COMMENT | The EU Biodiversity Strategy 2030: Problematic separation of humans and nature

Despite its eagerly anticipated publication, the EU Biodiversity Strategy 2030 lacks new and radical thinking about ways to develop an ecologically sustainable society, and risks producing and/or deepening serious inequalities and injustices.

This commentary by Rosaleen Duffy, George Iordăchescu  and Teresa Lappe-Osthege is written in response to the recently launched EU Biodiversity Strategy 2030.

Today the EU launched its long-awaited Biodiversity Strategy 2030. It makes for very interesting, but also quite alarming reading. We very much welcome the way that the Strategy puts nature at the centre for human wellbeing, planetary sustainability and relaunching the economy. Further, it is good to read how the policy document specifically covers agriculture (in addition to the Farm to Fork Strategy), energy, fisheries, forests, climate change, urban areas, and wildlife as central for meeting the 2030 biodiversity targets. However, there is a dearth of really new and radical thinking about ways to develop an ecologically sustainable society. The current global pandemic has shaken Europe and laid bare the weaknesses and failings of our economic, social and political systems. In the future, we need a new and better approach, one that is not captured in the Strategy, nor in the Green New Deal. 

Instead, the Biodiversity Strategy 2030 promotes business as usual approaches with some initiatives that have the capacity to produce or deepen serious inequalities and injustices. This arises from the fundamental underpinnings of the Strategy itself which is anchored in dualistic thinking about nature and human society. 

The initial argument makes evident that it is important to give space to nature: ‘Healthy and resilient societies depend on giving nature the space it needs.’(p.1). This is problematic because it does not address the ways that environmental destruction threatens the future of all species (including humans). Stating that we need to give space to nature essentially relies on the separation of humans from the natural world – a problematic dualism in the very model which has led to our current crisis. This approach mirrors those promoted by high profile networks including the advocates of the Half-Earth  Project of  E.O Wilson Biodiversity Foundation. 

So far, this ontological dualism has been the backbone of a plethora of rewilding and wilderness protection projects targeting areas of Eastern Europe, the Balkans or the Arctic where rural landscapes considered abandoned or deserted have become an opportunity for experimentation or fixes for the systemic shortcomings of the EU biodiversity conservation frameworks. 

The Strategy says it offers a more holistic approach, but then promotes restoration and protection, afforestation and strict protection of biodiversity hotspots. The 2030 targets include an increase of EU’s protected areas to 30% of the continent’s landmass and seas with 10% under strict protection. Without offering any further details on the social and economic impacts of this proposal, there are high chances that new waves of dispossession will be among the unexpected consequences of this target. The Strategy proposes that ‘there should be a specific focus on areas of very high biodiversity value or potential.’ (p.5) – where and how will such strictly protected areas be distributed? The risk is that the target will advance the creation of green internal peripheries where increased restrictions will affect traditional land-uses or marginal agriculture in areas already affected by poverty and economic inequalities.

While putting a special emphasis on the need to implement strict protection regimes for all remaining primary and old-growth forests, the Strategy does not offer any tools to pursue and meet this target. Currently, the EU has no binding legislation for instituting strict protection of these forests, nor is there a scientific consensus on the definition of what actually is an old-growth forest. Moreover, despite unprecedented media and political attention, it is unclear where and how many primary and old-growth forests we still have. In order to make this target more concrete, the Strategy should factor the great diversity of forest management practices and traditions used across the continent. It is unrealistic to expect that the Member States will rush in declaring parts of their territories as old-growth forests and take them out of the economic circuit (sustainable or not) in the absence of compensation mechanisms. Around 60% of EU’s forests are owned by almost 16 million private owners, and many other forestlands are managed and used by historical commons or other non-state governance institutions. The Strategy overlooks these social and economic realities of Europe’s forests.  

Although identified as an important driver of biodiversity decline the strategy focuses only marginally on illegal wildlife trade. Our work and others’ have identified the EU as an important space for sourcing, transiting and consuming illegally sourced wild species. Cracking down IWT requires a more comprehensive and regional approach, which includes stronger cooperation with the EU’s neighbouring states, but also curbing down demand inside the EU. In order to properly address this threat to biodiversity, the Strategy should treat IWT as a problem of wealth and inequality rather than focusing on enforcement in source countries.  The Strategy draws disproportional attention to ivory trade (p.21) which obscures the EU’s position as a source of production and consumption. However, non-CITES listed European species, such as songbirds, are illegally traded in large numbers within the EU, negatively impacting bird populations across the entire region. 

So while a new Biodiversity Strategy is needed, and the one launched today by the Commission is welcome in many ways, it risks repeating and re-embedding the very model of separating humans and nature which has led to our current ecological crisis. While it proposes a one-size-fits-all set of measures, it is far from a holistic approach.