Irish citizens' assembly wants to protect biodiversity

05. April 2023
Citizens' Assembly of Ireland

In Ireland, a citizens' assembly presented its recommendations on the protection of biodiversity on 5 April 2023. The report of the assembly contains 159 proposals. The assembly members propose, among other things, that a referendum be held on the anchoring of biodiversity protection in the constitution.

Central to the report’s recommendations is the need for the State to take prompt, decisive, and urgent action to address biodiversity loss and restoration and to provide leadership in protecting Ireland’s biodiversity for future generations.

Clear disappointment at the State’s failure

Further, the report expresses the Assembly’s clear disappointment at the State’s failure to adequately fund, implement and enforce existing laws and policies. The report states explicitly that this must change, and that sufficient funding and increased expenditure should be provided for enforcement and implementation of national legislation and EU biodiversity-related laws and directives related to biodiversity. The members heard that the government has declared a Biodiversity Crisis but has seen little evidence that this is being taken seriously.

The report also proposes a series of changes to the Constitution to ensure people have a right to a clean, healthy, and safe environment. In addition, the Assembly recommends that nature be provided with protections within the constitution to allow it to continue to provide the necessities of life including food, clean freshwater and air, as well as providing a clean and healthy environment for wellbeing now and in the future. Such recommendations follow a growing international trend highlighting the necessity to protect nature in order to protect humans.

Farmers as the custodians of the land

Other recommendations in the report refer to actions in specific sectors such as agriculture; freshwaters; marine and coastal environments; peatlands; forestry/woodlands/hedgerows; protected sites and species; invasive species; and urban and built environments. There is a specific acknowledgement of the role of farmers as the custodians of the land possessing a rich knowledge and understanding of the environment, and that the agriculture industry must be supported in conserving and restoring biodiversity.

Commenting on the final report the Chairperson of the Citizens’ Assembly on Biodiversity Loss, Dr Aoibhinn Ní Shúilleabháin, said that it is now incumbent on members of the Oireachtas to study the report, consider its recommendations, and act upon them. She emphasised the need for urgency given the scale of the crisis that confronts us.

"A call to action"

“The Assembly’s recommendations are a call to action. They ask us all to re-evaluate our current practices across the whole of society and in industry, agriculture, social enterprise, local government, national agencies and government departments. Future generations are depending on us to act now. Some sectoral interests and lobby groups may resist attempts to address biodiversity loss, but it is urgent that our policy makers, in particular our politicians, are supported in making bold decisions to protect, conserve and restore the natural environment in the interest of all of the people, present and future, of the island of Ireland," the natural scientist said.

Anca Cerbu, one of the 99 members of the public who took part in the assembly, said the recommendations reflected detailed debates that took place. “It is not enough to talk about it and write about it, we need to act, biodiversity needs us all to be its advocate,” she said.

Citizens' assembly proposes referendum

On 27 November 2022, the citizens' assembly had already voted in favour of a referendum on anchoring species protection in the country's constitution. 83 per cent of the assembly participants voted in favour of this proposal to the government.

The vast majority of the assembly members also voted very specifically that the proposal to amend the Constitution to protect biodiversity should include substantive and procedural environmental rights for both people and for nature. For people, such an amendment if passed in a referendum, would for example, confer a constitutional right to a clean, healthy, safe environment; a right to a stable and healthy climate; rights of future generations to these or other environmental rights.

It would also confer rights regarding access to environmental information, public participation in environmental decision-making and justice in environmental matters. For nature, the proposed constitutional change would recognise nature as a holder of legal rights, comparable to companies or people. This might include the right for nature to exist, to flourish and perpetuate, and the right to restoration if degraded. It would also give nature the right not to be polluted or harmed or degraded.

Right of nature to be a party

In addition the procedural rights it would confer on nature would include the right of nature to be a party in administrative decision-making, litigation and other situations where rights of nature are impacted or likely to be impacted.

The Citizens' Assembly on Biodiversity has been meeting since 9 April 2022, the same day a Citizens' Assembly on Mayoral Direct Election in the Irish capital Dublin had also started its work. Taoiseach Micheál Martin addressed the members over video message at the start of the meeting. “These two new Citizens’ Assemblies will provide a means by which everyday people, who normally don’t get the opportunity to be involved in policy development or legislative proposals, to make a very real and direct contribution to the State’s response to both Biodiversity Loss and the structure of Local Government in Dublin,” Martin said.

Citizens' Assembly recommends action

Biodiversity loss means a growing number of animals and plants are becoming extinct at an accelerating pace, and it’s caused by factors like overexploitation, habitat loss, and the climate crisis. The biodiversity assembly considered the threats of biodiversity loss and how to reverse it. It also considered the main causes and impacts of biodiversity loss and how to improve the government’s response and measure progress. 

The assembly furthermore looked at ways to develop greater policy coherence and synergie between biodiversity policy and other and other policy priorities including, but not limited to, economic development, climate action, sustainable development, agriculture and tourism.

Discussions conluded

On 22 January 2023 the citizens’ assembly had concluded its discussions on 100 outstanding recommendations on a range of sector specific issues. The assembly told the government there must be a full review of the role of state-owned forestry company Coillte and the management of the country’s woodlands. The move came in the wake of controversy over plans by Coillte to enter a €200 million deal to allow a private UK investment fund buy Irish forest and lands designated for trees.

After lengthy debate, the assembly members settled on a draft recommendation that the State must review the goals and operations of Coillte and the key piece of legislation underpinning forestry operations, the Forestry Act of 1988. They also agreed the wording of another proposed recommendation that: “State-owned woodlands should be recognised and managed as a strategic long-term national asset for the benefit of the common good.”

Wide-ranging recommendations

Recommendations voted on and agreed before the end of 2022 were wide-ranging and included improving efforts to tackle pollution, a 50pc cut in pesticide use, enforcement of all existing environmental legislation, increased funding for the National Parks and Wildlife Service, encouraging more plant-based diets and the creation of a permanent dedicated Oireachtas committee to oversee Government action on the biodiversity crisis.

On 29 January 2023 the assembly participants voted privately on these and the other proposed recommendations. A parallel organised Children's and Young People's Assembly had already adopted its recommendations for the protection of biodiversity on 25 October 2022.

Parliamentary committee recommends referendum

On 14 December 2023, the Joint Committee on Environment and Climate Action of the Irish Parliament has recommended the government advance a referendum on protecting biodiversity. The move would see nature bestowed with rights comparable to those of people.  It came in response to the report from the Citizens' Assembly on Biodiversity Loss. In addition, the Committee recommends that all recommendations of the Citizens’ Assembly report on Biodiversity Loss be examined and considered for implementation by Government.

The Rights of Nature movement has grown in recent years. It seeks to have elements of nature, such as trees, mountains and rivers, recognised as entities with rights to exist and flourish, to be restored, regenerated and respected.  It also recognises the right of any person or organisation to defend, protect and enforce those rights on behalf of nature. For example, New Zealand has granted legal personhood to the Whanganui River. Countries in South America have made similar declarations.

Any adult resident eligible to take part

Any adult who is resident in the State was eligible to become a member of the Citizens’ Assemblies. This included people who are not Irish citizens and others who are not enrolled on the electoral register. This has helped ensure that the membership is as broadly representative of Irish society as possible.

To recruit members for the Citizens’ Assembly on Biodiversity Loss, 20,000 households around the country received a postal invitation to nominate one adult from that household to apply to become a member of the assembly. Each county received an amount of invitations proportionate to its overall population. Households were selected randomly from the GeoDirectory database of households, which is the most comprehensive available database of households. From the applications received, the assembly was put together in such a way that it was a reflection of the population in terms of age, gender, education and place of residence.

Citizens' assembly adopted in 2019

The Irish government declared a climate and biodiversity emergency in 2019 and passed an amendment calling for a citizens’ assembly, but it has taken nearly three years for the assembly to be convened. 37,000 invitations to participate in the assemblies were issued to people in randomly selected households. There were 3,700 responses, from which the members were chosen randomly. The Citizens' Assembly on Biodiversity loss has 99 participants.

On the announcement of the assemblies, a government spokesperson said it “presents a significant opportunity to design and implement an operational model that can allow for a greater number of citizens’ assemblies to be run”.

Citizens' assemblies since 2016

Since 2016, citizens' assemblies in Ireland have addressed abortion, challenges and opportunities of an aging population, fixed term parliaments, the manner in which referenda are held, climate change and gender equality. Previously, from 2013 to 2014, there was a constitutional convention made up of two-thirds randomly selected citizens to discuss same-sex marriage, blasphemy, the right to vote, a minimum age for presidential candidates, economic, social and cultural rights and the role of women in politics.

Recommendations of the citizens' assemblies on abortion, same-sex marriage and the deletion of the paragraph on blasphemy from the constitution found a majority in compulsory constitutional referendums. On the other hand, reducing the age threshold for candidacy for presidential elections from 35 to 21 years, as proposed by the Constitutional Convention, was rejected by the voters.

Read more: