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Citizens' Assembly
Nature

Assembly on biodiversity calls on Government to reassess aims of Coillte at final meeting

The assembly’s conclusions so far include that the State has “comprehensively failed” on biodiversity.

LAST UPDATE | Jan 22nd 2023, 12:39 PM

CONCERNS OVER A deal between Coillte and a UK pension fund caused alarm at the last meeting of the Citizens’ Assembly on biodiversity loss yesterday. 

The assembly is set to put 100 additional recommendations before the Oireachtas, which will focus on issues such as agriculture, peatlands and forestry.

There was a lengthy debate on forestry and the role of Coillte which has also recently been debated by TDs. 

The deal between Coillte and asset management company Gresham House involves the purchase of land from private landowners, including both planted and unplanted land, to increase forestry cover.

The assembly agreed to put a recommendation before the government suggesting that “State-owned woodlands should be recognised and managed as a strategic long-term national asset for the benefit of the common good”.

The assembly members will now vote online on all recommendations before agreeing on the final report, which is due at the end of the month. 

The final meeting took place to allow members to further debate on specific measures, following on from a previous agreement on holding a referendum on an amendment to the Constitution to protect biodiversity. 

Chairperson Dr Aoibhinn Ní Shúilleabháin paid tribute to the hard work of the diverse group of 100 people who came together to come up with solutions to counter biodiversity loss. 

“Alongside the recommendations that were agreed at our last meeting, including a Constitutional amendment and new centralised structures for co-ordinating and implementing national policy on biodiversity loss, the members have truly responded to the terms of reference.

“I look forward to seeing the results of the vote next week and to drafting the final report to present to the Houses of Oireachtas. As with other Citizens’ Assemblies in Ireland, I have no doubt that this Assembly will lead to transformative societal change in Ireland for the benefit of its people and nature,” she said. 

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar thanked the members of the assembly for their dedication. 

“I firmly believe we need a societal response to the biodiversity crisis.  This will benefit not just the people of Ireland but the entire ecosystem that we all depend on” he said. 

 Threats to biodiversity

The assembly was convened last year to consider the threats of biodiversity loss and how to reverse it; the main causes and impacts of biodiversity loss; and how to improve the government’s response and measure progress.

After months of discussions and listening to experts, the 99 members and chairperson Dr Aoibhinn Ní Shúilleabháin voted on over 100 recommendations in November, including a vote that garnered 83% support for calling a referendum on a Constitutional amendment about biodiversity protection.

The assembly’s conclusions included that the State has “comprehensively failed” on biodiversity to date.

At the November meeting, members agreed to seek an extension from the Houses of Oireachtas for more time to debate and vote on recommendations related to agriculture; freshwaters; marine and coastal environments; peatlands; forestry, woodlands, and hedgerows; protected sites and species; invasive species; and urban and built environments.

Biodiversity loss refers to the growing number of animals and plants that are becoming extinct at an accelerating pace due to factors like overexploitation, habitat loss, and the climate crisis.

The Irish government declared a climate and biodiversity emergency in 2019 and passed an amendment calling for a citizens’ assembly, though it took nearly three years for the assembly to be convened.

In an interview with The Journal earlier this year, Dr Ní Shúilleabháin said it would be important that the recommendations provided to the government are put into practice.

“What I’m hopeful for is that the recommendations that we decide on will be something that will be taken seriously by Government and will be actionable,” she said.

“I consider that part of my role as chair to make sure that when we present them, we present them in a way that they won’t be ignored. I don’t want them to be left on the shelf.”

Additional reporting by Eimer McAuley

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