Speech at Abbeyleix, Co. Laois during Biodiversity Week
Abbeyleix, Co. Laois, 25 May 2017
A chomhairleoirí, a phaistí, a chairde,
Ar an gcéad dul síos ba mhaith liom mo bhuíochas chroíúil a ghabháil le Séamus Boland as ucht an cuireadh a thug sé dhom a bheith in bhur dteannta inniú chun bhur n-iarrachtaí mar ghrúpaí áitiúil, deonach agus fad-radharcach a aithint agus a chéiliúradh. Tá sé thar a bheith tábhachtach dúinne, atá gafa le fada i gcúrsaí chomhshaoil teacht le chéile agus tá sé tráthúil go bhfuil an comhthionól seo ag tarlúint i rith seachtain na mbithéagsúlacht.
Councillors, children, distinguished guests, dear friends,
I was delighted to receive the invitation from Séamus Boland on behalf of the Community Wetlands Forum, in partnership with Irish Rural Link, to visit you here today during Biodiversity Week.
I look forward to taking a walk later in Abbeyleix Bog to see the fruits of the tremendous community initiative undertaken over the past number of years to restore and reanimate Abbeyleix Bog and its wetland habitat.
I am also conscious that Abbeyleix Bog is just one project that has brought together community activists, local authorities and state agencies in many locations around the country in a virtuous collaboration towards protecting and restoring natural wetland ecosystems.
Natural occurring wetlands have formed in Ireland over the period since the last ice-age. They have been moulded by humans over that time, and have been harnessed for many purposes. The wetlands weave a mosaic of beauty across the Irish landscape. They sit at the base of mountains in the west and they blanket our uplands. They flow around the undulating soil of the midlands and along our rivers and shores. They are a wild beauty. Wetland ecosystems though here for many millennia, are always in conditions of change and they hold a youthful vibrancy, ever evolving and adapting, yet they are places of serenity. Full of wonders above and below the water surface from the dragonfly larvae, the magnificent otter, the curlew amongst the grasses to the carnivorous bog plants and the hum from the beating of insect wings.
This is a precious resource, one that has been lost in much of Europe, particularly since the second half of the 18th Century and is under threat in some of the most important ecological spaces on our planet.
Ireland’s rich tapestry of wetlands is unique in a European and international context. The existence of such wonders bestows on the State, its agencies and its citizens a special responsibility to protect and conserve these natural assets.
Many organisations and local groups like those within the Community Wetlands Forum have wholly embraced this role of custodian and have not just protected but have restored and re-created valuable habitats. With their hands they have toiled to encourage flora and fauna to once again flourish and to introduce once more to achieve a symmetry between the surrounding human community and the natural wonders in their neighbourhood.
I have long been interested in the relationship that has developed in recent centuries between us humans and our natural environment. It is something that has occupied my thoughts for most of my life, including the period I was in Government and had responsibility for wildlife policy, and it is something that I have returned to since then on several occasions. In a book I wrote in 2006 which bears the title “Causes for Concern” I returned to an article I had written in 1975 reflecting on why it was that man, since the industrial revolution, had pitted himself against nature, in some deluded fantasy that we can hack away at the very ecosystems on which we depend without disastrous repercussions. I recall thinking that the marvellous symmetry of the patterns of simple natural arrangements were being destroyed with abandon, and I found much wisdom in Gregory Bateson’s summary that the creature that wins against its environment destroys itself. I have not changed my mind.
On Monday, I met with Pope Francis in the Vatican. He and I share a deep concern for how, at a global level, we are placing ourselves and each other at risk by treating the environment with such disdain. Pope Francis is a straight talker, and his encyclical on the environment, Laudato Si, reminds us of the urgency of rethinking drastically the destructive approach we have taken to our planet in modern times. I share Pope Francis’ conviction that we must forge new connections between ethics, economy and ecology.
His message is as relevant and as urgent for us here in Ireland, as it is for China or Brazil or the US. As you who are involved in local initiatives have done, all of us must reflect on where we can make a positive difference and how we can influence our communities and our society to bring about the change in thinking and in action that is required to meet the great ecological and climate challenges that we face.
It is for community leaders, politicians and policy makers to ensure that we are all encouraged to make the changes that are required. We can no longer tolerate the type of thinking that sees short-term individual profit trump longer-term community wealth.
Nor can we continue to tolerate people causing gratuitous environmental damage, such as the recent setting of fires causing widespread ecological and economic carnage. It is somewhat dispiriting to note that such fires have become a regular feature of the agricultural calendar, without, perhaps, adequate dissuasive consequences for those who are flagrantly breaking the law.
In recent centuries, Ireland has taken a utilitarian view of our wetlands. It is something we can understand. For perhaps very understandable historic reasons, there has been a fervour to drain, re-claim, harvest or plant our marshes, mires, callows, fens and bogs. An over-riding desire to bring land into what was defined as “productive” use, agricultural or otherwise. This often drowned out any consideration of the value of such places in their natural state. Today, to a considerable extent, but not sufficiently, we understand more of the value of preserving what remains of these special places. We still have work to do in ensuring that such understanding is translated into meaningful supports, and effective deterrents, for land-owners and local communities to redress the imbalance that we have created.
In this regard, there is a vital role for public authorities at local and national level to provide meaningful supports and coherent structures to allow groups such as yours to emerge and to thrive. This is a tangible way to help us to deliver together the commitments that we have made to achieve a model of genuine sustainable development. I am pleased to note that the NPWS, the EPA and Bord na Móna have been supportive of the emergence of the Community Wetlands Forum and I hope that this will lead to ever deeper levels of collaboration.
Speaking of Bord na Móna, bogs, in particular, have been and continue to be central to industries which have met the needs of people and have provided economic value.
We should remember that Bord na Móna was created in 1946 to exploit the great raised bogs of the midlands and it has done so very effectively, providing employment and a degree of energy independence over the past 70 years. But this came at a cost, most notably in the almost complete destruction of Ireland’s raised bogs. To its credit, Bord na Móna recognises its mixed legacy, and I am glad to note that in recent years it has been working constructively with the National Parks and Wildlife Service and with groups such as the Abbeyleix Bog Project to help conserve the remnants of our raised bogs.
It has also helped to relocate domestic turf-cutters from protected areas (SACs and NHAs) to less ecologically important Bord na Móna sites. It is to be welcomed that Bord na Móna is now focussing on a more sustainable future and on renewable forms of energy production.
This is timely. We now understand the urgency of coming to grips with climate change and we have pledged to take action to drastically reduce our emissions, as part of a global effort. We know that the world’s peatlands, while only covering three per cent of the Earth’s land mass, contain twice the sequestered carbon of all of the world’s forests combined.
This carbon, gathered from the atmosphere over millennia, starts to be released when the bogs are drained, as has happened to most of Ireland’s peatlands. But this process can be reversed, even on industrial cutaway bogs, with appropriate restoration. Land that is a source of emissions can be returned to sequestering carbon from the atmosphere. With 20% of Ireland’s land being comprised of peat soils, there is undoubtedly potential to look at the management of such land as just one contribution to climate change mitigation purposes. I note that the EPA has undertaken some very interesting research to this end as part of its climate change research programme.
As you all know more than most, apart from hosting a myriad of plants and animals, wetlands play an important role in the provision of direct and indirect benefits to us humans, including food and fuel. Wetlands can also assist in water purification by filtering contaminants and they can also regulate flooding by acting as a natural reservoir, absorbing, storing and slowly releasing water within a catchment. The unique setting of wetlands provides many valuable opportunities for recreation, cultural inspiration and even as a spiritual resource. Many are drawn to the tranquillity of water, the close link with wildlife and the sharing of a place where communities can come together.
Our wetlands have potential to return great community dividends. Walking trails at wetland sites, boardwalks and bog bridges, such as installed here at Abbeyleix Bog and also at Clara Bog in Offaly, serve many vital purposes. Hand-made over many dedicated hours, these are a wonderful example of active citizenship – of participating in a shared community vision and of re-connecting people to their natural environment. They create access to open natural spaces, provide a recreational amenity for the local and wider community, promote well-being and act as routes to some of the best examples of wetland habitat globally.
Local communities and volunteer organisations like the Community Wetlands Forum, with the support of other organisations, are voluntary stewards of our wetland resources. The model of community engagement adopted by the Forum promotes positive relationships, implementing local solutions and is a link between public authorities and individuals in the on-going sustainable management of natural heritage sites.
It is a powerful model with the ability to change perceptions, educate and inform others of the many benefits that conservation can bring. I therefore commend the forum for adopting a Strategic Plan for the coming years.
This is a sign of the Forum maturing, inviting ever new and increasing membership to discourse, and putting itself in a position to seize the opportunities that lie ahead.
The groups that compose the Community Wetlands Forum understand that biodiversity is the support system that has allowed humans to develop, and that allows humans to exist. It is at our peril that we undermine the very ecosystems on which we rely. All member states of the European Union recognise that biodiversity - the variety of ecosystems, species and genes that surround us - is under threat globally and in the EU itself, with extinction rates for species at alarming levels. This loss of biodiversity and the many benefits that derive from it affects us all.
Ireland has signed up to important international commitments under the UN convention on biological diversity, including a set of global targets for 2020 to avert further biodiversity loss, to promote its restoration and to improve the conservation status of habitats and species. It will require a considerable step-up in efforts to halt further losses. What is truly inspirational are the local communities that are ‘stepping up’ to help Ireland achieve its conservation objectives. In many ways, it is these voluntary, community groups, such as those represented in the Communities Wetlands Forum, that are showing the way.
National Biodiversity Week is about connecting people with nature and reminding us of the importance of biodiversity to our everyday lives. Biodiversity is the basis of human existence and this week is an opportunity to raise public awareness of its importance for sustainable development, and for our own interests as one species relying on complex eco-systems for our own future survival.
On Saturday I will be in Longford to celebrate 200 years since the Royal Canal was opened. The Canal, though man-made, has become a vital corridor for wildlife and is a thriving refuge for birds, insects, fish and mammals. Similarly, our hedgerows have been formed and maintained by land-owners and farmers over millennia and they are now a crucial component of Ireland’s ecological infrastructure, with particular importance for nesting birds and pollinating insects, which have been under such pressure in recent decades. This is a week for reflecting on how to support nature and thereby secure our own futures.
Ireland’s first National Biodiversity Week took place in 2007 with 20 events. Ten years later, over 50 events will be held across Ireland during this week. Events such as this aim to increase understanding and awareness around biodiversity issues, both at the local level and on a global scale. These events which are free to the public will celebrate Ireland's diverse species and habitats and encourage people from all walks of life to engage with our natural world.
The theme for this year is ‘Biodiversity and Sustainable Tourism’ which coincides with 2017 being the International Year of Sustainable Tourism for Development as proclaimed by the United Nations General Assembly. Sustainable tourism can provide a positive contribution to biodiversity awareness and economic growth.
I am delighted to see the children here today play such an active role in this event. There are many environmental challenges facing the world today with biodiversity loss being a major concern. The work that you and your parents, teachers, family, community and friends are doing in supporting the protection of wetland habitats is to be commended. These efforts today will ensure that as you grow, you and the next generations to come will get to experience the beauty and serenity of healthy wetlands ecosystems.
Successful community led conservation demonstrates how land use can sit in harmony with nature and the needs of its people. It is a platform to share knowledge, ideas and engage with experts. Wetlands in Ireland are complex systems and have been the subject of much research and study. Community led conservation now offers more opportunities for citizens to engage in science and research that will inform future policies.
As communities, you have taken the lead by assuming control of your own local resources in partnership with public authorities. That has required self-determination and has not been without its challenges. I appreciate that volunteering for such conservation work is a large commitment, time away from loved ones, even from your job on occasion, putting in the long hours year after year. Some would question why, what is to gain? To me - as I travel the country, I can see why. I feel the sense of pride in towns and villages, the importance of knitting communities together, a shared purpose, a noble cause and a common good for the generations to come. A shared vision of living an ethical life in harmony with each other and with our surroundings.
I recently had the pleasure of attending the opening of the new Amphitheatre in Cloughjordan Eco-village and I see those same shared community values and spirit here today embodied within the Communities Wetland Forum, organisations and individuals with a shared vision. The experiences of such community groups in making a positive, tangible contribution to this earth will hopefully inspire others to support biodiversity and contribute to a low-carbon society.
May I conclude by thanking all those who have put so much effort, valuable time and energy in protecting and promoting Ireland’s natural assets, encouraging biodiversity and being an outstanding example of how communities can come together for a shared purpose.
I commend the Community Wetlands Forum for its initiative and role in wetland conservation, undertaken in partnership with Irish Rural Link, and wish it the very best with the Strategic Plan. It has been a great pleasure to come here today.
Go raibh maith agaibh ar fad as ucht éisteacht liom. Tréaslaím libh as uch an méid atá bainte amach agaibh le bhur dtionscnamh áitiúil ar mhaitheas an nádúr agus bhur bpobal. Guím gach rath oraibh in bhur n-iarrachtaí le chéile agus in bhur dtacaíocht dá chéile mar chuid den Forum.
Beir bua agus beannacht.
 Michael D. Higgins - Causes for Concern, 2006, Ch.
 EPA Climate Change Research Programme 2007–2013 Carbon Restore – The Potential of Restored Irish Peatlands for Carbon Uptake and Storage. The Potential of Peatlands for Carbon Sequestration (2007-CCRP-1.6)
 European Commission. 2011. Citizens Summary, EU biodiversity strategy up to 2020. Brussels. http://ec.europa.eu/environment/nature/biodiversity/comm2006/pdf/2020/Citizen%20summary/citizen_summary.pdf