February, 2012

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Saving special places

Protecting our best wildlife sites from damage is big part of the RSPB's work - read about our work from the people on the front line
  • Reasons to celebrate – great news from Kenya

    I have to say we seem to be in a purple patch of positive news at the moment – and long may it last! In England the announcement of 12 Nature Improvement Areas and two very different but successful planning cases in Dorset at Talbot Heath and in Suffolk at Kiln Meadow. In Portugal, authorities have taken a robust line with a developer illegally damaging coastal wetlands ... and next in line is some hugely welcome news from Kenya – the rejection of plans to plant jatropha (a biofuel crop) which would have destroyed the Dakatcha Woodlands.

    The Dakatcha Woodlands first appeared in these pages back in June 2010 – here’s an earlier post that sets the scene. Nature Kenya with support from the RSPB have been stepping up the campaign to save the Woodlands since 2009.

    The woodlands, are home to several globally threatened birds, would have been destroyed if the proposals had gone ahead. However after a long battle the Kenyan Government has formally recognised the environmental damage that would be caused by the European-backed project.

    The forest is one of only two places in the world where the endangered Clarke’s weaver bird is found and holds a substantial proportion of the global population of Sokoke pipits. It is also home to the beautiful and threatened Fischer’s turaco (pictured).

    I've used Doug Jansen's fantastic picture of an endangered Fischer's turaco before - but make no apologies for using it again.

    There has been strong community support for the campaign as clearing g the forests would have made thousands of people homeless, led to water shortages and meant the loss of sacred ancestral land.

    Over and above the crushing impact on local people and their natural environment, the perversity of the biofuels market (driving the pressure to grab land in Kenya and many other parts of the tropics) means that felling forest to grow biofuels would result in up to six times more carbon emissions than would be generated by fossil fuels!  Working with Action Aid we published a study backing the campaign to save Dakatcha. Biofuel currently makes up around 3.5 per cent of the petrol and diesel in UK fuel pumps. However, the UK Government wants to increase this.

    Our own Helen Byron, Senior International Site Casework Officer, who has visited the Dakatcha Woodlands, is delighted with the outcome: “This decision is fantastic news for threatened wildlife at Dakatcha, which was under threat from the rush for biofuels.

    “The UK Government is aiming to increase the amount of biofuel going into our petrol and diesel as part of efforts to reduce carbon emissions. Yet the evidence in cases such as Dakatcha suggests that biofuels will in fact increase emissions.

    “Whilst today is great news for the wildlife and people of Dakatcha, sadly this case is just one of an increasing number of European companies grabbing land in Africa to cash in on biofuel support in the UK and Europe.

    “Ultimately, the only thing that will stop it is the UK Government, and others in Europe, ending support for damaging biofuels and developing an ambitious plan to cut carbon from transport through efficiency, public transport and electric vehicles instead.”

    Dakatcha is by no means the only wildlife site under threat from biofuel plantations. Elsewhere in Kenya the Tana River Delta faces a similar threat. The area, a vast floodplain ecosystem of seasonally flooded grassland, swamps, riverine forest, lakes and mangroves, provides refuge for 350 species of birds as well as primates, hippopotamuses and crocodiles.

    Paul Matiku, Executive Director of Nature Kenya, said: “We applaud the Kenyan Government’s National Environment Management Authority (NEMA) for this wise decision to reject untested biofuel crops in an area of high biodiversity.

    “It is heartening to see NEMA’s decisions being guided by science. We now urge them to apply the same criteria to the proposed biofuel plantations in other sensitive areas such as the Tana River Delta.”

    Much of the biofuel proposed for production in Kenya is destined for Europe because of a European Union target for biofuels. The Renewable Energy Directive (RED) requires 10 per cent of transport fuels to be renewable by 2020 and the UK, like most other member states, plans to meet its target mostly through biofuels.

    It's been a great few days - but we couldn't do any of this without your support - so thank you!  It ain't over of course, and if you are inspired to take another step for nature, do help us press home the message that the environment shouldn't be sacrificed on the alter of un-sustainable development

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  • Developer pays cost for trashing protected wetland

    I was delighted to hear last week that, in a long-running court case in Portugal, a property developer had been given a two-year suspended prison sentence and a fine of 150,000 euros for habitat destruction to the Ria de Alvor marshes.

    I first visited these marshes more than 15 years ago. The Ria de Alvor is one of the most important wetlands in southern Portugal, and is protected as a Ramsar and Natura 2000 site. It is home to birds such as this black-winged stilt.

    In recent years, however, access to the marshes has been prohibited and the developer moved the diggers in, in the hope that he would get permission for a lucrative tourist resort.

    The Christian nature conservation organisation A Rocha, which has now been studying the area for more than 25 years, was instrumental in getting the case to court and providing scientific evidence about the habitat destruction. You can read their press release here.

    Although the Portuguese legal system is very different to that in the UK, this case is noteworthy, and not just because the Ria de Alvor is one of the few undeveloped stretches of coastline in the Algarve.

    The size of the fine and the custodial sentence make it a very unusual case. In Britain, cases like this which get to court usually rely on the protection given through the Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) designation which underlies most Natura 2000 sites.

    The RSPB has long argued that the penalties handed out by UK courts for environmental crime rarely reflect the seriousness of the case. Looking at damage to SSSIs in England, there have been only 16 successful prosecutions since the Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2000. There was only one custodial sentence, of 28 days suspended for two years, for damaging a chalk river bank with probable impacts on breeding fish. More details here and here.

    This is another timely reminder (see yesterday’s post about Talbot Heath) about the Nature Directives providing valuable protection for Europe’s rarest and most threatened habitats and species. The Algarve’s economic success, largely founded on its tourism industry, ultimately depends on the quality of its natural environment. That’s something which all governments need to note.

    So congratulations to colleagues in Portugal for bringing this case to a successful conclusion. We would love to hear from anyone else who has examples of a custodial sentence imposed for habitat destruction any where in Europe.

  • Wise Decision - Talbot Heath saved

    The time and commitment my colleagues put into developing our case to protect nature at public inquires is considerable – but time is only part of it.  Stepping up for nature in the crucible of a public inquiry is often tough, as it is by its nature, adversarial.  Then there’s the wait for the outcome, lose and nature will be in greater jeopardy.

    The wait has been on for Talbot Heath in Poole since the public inquiry last year – and today the result is in ... and it’s good news.

    A major development proposal that risked damaging some of Europe’s rarest heathland habitat has been refused permission by the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government.

    Dartford warbler - a species that calls the Dorset heathlands home. Picture RSPBImages

    You can read about the case and our reaction to the news here.

    Talbot Heath is a surviving fragment of a landscape that has suffered great historic loss.  It’s wildlife is fragile, ground-nesting birds and reptiles that are so vulnerable to disturbance, pet attack, fire and all the other risks that come along with development adjacent to the site.  These were the risks we were most concerned about; risks that we felt could not adequately been dealt with or ‘mitigated’ in the jargon of the inquiry.

    And the inspector and Secretary of State agreed with our concerns

    The decision comes at a time when the laws and regulations that exist to safeguard the best of nature are under close scrutiny by Government.  Unsustainable development must be properly scrutinised and it is good news that for Talbot Heath the thin green line of statutory protection is holding.

    I’ll leave the last word to Tony Richardson, Regional Director for RSPB in the South West, “Dorset’s heathlands are much loved and used by local people.  But there are limits to how much pressure they can take and new developments of this kind, right next to one of our most special heathland areas, would have been a step too far.

    “The Habitats Regulations, by which the UK Government implements the EU’s Nature Directives, provide valuable protection for Europe’s rarest and most threatened habitats and species. They apply a set of tests to all activities and developments to ensure that all those which do not adversely affect sites and species of European importance may continue.

     “In the case of Talbot Heath, the solution offered to mitigate the harm caused simply did not stand up to close scrutiny.

    “All too often presented as a barrier to socio-economic activity, the Habitats Regulations actually provide a key test of the Government’s objective for sustainable growth.”

    Well, nearly the last word!  While celebrating the news from Dorset – we can’t ignore that the goal of sustainable development is still under threat. Please step up and ask the Chancellor of the Exchequer to take economic growth and the environment off the collision course he steered towards in his Autumn Statement.

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