Europe and Central Asia
28 Apr 2017

The caged bird sings

© Laraine Mestman & BirdLife ECA
By Angelo Caserta

As Angelo Caserta, Director of BirdLife Europe & Central Asia, examines the role of environmental organisations in civil society, he reflects pensively on why ‘the caged bird sings’.

Birds are born to be free, and since I was a child it has always been painful for me to see caged birds. I could not understand why people kept these marvelous creatures in prison. But another phenomenon remained even more inexplicable to me: why did caged birds sing? I remained in the dark until very recently, when my communications colleagues pointed me to a man who had an answer. And so I discovered Paul Lawrence Dunbar (1872-1906) who wrote in his poem ‘Sympathy’:

I know why the caged bird sings, ah me, 

When his wing is bruised and his bosom sore,— 

When he beats his bars and he would be free; 

It is not a carol of joy or glee, 

But a prayer that he sends from his heart’s deep core,   

But a plea, that upward to Heaven he flings— 

I know why the caged bird sings!

Birds are born to be free, and so are human beings. There is an inescapable timelessness to the caged bird metaphor for these days in which civil society, the songs, the voices of ‘we the people’, are increasingly ‘caged’, and ‘bruised’. After our justified pride in celebrating the accomplishments of 60 years of the European project, it is increasingly clear that its values of openness, tolerance, debate, freedom of speech – which are fundamentally necessary for the work we do in nature conservation – are menaced more and more all over the world.

According to Ariadne (a network of European funders for social change and human rights), since January 2012 over 100 laws have been proposed or enacted by governments aimed at restricting the registration, operation and funding of NGOs, with human rights, development and environment as the main targets.

Our global Partnership offers many sobering examples of how this repression can occur. From restricting national NGO’s from receiving ‘foreign’ money, to intensifying abusive and onerous reporting and bureaucratic requirements, to limits on public demonstrations, to open threats – few of our BirdLife Partners are immune to one or more of these pressures. Yet they resist; and we resist together, in many different ways and keep singing to defend our values and our vision of a world where human beings and birds are free and in harmony.

And so the idea for this special ‘Civil Society’ issue of our monthly newsletter was born – ‘The Caged Bird Sings’. We feature here astute and topical contributions from both the BirdLife family and our broader circle of friends. From Rome, Danilo Selvaggi, director of LIPU (BirdLife Italy) reflects on why we need a ‘renaissance’ of civil society in Europe. From Warsaw, Jarosław Krogulec, Head of Conservation at OTOP (BirdLife Poland) chronicles the tragic, state-sponsored destruction of Białowieża Forest. From London, Florence Miller from the Environmental Funders Network offers a funders perspective on the closing space for environmental work. And here in Brussels, we sit down for an exclusive interview with Frans Timmermans, First Vice-President of the European Commission who answers our questions on the future of Europe – and poses a few questions of his own in return.  

We hope that this issue inspires reflection and ignites debate. Our work to prevent extinctions, protect natural sites and promote sustainability cannot be de-coupled from the fundamental struggle to keep the space for civil society open. We must lift our eyes from their familiar environmental horizons to take in the full landscape of our lives themselves. We must engage with the widest possible set of stakeholders who share a common commitment to freedom and a humane civil society at this tipping point for our future.

Now I know why the caged bird sings…

As Maya Angelou (1928-2014) put it using the same metaphor:

The free bird leaps

on the back of the wind

and floats downstream

till the current ends

and dips his wings

in the orange sun rays

and dares to claim the sky.

We must claim the sky.


Angelo Caserta is Director of BirdLife Europe & Central Asia.

This article is the editorial of the April edition of the BirdLife Europe & Central Asia newsletter. Read it here in full. 

Stichting BirdLife Europe gratefully acknowledges financial support from the European Commission. All content and opinions expressed on these pages are solely those of Stichting BirdLife Europe.

Stichting BirdLife Europe gratefully acknowledges financial support from the European Commission. All content and opinions expressed on these pages are solely those of Stichting BirdLife Europe. The European Commission is not responsible for any use that may be made of the information it contains.