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Illegal deforestation driven by EU appetite for beef, palm oil, soy, say new reports

This is the first in a two-part series about the EU’s influence in illegal deforestation. The second part will be published shortly.

Sunset in the Amazon. Photo by Sue Wren.

Sunset in the Amazon. Photo by Sue Wren.

Last September, Washington D.C.-based non-profit Forest Trends released a report showing that as much as half of all global deforestation for commercial agriculture in the past 15 years has been done illegally.

Some of Forest Trend’s findings were shocking. In Brazil, for instance, they found up to 90 percent of deforestation to be illegal, mostly to make room for more cattle ranches and soy plantations. Some 80 percent of land conversion in Indonesia is thought to be illegal, as well, as oil palm plantations and timber harvesting operations encroach further and further into pristine rainforest.

Now a new report from Brussels-based environmental organization Fern has found that the European Union is driving international trade in commodities grown on land cleared outside of the law. In 2012 alone, the report finds, the EU imported $6.5 billion worth of illegally sourced beef, leather, palm oil and soy — what Fern calls “embodied deforestation” — which amounts to nearly one-fourth of all global trade and some 2.4 million hectares (59.3 million acres) of forest illegally cleared.

“One football pitch of forest was illegally felled every two minutes in the period 2000–12 in order to supply the EU with these commodities,” which wind up on grocery store shelves and in a wide array of products, from animal feed to leather shoes and biofuels, the report’s authors write.

In a statement to, lead author Sam Lawson says that a number of the EU’s policies are driving illicit land conversion, “But you could also say it is an ABSENCE of EU policies which is driving illegal deforestation – it is the fact that the EU has no policies or laws in place which seek to reduce the amount of agricultural commodities it imports and consumes which drive illegal deforestation.”

Trade is an EU mandate, so the necessary actions to address the problem can only be taken at the EU level, according to Lawson. “This includes bilateral agreements with supplier countries and due diligence requirements on importers.”

But that isn’t to say individual countries’ roles must be limited to following the EU’s lead. “They can implement policies requiring that any government purchases of these commodities are proven to be of legal and sustainable source (as the UK has done for palm oil already). And they can lobby within Europe for the other actions to be pursued,” Lawson said.

Fern has released a second report looking at specific EU policies on trade, finance, tariffs, biofuels, illegal logging and the climate, and their impact on forests. According to that report, the amount of tropical deforestation driven by the EU over the past 20 years is equal to an area the size of Portugal.

Half of the illegally sourced commodities come from Brazil, and another quarter from Indonesia. Malaysia and Paraguay are also specifically mentioned in the report as key producers of commodities from illegal tropical forest destruction.

Deforestation for agriculture in Mato Grosso, Brazil. According to Forest Trends, up to 90 percent of deforestation in Brazil may be illegal, and the country provides half of the EU’s commodity imports sourced from areas that were illegally cleared. Photo by Rhett A. Butler.

The Netherlands, Italy, Germany, France and the UK are by far the largest consumers of these goods, the report states. Together, those five countries are responsible for 25 percent of all soy, 18 percent of all palm oil, 15 percent of all beef and 31 percent of all leather from illegal deforestation that is imported into the EU.

While the EU is buying an inordinate amount of embodied deforestation, it’s hardly alone. China imports a large share as well, while Russia is a major importer of beef from Brazil and other Latin American countries. India is a major importer of the palm oil resulting from illegal deforestation in Indonesia and Malaysia. Other countries in Southeast Asia, Latin America, the Middle East and North Africa are also playing a role.

In addition to the environmental impacts, this rampant illegality is driving displacement of indigenous communities and promoting corruption, violence and human rights abuses. Many seeking to halt the illegal deforestation have faced all manner of opposition, from harassment and threats to actual violence. In one recent, high-profile case, José Isidro Tendetza Antún, an outspoken Ecuadorian indigenous-rights and anti-mining activist, was murdered just before he was set to speak at the UN climate talks in Peru.

There’s no reasonable way of calculating greenhouse gas emissions from the illegal deforestation driven by the EU, Lawson said. He added that he and his team would have been reluctant to do so, anyway, because they feel strongly that emissions reductions from halting illegal deforestation should not be used to offset fossil fuel emissions or as some other sort of bargaining chip in climate negotiations.

Forests provide a slew of local benefits, from habitat for many of the world’s species to ecosystem services for human communities. But a forest’s influence is not just felt in the area around it; it can affect the climate thousands of miles away. For instance, a 2005 study found deforestation in the Amazon influences rainfall from Mexico to Texas.

“The role that forests play in regulating the climate is well known,” Hannah Mowat, Fern campaigner, told “To keep trees standing requires addressing the pressures driving deforestation, so the EU has a vital opportunity to halt deforestation by addressing its trade and consumption in agricultural commodities.”


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