Wildfires and its governance under the International Forest Law
Updated: Oct 5, 2020
Author : Pratham Sharma
Forest fire or wildfire as some may choose to call it, is the most degrading phenomenon that affects the forest covers on this planet of ours. It is generally categorized into human-made and natural, however, more important is the impact that either has on the forests on Earth. The world has been very proactive in the past two years towards this phenomenon. It is largely due to the Amazon wildfires of 2019 and Australian Bushfires of 2019-20. While the world was still engrossed in debates and discussions regarding the two aforementioned cases, California had something to offer of its own in 2020. The governor of California declared a state of emergency on August 18 in light of the increasing problems posed by the wildfires in the state. The historic heatwave and the current COVID-19 pandemic has added fuel to the fire in a sense and the government has had to take this step.
In addition to this, some cities in California witnessed an orange blanket in the atmosphere as a result of the fires. There were multiple social media posts by residents of San Francisco and Los Angeles with photos of the brilliant and terrifying orange skies in the state. This recent escalation of the wildfires in California has opened up the discussion about this phenomenon known as forest fire with greater vigour than before. In such a scenario, it is very important to read into the legal protection that the states across the globe have put in place to prevent this phenomenon. It is common knowledge that there are many International agreements and conventions related to environmental protection. However, what is lesser known is the fact that forest fires do not find mention in almost all of these agreements. For a long time, forest fires have been considered as an aspect to be dealt with by domestic law and domestic policy measures. The United Nations Conference on Environment and Development which is commonly known as the “Earth Summit” had failed to take forward the proposal of a specific treaty or convention on forest management because there was an assumed consensus between the parties present that it is a domestic matter and therefore will be dealt with by domestic laws. Instead, the conference adopted “non-binding forest principles” to govern the forests.
At the domestic level, countries across the globe have been negligent towards forest management from a protection point of view and lack strong domestic frameworks to assist them in the process. For instance, the National Forest Management Act of the United States places great focus on timber management and the related aspects of business related to timber, however, has little to no focus on preventing forest fires. The latter is dealt with by policies and advisory notifications but clearly lacks strong legal protection at the federal level. Similar is the case with Brazil Forest Code and Australian forest law. All the domestic legislations are primarily focused on timber production and its management rather than addressing the protection of these forests in a more stringent manner. Owing to the lack of domestic foresight by governments across the globe, one definitely wonders if the presence of a strong international framework can be helpful in improving this situation.
A report of the department of economic and social affairs and United Nations forum on forests highlights the different legally binding international instruments related to forest management and examines the process in association with these agreements to understand forest protection at the International level. The report dated June 2007 mentions in the thematic analysis III, Part III of the report that there is no mention of “forest fires” in all the legally binding instruments examined in the report. This is evidence of the lack of due consideration by the International community for Forest fires and its prevention. The issue at hand warrants International attention owing to the increased cases of escalated forest fires. With time it has drastically become more impactful considering the increase in temperatures throughout the world. The need of the hour is a strong International framework which specifically deals with forest protection and places the required emphasis on preventing forest fires and strengthening the disaster response capacities of states which are more prone to such devastating forest fires.
It is important that the International community devises a law based on the customary practices and codifies the relevant protection mechanisms that all states need to ensure in their respective sovereign territories. It is also important to understand that the formation of such a framework alone would not result in the desired result and it is only the first step in the direction. The implementation of such a framework would be even more crucial than its formation considering the only drawback of International law is its lack of enforceability. Political will is an imperative concept in the implementation of International law. An effective follow-up procedure for the International community post the codification of law would be to ensure the sustenance of political will amongst the states that come together to form such a law at the International level. European Union is a primary candidate to lead such an initiative considering their regional efforts in the field have been trend-setting and they happen to be the most efficient regional organisation when it comes to forest management. They have formed a specific policy document on forest fires and explain the policy challenges face along with their policy recommendations for them. The policy framework is evidence of the positive practices adopted and planned by the members of the European Union.
In light of the aforementioned point about a possible International forest agreement, it is important to understand how it will benefit the development of International Environment law as well over the period of time. This particular branch of International law is in its nascent stage and requires countries to come forward and demonstrate the exceptional political will to help develop it further. Going in to the future, the development of this branch of law is very important to prevent the mistakes of the past to cast a shadow on the future of this planet and thus a specially dedicated forest agreement would be the appropriate step in the right direction for the global order at the moment.