Carta de Foresta
Carta de Foresta (also known as the Forest Charter or Charter of the Commons) matters today. Forests are of great economic, social and environmental significance. Moreover, forests today are one important part of what are referred to as the commons. Access to, and sustainable management of, the commons are critically important.
Forests are important sources of products and employment, home to millions of people, including indigenous peoples, and essential to solving almost every environmental crisis, including desertification, climate disruption, loss of biological diversity, erosion, availability and purity of freshwater. Forests are also critical for achieving many of the 17 Sustainable Development Goals adopted in 2015 by the UN General Assembly, most expressly SDG 15 regarding protecting, restoring and promoting sustainable use and management of forests.
Forests provide many essential ecological services and renewable resources when properly managed. Yet forests are under threat around the world from over-exploitation, encroachment by urban areas, conversion into farmland, unwise land use policies, climate disruption, and pollution. They must be protected and managed sustainably.
Commons are also under attack around the world, in both rural and urban areas. For example, pollution of freshwater and marine areas, privatization of many areas and activities, conversion of urban open spaces to commercial space, and growing inequality are seriously diminishing access by ordinary citizens to commons. Yet such access remains essential to human well-being and must be ensured.
Carta de Foresta was created in 1217 when Magna Carta was reissued on behalf of the young King Henry III. It is one of the world’s first pieces of environmental and natural resources legislation. It contained three chapters from the original (1215) Magna Carta plus several other chapters, for a total of 17. Magna Carta is better known today than Carta de Foresta, but both charters were of great significance at the time. In fact, Magna Carta was named “Magna”, i.e., large, because it was bigger, not because of relative importance.
Royal Forests, which contained open grasslands and even parts of towns as well as sylvan areas, were central to thirteenth century England. The King relied on Royal Forests for a major part of his income, as food and fuel for his court and military while traveling, as masts and wood for his navy, and as land to give to build political support. Not surprisingly, Kings habitually expanded the land designated as Royal Forest. This was much to the detriment of commoners, who needed access to woodlands and grasslands for water, food, fuel, grazing, building material, and fodder, among other things. Access to Royal Forests was necessary to protect what we now know to be human rights, such as the rights to water, food, shelter, culture and adequate standard of living. Carta de Foresta effectively provided those rights.
Carta de Foresta was revolutionary in its impact and protected the lives and livelihoods of English commoners from encroachment by the aristocracy in four significant ways. The charter permitted much greater use of Royal Forests by commoners, including uses that were essential for life at that time, effectively establishing the forests as commons in many senses. The charter outlawed capital punishment for poaching deer and maiming for other violations of the forest law. The charter ”disafforested” large parts of the Royal Forests by rolling back their limits to their boundaries under Henry II. Finally, the Forest Charter applied to everyone in England whereas Magna Carta applied only to half of Englishmen.
Repeated struggles occurred to maintain the rights provided in Carta de Foresta over ensuing centuries. These struggles reinforced the rule of law, nourished the rights of commoners to access to critical resources, and were influential in keeping Magna Carta alive. Both charters were reissued in tandem in 1225, 1297 and 1300, and royal oaths of fealty to one were accompanied by identical oaths regarding the other. Protection of forests and commons have waxed and waned in England over the centuries since 1217, as political power and societal views have changed. Though officially revoked in 1971, Carta de Foresta remains relevant today as a touchstone and inspiration.
The 800th anniversary is an occasion to celebrate the importance of forests, commons, rule of law, and related human rights. It reminds us of the need to strengthen their protection around the world. Please join in seizing this opportunity.