Tuesday 16 July 2019

Climate activists protest during Environment Minister’s speech

The protest took place during a conference at Dublin’s Botanic Gardens.

Members of Extinction Rebellion Ireland during the rally (Justin Farrelly/PA)
Members of Extinction Rebellion Ireland during the rally (Justin Farrelly/PA)

By Aoife Moore, PA

Climate activists have protested during a speech on forestry by the Irish Minister for the Environment.

As Richard Bruton took to the podium to speak, a man and woman from environmental activist group Extinction Rebellion appeared behind the panel and unravelled a large banner that read: “80% species extinction. No more Sitka”.

Extinction Rebellion believes that commercial forestry is using the climate emergency as an excuse to endanger biodiversity, by planting Sitka trees across Ireland.

Sitkas are a non-native coniferous tree, that activists say drive out endangered wildlife such as hen harriers and curlews, birds that they say could be extinct in Ireland in the next 10 years.

After the banner protesters were ejected from the room, young people who were seated among the audience rose up and began reciting written speeches calling on the minister to take “real action on climate change”.

The protest took place during Forestry Industries Ireland’s Real Solutions To Ireland’s Climate Emergency Conference at Dublin’s Botanic Gardens on Monday morning.

Extinction Rebellion said it was using the conference to “warn against seeing an increase in commercial forestry, and Sitka Spruce in particular, as a way of lowering carbon levels and combating climate change”.

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Members of Extinction Rebellion Ireland during their protest (Justin Farralley/PA)

The average forest cover in Europe is 32% compared to Ireland’s 10.5% and only two countries in the EU have a smaller percentage of their land forested (Malta and the Netherlands).

“Not only are such plantations, harvested after a couple of decades and often unlocking carbon already stored away in bogs, far less effective in reducing levels of CO2 than natural native woodlands, but current practices of planting and managing Sitka plantations are detrimental to Ireland’s wildlife, in particular to many species of birds and insects already threatened by extinction,” a statement said.

They demand the restoration of existing native forests, and a commitment from the Irish Government to set aside large areas of land for rewilding and mature native woodland.

They also believe any commercial forestry should consist of mixed native broadleaf species and should benefit local farmers rather than foreign investors.

Mr Bruton sat quietly during the protest, however other members of the audience jeered, stood up and argued with the protesters, about whether or not Ireland was operating a monoculture in its forests.

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Members of Extinction Rebellion Ireland stage a protest outside the conference (Justin Farrelly/PA)

“Minister, this isn’t enough, we need to restore native habitats to end the biodiversity crisis and native woodland to act as a carbon sink, and allow us to get to net-zero,” one protester said.

“The goal of 80% is too low and we all know this.

“More than a million species will be wiped out in the next decade and we cannot survive as the only species on Earth. If we continue to push our wildlife into extinction, we will follow shortly after.

“Your government has led us here over the past decade and we have a chance to change its course.

“Monoculture forestry is not encouraging biodiversity.

“It is time to radically change course.”

After each protester had spoken and tensions had calmed, the minister returned to the podium and said he “respected that this is an issue about which people are passionate, but if we don’t listen to each other we will not be able to move forward”.

After the conference, the group staged another protest at the entrance to the Botanical Gardens.

Ten “witnesses”, dressed as trees and holding placards and banners, stood by as two characters called Spirit Of The Forest and the Corporate Man – who wore a suit and tie and carried a briefcase marked ‘Ecocide’ and an axe, held a dramatic “battle” for photographers and media.

The group say the fight “symbolised the destruction of Irish biodiversity by corporate greed”.

Later in the afternoon, protesters Susan Breen, Paul McCormack-Cooney and Cormac Nugent arranged themselves around the main doors of the Department of Environment, with the two on the outer edge gluing their hands to the doors.

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Members of Extinction Rebellion glue themselves together at the Department of Communications, Climate Action and Environment in Dublin (Justin Farrelly/PA)

The protesters say they have arrived at the “Department of Inaction” in order to demonstrate against the Irish Government’s undemocratic blocking of the Climate Emergency Measures Bill.

The activists held photographs of their children, nieces and nephews, and said that they were willing to risk arrest “in order to ensure the children of this country will have a future”.

A spokesman for the Department of Communications, Climate Action and Environment said: “The Climate Action Plan targets increased afforestation rates from their current levels to an average of 8,000 hectares per year, in order to reach our forestry land-cover target of 18% by the second half of this century, through engaging with a range of landowners, from farmers through to state bodies and local authorities.

“The plan commits to implementing and reviewing the roadmap for achieving afforestation rates.”

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