems.

Clearing and land use change is regarded by ecologists as the primary threat to Australia’s biodiversity. In Queensland, land clearing to create pasture is the greatest pressure on threatened flora and fauna.

Any action which could have a significant impact on protected matters, including habitat destruction through land clearing, must be referred to the federal government for assessment.

Loss of potential habitat for threatened species and migratory species, and threatened ecological communities. Dark blue represents habitat loss that has been assessed (or loss that occurred with a referral under the EPBC Act) and dark red represents habitat loss that has not been assessed (or loss that occurred without a referral under The Act). Three panels highlight the southern Western Australia coast (left), Tasmania (middle), and northern Queensland coast (right).
Adapted from Ward et al. 2019

The law is not being followed

We examined federal government forest and woodland maps derived from satellite imagery. The analysis showed that 7.7 million hectares of threatened species habitat has been cleared or destroyed since the legislation was enacted.

Of this area, 93% was not referred to the federal government and so was neither assessed nor approved.

Bulldozer clearing trees at Queensland’s Olive Vale Station in 2015.
ABC News, 2017

It is unclear why people or companies are not referring habitat destruction on such a large scale. People may be self-assessing their activities and concluding they will not have a significant impact.

Others may be seeking to avoid the expense of a referral, which costs A$6,577 for people or companies with a turnover of more than A$10 million a year.

The failure to refer may also indicate a lack of awareness of, or disregard for, the EPBC Act.

The biggest losers

Our research found that 1,390 (85%) of terrestrial threatened species experienced habitat loss within their range since the EPBC Act was introduced.

Among the top ten species to lose the most area were the red goshawk, the ghost bat, and the koala, losing 3 million, 2.9 million, and 1 million hectares, respectively.

In less than two decades, many other imperilled species have lost large chunks of their potential habitat. They include the Mount Cooper striped skink (25%), the Keighery’s macarthuria (23%) and the Southern black-throated finch (10%).

(a) The top 10 most severely impacted threatened species include those that have lost the highest proportion of their total habitat, and (b) species who have lost the most habitat, as mapped by the Federal Government.
Adapted from Ward et al. 2019

What’s working, what’s not

We found that almost all referrals to the federal government for habitat loss were made by urban developers, mining companies and commercial developers. A tiny 1.3% of referrals were made by agricultural developers – despite clear evidence that land clearing for pasture development is the primary driver of habitat destruction.

Alarmingly, even when companies or people did refer proposed actions, 99% were allowed to proceed (sometimes with conditions).

The high approval rates may be derived, in part, from inconsistent application of the “significance” test under the federal laws.

Hundreds of protesters gather in Sydney in 2016 to demand that New South Wales retain strong land clearing laws.
Dean Lewins/AAP

For example, in a successful prosecution in 2015, Powercor Australia and Vemco] were fined A$200,000 for failing to refer clearing of a tiny 0.5 hectares of a critically endangered ecosystem. In contrast, much larger tracts of habitat have been destroyed without referral or approval, and without any such enforcement action being taken.

Clearer criteria for determining whether an impact is significant would reduce inconsistency in decisions, and provide more certainty for stakeholders.

The laws must be enforced and reformed

If the habitat loss trend continues, two things are certain: more species will become threatened with extinction, and more species will become extinct.

The Act must, as a matter of urgency, be properly enforced to curtail the mass non-referral of actions that our analysis has revealed.

The left pie chart illustrates the breakdown of industries referring their actions by number of referrals; the right pie chart illustrates the breakdown of industries referring their actions by area (hectares). Both charts highlight the agricultural sector as a low-referring industry.
Adapted from Ward et al. 2019

If nothing else, this will help Australia meet its commitment under the Convention on Biological Diversity to prevent extinction of known threatened species and improve their conservation status by 2020.




Read more:
Why aren’t Australia’s environment laws preventing widespread land clearing?


Mapping the critical habitat essential to the survival of every threatened species is also an important step. The Act should also be reformed to ensure critical habitat is identified and protected, as happens in the United States.

Australia is already a world leader in modern-day extinctions. Without a fundamental change in how environmental law is written, used, and enforced, the crisis will only get worse.The Conversation

Michelle Ward, PhD Student, The University of Queensland; April Reside, Researcher, Centre for Biodiversity and Conservation Science, The University of Queensland; Hugh Possingham, Professor, The University of Queensland; James Watson, Professor, The University of Queensland; Jeremy Simmonds, Postdoctoral Research Fellow in Conservation Science, The University of Queensland; Jonathan Rhodes, Associate Professor, The University of Queensland, and Martin Taylor, Adjunct senior lecturer, The University of Queensland

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Advertisements

The Great Barrier Reef outlook is ‘very poor’. We have one last chance to save it



Tourists snorkelling on the Great Barrier Reef, the outlook for which has been officially rated “very poor”.
AAP

Terry Hughes, James Cook University

It’s official. The outlook for the Great Barrier Reef has been downgraded from “poor” to “very poor” by the Australian government’s own experts.

That’s the conclusion of the latest five-yearly report from the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority, released on Friday. The report assessed literally hundreds of scientific studies published on the reef’s declining condition since the last report was published in 2014.

The past five years were a game-changer. Unprecedented back-to-back coral bleaching episodes in 2016 and 2017, triggered by record-breaking warm sea temperatures, severely damaged two-thirds of the reef. Recovery since then has been slow and patchy.

Fish swimming among coral on the Great Barrier Reef.
AAP

Looking to the future, the report said “the current rate of global warming will not allow the maintenance of a healthy reef for future generations […] the window of opportunity to improve the reef’s long-term future is now”.

But that window of opportunity is being squandered so long as Australia’s and the world’s greenhouse gas emissions continue to rise.

The evidence on the reef’s condition is unequivocal

A logical national response to the outlook report would be a pledge to curb activity that contributes to global warming and damages the reef. Such action would include a ban on the new extraction of fossil fuels, phasing out coal-fired electricity generation, transitioning to electrified transport, controlling land clearing and reducing local stressors on the reef such as land-based runoff from agriculture.




Read more:
Meet the super corals that can handle acid, heat and suffocation


But federal Environment Minister Sussan Ley’s response to the outlook report suggested she saw no need to take dramatic action on emissions, when she declared: “it’s the best managed reef in the world”.

Major coral bleaching events in 2016 and 2017 have devastated the reef.

The federal government’s lack of climate action was underscored by another dire report card on Friday. Official quarterly greenhouse gas figures showed Australia’s greenhouse gas emissions have risen to the highest annual levels since the 2012-13 financial year.

But rather than meaningfully tackle Australia’s contribution to climate change, the federal government has focused its efforts on fixing the damage wrought on the reef. For example as part of a A$444 million grant to the Great Barrier Reef Foundation, the government has allocated $100 million for reef restoration and adaptation projects over the next five years or so.

Solutions being supported by the foundation include a sunscreen-like film to float on the water to prevent light penetration, and gathering and reseeding coral spawn Separately, Commonwealth funds are also being spent on projects such as giant underwater fans to bring cooler water to the surface.

But the scale of the problem is much, much larger than these tiny interventions.




Read more:
Extreme weather caused by climate change has damaged 45% of Australia’s coastal habitat


Climate change is not the only threat to the reef

The second biggest impact on the Great Barrier Reef’s health is poor water quality, due to nutrient and sediment runoff into coastal habitats. Efforts to address that problem are also going badly.

This was confirmed in a confronting annual report card on the reef’s water quality, also released by the Commonwealth and Queensland governments on Friday.

The Great Barrier Reef attained world heritage status in the 1980s.
AAP

It showed authorities have failed to reach water quality targets set under the Reef 2050 Plan – Australia’s long-term plan for improving the condition of the reef.

For example the plan sets a target that by 2025, 90% of sugarcane land in reef catchments should have adopted improved farming practices. However the report showed the adoption had occurred on just 9.8% of land, earning the sugarcane sector a grade of “E”.

So yes, the reef is definitely in danger

The 2019 outlook report and other submissions from Australia will be assessed next year when the UNESCO World Heritage Committee meets to determine if the Great Barrier Reef should be listed as “in danger” – an outcome the federal government will fight hard to avoid.

An in-danger listing would signal to the world that the reef was in peril, and put the federal government under greater pressure to urgently prevent further damage. Such a listing would be embarrassing for Australia, which presents itself as a world’s-best manager of its natural assets.

Environment activists engaged in a protest action to bring attention to the dangers facing the Great Barrier Reef.
AAP

The outlook report maintains that the attributes of the Great Barrier Reef
that led to its inscription as a world heritage area in 1981 are still intact, despite the loss of close to half of the corals in 2016 and 2017.

But by any rational assessment, the Great Barrier Reef is in danger. Most of the pressures on the reef are ongoing, and some are escalating – notably anthropogenic heating, also known as human-induced climate change.




Read more:
Great Barrier Reef Foundation chief scientist: science will lie at the heart of our decisions


And current efforts to protect the reef are demonstrably failing. For example despite an ongoing “control” program, outbreaks of the damaging crown-of-thorns starfish – triggered by poor water quality – have spread throughout the reef.

The federal government has recently argued that climate change should not form the basis for an in-danger listing, because rising emissions are not the responsibility of individual countries. The argument comes despite Australia having one of the highest per capita emissions rates in the world.

But as Australia’s greenhouse gas emissions continue to rise – an outcome supported by government policy – the continued downward trajectory of the Great Barrier Reef is inevitable.The Conversation

Terry Hughes, Distinguished Professor, James Cook University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Can environmental populism save the planet?


Mark Beeson, University of Western Australia

Populism and environmentalism are words seldom seen in the same sentence. One is associated predominantly with nationalists and charismatic leaders of “real people”, the other with broadly-based collective action to address the world’s single most pressing problem.

Differences don’t get much starker, it would seem. But we are increasingly seeing the two strands combine in countries around the world.

Exhibit A in support of this thesis is the remarkable growth and impact of Extinction Rebellion, often known as XR.

When I finished writing a book on the possibility of environmental populism little more than six months ago, I’d never even heard of XR. Now it is a global phenomenon, beginning to be taken seriously by policymakers in some of the world’s more consequential democracies. Britain’s decision earlier this year to declare a climate emergency is attributed in part to 11 days of Extinction Rebellion protest that paralysed parts of London.




Read more:
UK becomes first country to declare a ‘climate emergency’


Greta Thunberg, the remarkable Swedish schoolgirl who has rapidly become one of the world’s leading climate activists, is another – rather inspiring – example of a rising tide of popular opinion demanding political leaders take action before it is too late. It is also a telling indictment of the quality and imagination of the current crop of international leaders that schoolchildren are taking the lead on an issue that will, for better or worse, define their future.

It is striking that so many prominent figures in international politics are not just buffoonish, self-obsessed and ludicrously underqualified for the positions they hold, but are also rather old.

I speak as an ageing baby boomer myself, and a childless one at that. My rather ageist point is that I simply don’t have the same stake in the future that young people do, who have perhaps 70 or 80 years yet to live.

The world will be a very different place by then. Without action on climate change, it could be positively apocalyptic. A “progressive” variety of bottom-up, populist political mobilisation of precisely the sort that XR is developing could encourage even the most obdurate elders to take note.

Even if there’s merit in the point that younger leaders might take climate change more seriously than leading members of the gerontocracy such as Donald Trump, does this make the redoubtable Ms Thunberg a populist? Not if we subscribe to the views of some of populism’s more prominent critics.




Read more:
The pathologies of populism


Political scholar John Keane described populism (in The Conversation, as it happens) as “a recurrent autoimmune disease of democracy”, and a “pseudo-democratic style of politics”.

He’s got a point. The idea one person is uniquely capable of representing the otherwise inarticulate and neglected will of the people is highly implausible, not to say potentially dangerous.

History is replete with examples of things going badly wrong under the leadership of messianic megalomaniacs. There is a growing number of populists and demagogues in our own time, and many – especially among the young – are losing faith in democracy.




Read more:
Australians’ trust in politicians and democracy hits an all-time low: new research


When democracies can be captured by powerful vested interests and even the most compelling scientific evidence can be deliberately undermined and discredited, such scepticism is understandable.

But there is also a “progressive” version of populism championed by some on the Left (if such labels actually mean anything anymore) as a potential way forward. The anti-globalisation movement and the re-emergence of radical politics in Europe are seen as positive examples of this possibility. However, given the demise of Syriza (the Coalition of the Radical Left) in Greece, the collapse in support for Jeremy Corbyn in the UK, and the disappearance of the Occupy movement, such claims look increasingly unpersuasive.




Read more:
In defence of left-wing populism


And yet there are two features of climate change activism that make it different from normal politics, if such a thing exists any longer.

First, climate change transcends class, race, nationality, gender and religion – even if you don’t believe it’s actually happening, it will affect all of us (although it will disproportionately weigh on poorer nations, and the poorest within those nations). The good news is even some of the more conservative groups in our society are beginning to accept the evidence, if only of their own eyes.




Read more:
Farmers’ climate denial begins to wane as reality bites


Second, the unambiguous impact of climate change is only a foretaste of what’s to come. Things are going to get a lot worse, as Australia’s strategic thinkers are beginning to recognise.

It is not clear whether the climate change movement is popular enough, however, as our recent federal election showed. Although it’s unlikely any of our major political parties will go the polls offering ambitious policies in the foreseeable future, eventually the climate will change politics everywhere. The only question is in what way.

Political pressure is one thing; meaningful change is quite another. The scale of the transformation needed in the way we collectively live and organise economic activity is formidable and frankly unlikely – especially in the very short time available to take collective action on an historically unprecedented scale. Policy change on this scale will inevitably create winners and losers.

What is to be done? Enlightened populism is – or could be part of – the answer. If our leaders are too dim, compromised or gutless to act, we have to keep nagging them until they do – or vote for someone who might.

Indeed, democracies are still fortunately positioned in this regard, and we should take advantage of that.




Read more:
China succeeds in greening its economy not because, but in spite of, its authoritarian government


A “lucky country” like Australia could actually play a leadership role by championing a Green New Deal and retrofitting the entire economy along sustainable lines. (If we were serious, it would also mean closing down the coal industry.)

While climate activists might conceivably pressure governments to act, it might be harder to win over the average voter. These are big issues. Unlikely as it might sound, the necessary counterpart of environmental populism is a micro-level engagement with the large numbers of people who either don’t know or don’t care.

Beyond lip service, we need to mobilise truly popular support for change. Now is a good time to start.The Conversation

Mark Beeson, Professor of International Politics, University of Western Australia

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Peace with nature: helping former Colombian guerrilla fighters to become citizen scientists



Ex-combatants learned to survey birds, plants and other wildlife.
Jaime Gongora, Author provided

Jaime Gongora, University of Sydney and Federica Di Palma, Earlham Institute

Colombia is the second most biodiverse country in the world with more than 56,000 recorded species, some 9,000 of which are unique. However protecting and researching this natural treasure has been extraordinarily difficult during Colombia’s nearly 55 years of internal conflict.

Since the 2016 peace agreement 21 scientific bio-expeditions have been carried out, most in areas that were previously conflict zones. This has led to the discovery of more than 150 new animal and plant species.




Read more:
Ecotourism could be making animals less scared, and easier to eat


This flowering of research offers a new opportunity to the thousands of ex-combatants now looking for productive and peaceful work. We worked with former guerrillas in our project GROW-Colombia to train them to protect Colombia’s biodiversity.

Jaime Gongora led workshops with former guerrillas on the promise of biodiversity.
Mario Murcia, Author provided

Who are the ex-combatants?

A huge effort to reincorporate these combatants back into civilian life is under way. Paramount is finding suitable jobs, to rebuild the country and offer stable wages.

A recent census found the former Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (the FARC-EP) consists of some 10,000 people. Ranging between their 20s and 40s, around three-quarters are men.

Around 40% of these ex-guerrillas have experience in environmental conservation, and 70% have agricultural skills. Some 10% would like to work in veterinary, aquaculture and animal production fields, 60% in agriculture, and 84% in terrestrial and river environmental restoration.

There is also increasing interest in ecotourism in the 26 Territorial Training and Reincorporation Spaces (ETCRs) where the ex-combatants are currently based.

Their interests, the new political environment, and nearly 20 tourism initiatives in the ETCRs provide a unique opportunity to promote biodiversity as part of the peace process.

Training ex-combatants to protect biodiversity

We wanted to teach ex-FARC-EP combatants some basic conservation skills and identify the potential of nature to create sustainable business opportunities.

We started with a national workshop with the representatives of 16 ETCRs from across the country. These members reflected on their personal and scientific perceptions of the natural world, mapped ecosystems in their local areas and canvassed ecotourism projects. We then discussed the contributions they made to protecting biodiversity before the peace agreement.

One participant, Curruco* had his own farm before being displaced by the armed conflict. He told us,

our participation in the workshops is evidence of our commitment to peace. We protected the fauna and flora during the conflict.

We then used case studies to teach our workshop members how to take inventory of the species in a given area, explored tourism of nature and conservation in Colombia and discussed business models for the use of biodiversity in ecotourism enterprises.

Some participants explore caves.
Mario Murcia, Author provided

One of the most interesting parts for the ex-combatants was learning techniques for making inventories. We used teaching stations where they learnt about indirect surveys, for example using footprints and faeces, and direct observation and capture. We covered the use of binoculars, trapping cameras, tablets and mobiles, access to taxonomic identification resources and some basic non-invasive sampling methods.

One of the participants, Solangie, had a remarkable knowledge of the Amazon forest. She said:

I enjoyed all the content of the training but I like the bird sightings and plant cataloguing the most because during my time as a combatant we were living among the fauna, including tapirs, reptiles, frogs and butterflies.

I was impressed with the training about plants because in our time in the jungle we used plants as medicine and health treatments.

We then used these skills in practical field work to collect and inventory plants, sight birds and explore caves. The resulting notes and photographs were documented with iNaturalist, an online repository considered a major drawcard in engaging the public in science around the world.

Participants graduated with new knowledge, skills and contacts in research and business.
Jaime Gongora, Author provided

Turning knowledge into business

We also wanted to give our participants a clear idea of how this knowledge could become profitable work. We hosted a business network forum, and 60 meetings were organised so FARC-EP ex-combatants could meet representatives of the major Colombian research institutions and agencies and gain support for their ecotourism and biodiversity initiatives.

Yesenia*, a mother of two, joined FARC at a young age after the paramilitary killed her parents. During the research, she said:

If we want this peace process to succeed it will require the continued involvement of the various components of society, including scientific institutions and universities.

Our work established two levels of organisation: a national biodiversity committee of ETCR representatives from across the country, and a committee of government and non-government institutions and agencies to coordinate and support their biodiversity and ecotourism initiatives.

All of this may sound relatively simple, but this is new and life-changing knowledge for people who were part of an armed conflict, fighting in the jungle against the government.




Read more:
Violence and killings haven’t stopped in Colombia despite landmark peace deal


One of us, Jaime, lived part of his life under this conflict, and found it very moving to see how the climate of trust has been changing. While there are, of course, considerable challenges, this was unimaginable before the peace agreements.


The authors would like to acknowledge the support of the University of Amazonia, Research Institute of Biological Resources Alexander Von Humboldt, Sinchi Amazonic Institute of Scientific Research, COLCIENCIAS-Colombia BIO, United Nations Development Programme, National Natural Parks Colombia, Vice-Ministry of Tourism, Social Economies of the Common, Agency for Reincorporation and Normalisation, Verification Mission of the United Nations, British Embassy in Colombia, ETCR participants, the GROW Colombia team at Earlham Institute, The University of East Anglia and The University of Sydney.The Conversation

Jaime Gongora, Associate Professor, Animal and Wildlife Genetics and Genomics, University of Sydney and Federica Di Palma, Director of Science, Earlham Institute

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Environmental destruction is a war crime, but it’s almost impossible to fall foul of the laws



It was defoliants, seen here during Operation Ranch Hand in the Vietnam War, that prompted action to protect the environment during conflicts.
National Museum of the US Air Force

Shireen Daft, Macquarie University

An open letter from 24 scientists published in Nature last month calls on governments to draft a new Geneva Convention dedicated to protecting the environment during armed conflict.

This inspired a number of headlines that misleadingly said the scientists want environmental destruction to be made a war crime.

But environmental destruction is already recognised as a war crime by the International Criminal Court. The existing legal framework governing armed conflict also provides some protections for the environment.




Read more:
More than 1,700 activists have been killed this century defending the environment


The problem is these protections are inadequate, inconsistent, unclear, and most military behaviour won’t fall foul of these laws.

The legal protections already in place

There are currently four Geneva Conventions and three Additional Protocols that are supposed to regulate conduct during armed conflict, sometimes known as the rules of war.

The original four Geneva Conventions, which celebrate their 70th anniversary this year, contain no explicit mention of the natural environment.

The use of Agent Orange (and Agents White and Blue) to defoliate huge spans of land during the Vietnam War led to the introduction of the first specific protections for the environment during armed conflict.

It’s shaky video to begin with but 18 seconds in you see US soldiers spraying Agent Orange during the Vietnam War.

Following the Vietnam War, two major developments in the law occurred.

The first was the adoption of the United Nation’s Convention on the Prohibition of Military or Any Other Hostile Use of Environmental Modification Techniques Convention (ENMOD) that prohibits the hostile use of environment-altering techniques that have “widespread, long-lasting, or severe effects”.

The second was the inclusion of provisions in Additional Protocol I (API) that prohibits methods or means intended or expected to cause “widespread, long term, and severe damage to the natural environment” during warfare.

Near impossibly high standards

Both treaties set a very high threshold for falling foul of the prohibitions. API requires that all three elements of damage — widespread, long term, and severe — must be met for military action to be in violation of this provision.

The consequence is that most military behaviour, even when damaging the environment, won’t be in violation of these laws.

Making it even more difficult, the meaning of the three terms differs between the two, and there is ongoing disagreement as to their definition.

While an understanding was reached to determine the definitions in ENMOD, there is still dispute about the meaning of the terms in API. The definitions provided here are among the more commonly accepted.
Shireen Daft, Author provided

The only environmental destruction in recent times that has been considered to meet such a high threshold was the setting alight of Kuwaiti oil fields by Iraqi forces as they withdrew during the 1991 Gulf War.

A Kuwaiti oil well fire, south of Kuwait City, in March 1991.
Wikimedia/EdJF, CC BY

The United Nations Compensation Commission held Iraq liable for the environmental damage caused in Kuwait. But because Iraq was not a party to either ENMOD or API, the Commission applied a unique legal standard derived from Security Council Resolution 687 and Iraq is still paying compensation to Kuwait to this day.

Neither ENMOD nor API specifies that a breach of these provisions constitutes a war crime. This came in 2002 when the Rome Statute establishing the International Criminal Court came into force.

The Rome Statute says it is a war crime to intentionally cause “widespread, long-term, and severe damage to the natural environment which would be clearly excessive” to the military advantage to be obtained.

The terms are not defined in the Rome Statute, and what is meant by “clearly excessive” is subjective, and introduces a test of proportionality.

Another Geneva Convention?

A new international agreement that balances the interests of environmental protection and respects the laws on armed conflict could be of enormous benefit.

The existing legal framework is only equipped to deal with direct attacks on the natural environment.

But this ignores the many other ways the environment is affected by conflict. Resources such as diamonds, coltan, timber and ivory are all used to help fund conflicts, and this can place enormous stress on the environment.

A particular gap is that no consideration is given in the existing framework to non-human species – to wildlife affected by war or to animals used for military purposes. Yet conflict has proved the biggest predictor of population declines in wild species.

But a new treaty that creates strong, effective, and enforceable protections requires significant political will.

An attempt was made two decades ago, headed by Greenpeace, but no agreement could be reached. That attempt was made during a time when international cooperation and treaty development was at its highest, following the end of the Cold War.

In the current political and social environment it seems unlikely any attempt for such an agreement would be successful. At best, we would see watered-down protections, no stronger than what is already in place. Thus drafting such a Convention now could do more harm than good, in the long run.

If not a new treaty, then what?

The International Law Commission (ILC) is about to release its report dealing with the issue of protecting the environment during armed conflict. This was what inspired the Open Letter from the scientists in the first place.

The Draft Principles it is producing are not new principles of law, but those already found in the existing legal framework. Unfortunately the work produced so far continues to use “widespread, long term, and severe” with no clarity as to what they mean.

But they do confirm that all the fundamental principles of the rules of war apply to the environment, and should be interpreted “with a view to its protection”. The environment should not be a target, and the impact on the environment must be taken into consideration in military operations.

The work of the ILC should inform governments of the interpretation of existing law. Governments should then give more attention to the environment in the operational guidelines used by their militaries.




Read more:
Some good conservation news: India’s tiger numbers are going up


The Australian Law of Armed Conflict manual, used by our defence forces, already acknowledges they have a duty to protect the natural environment. The next step is to move beyond this general principle to the specific, and have clear guidelines about what protecting the environment during armed conflict means, in practice.

The International Committee of the Red Cross is also currently updating its guidelines for all military manuals to ensure the environment is a consideration to be evaluated during all military operations.

While the world might not yet be ready to consider a new Geneva Convention relating to the environment, the survival of our natural environment does depend on changes being made to the way the war is conducted.The Conversation

Shireen Daft, Lecturer, Macquarie Law School, Macquarie University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

More than 1,700 activists have been killed this century defending the environment


Nathalie Butt, The University of Queensland and Mary Menton, University of Sussex

According to records compiled by the campaign group Global Witness, 1,738 people described as environmental defenders were killed between 2002 and 2018, across 50 countries.

Their latest report for 2018, released last week, identified 164 killings

Although the figure is slightly down on that for 2017, the group says the number of reported deaths has been increasing over time with about three people killed each week on average.

Yet the campaign group says only about 10% of these killings from 2002-2013 resulted in a conviction, compared with about 43% on average for global homicide convictions in 2013.




Read more:
Koala-detecting dogs sniff out flaws in Australia’s threatened species protection


In a study of the group’s data from 2002-2017, published today in Nature Sustainability, we found many of the deaths related to conflict over natural resources, including fossil fuels, timber and water. All but three of the countries where deaths were recorded are classed as highly corrupt, according to their Corruption Perceptions Index score.

What’s an environmental defender?

The term environmental defenders can include anyone involved in protecting land, forests, water and other natural resources.

Environmental defenders can be community activists, Indigenous peoples, lawyers, journalists or non-governmental organisation (NGO) staff. They are defined not by job title or political identity, but by their struggles to protect the environment or land rights. Many are part of collective struggles: they do not act alone.

One of the most well-known murdered defenders is Chico Mendes, a Brazilian rubber tapper, union leader and environmentalist. He was killed in 1988 for his work protecting the Amazon and advocating for the rights of local people.

More recently, in another corner of the Brazilian Amazon, José Claudio Ribeiro and Maria do Espirito Santo were killed in 2011 for defending their forests against illegal loggers.

In Cambodia, Chut Wutty, director of the Natural Resource Protection Group and a critic of military and government corruption in illegal logging, was shot and killed in 2012.

Berta Cáceres was murdered in 2016 for her fight against a dam that encroached on the water and land rights of the Lenca people of Honduras. Her death led to international movements calling for justice.

While some of the killings have sparked international outcry, others led to much more localised repercussions. Still others remain unreported and are not accounted for in the Global Witness database.

A conflict of interest

Conflicts over natural resources are often the underlying cause of the violence against environmental defenders. They are linked to different resources and sectors, such as fossil fuels, minerals, agriculture, aquaculture, timber and to the land or water from where these resources can be extracted.

We can see these conflicts as the continuation of historical colonial land use and appropriation. Today, the environmental footprint arising from the resource consumption of high-income countries is effectively outsourced to less wealthy nations and regions.

This is where raw materials are sourced in a country separate to where the resulting product or service is consumed.

Resource extraction is often carried out by companies or groups without legitimate rights to that resource. Examples include illegal logging in community forests. There is also the consumption of water from rivers that traditionally supplied villages or towns, for example, foreign mining companies in Bolivia.

While some of these natural resource drivers are local or national, in many cases it is multinational companies that are directly outsourcing their resource needs that play a role in violence against environmental defenders.

But who is actually doing the killing?

Violence against defenders may be carried out by those representing their own interests, such as illegal loggers or miners, or on behalf of government interests.

In one case, it’s alleged it was police in Pau D’Arco, Brazil who killed ten land defenders in May 2017, and in Chut Wutty’s case it’s alleged it was the military police who carried out the killing.

In our study we found weak rule of law and corruption in a country is closely correlated with environmental defender deaths.

We also found that indigenous people represent a disproportionate percentage of the defenders who are killed. About 40% of deaths recorded in 2015 and 2016, and about 30% in 2017, were indigenous people.

Indigenous people manage or have tenure over about a quarter of the world’s surface (about 38 million square kilometres. Conflict over natural resources is often related to a lack of recognition or acknowledgement of these rights.

A well-known recent example in the United States,Standing Rock involved resistance of the Sioux tribe, and allies, to the North Dakota Access Pipe Line. The aggressive response of the authorities, lead to the hospitalisation of many demonstrators.




Read more:
What are native grasslands, and why do they matter?


We believe companies that profit from natural resources extracted under conditions that disregard the rights of environmental defenders are complicit in driving violence through their supply chains. They have a responsibility to act ethically.

There is an urgent need for a global perspective on natural resource conflicts. What is currently happening, in terms of the displacement of environmental and social damage, is a result of globalisation, and is increasing with trade and consumption.

The voices of those trying to defend the environment are being silenced. Low conviction rates show few people are being held accountable for these killings. This cycle of violence and impunity affects entire communities, creating a climate of fear. Despite their fear, many continue to fight for social and environmental justice.The Conversation

Nathalie Butt, Postdoctoral Fellow, The University of Queensland and Mary Menton, Research Fellow in Environmental Justice, University of Sussex

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.