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EU action plan on tropical deforestation must be beefed up, or it will fail (commentary)

  • Through its insatiable consumption of agro-commodities like soy, palm oil, and beef, the EU is contributing to a global deforestation crisis. After stalling for years while it carried out study after study, 2019 is crunch time.
  • The first signs are far from good, suggesting a toothless, pro-corporate, ‘more of the same’ approach — which the available evidence indicates is doomed to failure — in marked contrast to the EU’s action on illegal timber.
  • To have any chance of having an impact, the EU’s action plan on deforestation must be strengthened to include plans for legally binding regulation.
  • This post is a commentary. The views expressed are those of the author, not necessarily Mongabay.

Through its insatiable consumption of agro-commodities like soy, palm oil, and beef, the EU is contributing to a global deforestation crisis. After stalling for years while it carried out study after study, 2019 is crunch time. Over the coming months, a decision will finally be made on what the EU intends to do about the problem — a decision of huge importance to the world’s forests, those dependent on them, and the global climate.

The first signs are far from good, suggesting a toothless, pro-corporate, ‘more of the same’ approach — which the available evidence indicates is doomed to failure — in marked contrast to the EU’s action on illegal timber. To have any chance of having an impact, the EU’s action plan on deforestation must be strengthened to include plans for legally binding regulation.

Over a decade has elapsed since the EU first promised to look at the impact its imports of agro-commodities were having on tropical forests. During that time, study after study has reinforced the same key messages: that export-oriented industrial agriculture is by far the largest cause of forest loss; that much of this deforestation is illegal; and that EU consumption of beef, soy, palm oil, and other commodities is one of the largest drivers.

In 2014, I wrote a major study for the think tank Forest Trends on the role of consumer goods in driving deforestation. The assessment — the most in-depth ever attempted — concluded that 71 percent of tropical deforestation is due to industrial, export-oriented agriculture. Most shockingly, it also found that more than two-thirds of this destruction was illegal. My calculations indicated that consumer demand in overseas markets had resulted in the illegal clearance of more than 200,000 square kilometers (about 77,220 square miles) of tropical forest during the first 12 years of the new millennium: an average of five football fields every minute.

But the roots of forest loss in the tropics don’t lie there: they lay with the rich countries to the north, countries that are turning a blind eye to the corruption, criminality, and human rights abuses involved in the production of their food and fuel.

The following year, in a paper for the NGO Fern, I demonstrated that the EU is one of the largest culprits. I estimated that, in 2012, the EU had imported €6 billion of soy, beef, leather, and palm oil that were grown or reared on land illegally cleared of forests in the tropics — almost a quarter of the total world trade in these shady goods. One football pitch of forest was illegally felled every two minutes in the period between 2000 and 2012 in order to supply the EU with these commodities. Studies commissioned by the EU itself, though they did not examine illegalities, have since confirmed the importance of EU consumption in driving global forest loss.

Herd of cattle in the Brazilian Amazon. Photo by Rhett Butler.

Yet, in the years since all this was exposed, little has changed. If anything, the problem has perhaps worsened. A quick check of customs data reveals that EU imports of palm oil from high-risk countries have increased by 9 percent, those of leather by 25 percent. EU imports of beef from Brazil — where it is by far the largest driver of destruction in the Amazon — rose 10 percent between 2012 and 2016. Imports of soy from tropical forest countries are also higher now than when the Forest Trends report was released.The EU’s own studies have concluded that its impact on tropical forests is set to rise.

Fresh data on the levels of illegality in key source countries are too sparse to determine trends, but the anecdotal information paints a clear picture. Earthsight’s Illegal Deforestation Monitor has published 175 stories on the subject over the last two and a half years. The cases we have covered have spanned most major tropical forest countries, and a wide range of commodities, including the ‘usual suspects’ but also new threats like the humble avocado. The illegalities documented in the clearing of forest for these crops range from corruption to murder, from arson to slavery. Yet we can be certain they are the tip of the iceberg.

In Brazil, controversial amnesties for past illegalities have led to a surge in new ones, while studies of deforestation in the lesser-known Cerrado ecosystem suggest illegalities there are as widespread as those in the Amazon. The two biggest soy trading multinationals were fined by Brazilian authorities in 2018 for buying grain from Cerrado lands that had been illegally deforested. Meanwhile, products supplied by leading Brazilian beef firm JBS have continued to find their way onto the shelves of major EU supermarkets despite its slaughterhouses in Brazil having recently been found guilty of sourcing tens of thousands of cattle from land illegally cleared of forests. The company’s owners have also been arrested multiple times in major corruption investigations.

In an in-depth report published last year, Earthsight documented the emerging threat posed by industrial palm and rubber plantations to the forests of the Congo Basin, which until now have largely escaped the ravages wrought by commercial, export-oriented agribusiness in other parts of the world. We exposed how the biggest new such projects across the region are being led by logging companies with terrible reputations for illegalities and human rights abuses. One such company has even helped fund armed conflict. We also revealed evidence of high-level corruption, with a Deputy Minister of Agriculture warning a rubber plantation developer on Facebook not to ‘brag’ about his illegal activities.

Since 2014, when that Forest Trends report was published, the annual rate of tropical forest loss in Indonesia has increased by 30 percent. The failure to address rampant illegality in the development of palm oil and timber plantations is a key reason. Over the last two years, Earthsight’s Gecko Project has documented in unprecedented depth a series of case studies revealing the corruption, collusion, and secrecy that have plagued the oil palm sector, where large corporations supplying EU markets have colluded with and profited from high-level corruption while remaining almost entirely untouched. One story traced a line from a major corporation to the bribery of Indonesia’s highest judge. Our most recent story exposed the single largest threat to Indonesia’s forests today: a vast palm plantation project in one of the largest remaining tracts of virgin forest anywhere in Asia. Permits for the plantation were issued by a corrupt politician from behind bars, and indigenous people beaten into submission.

Earthsight has repeatedly argued that only one thing is ever going to halt deforestation — action by governments. This includes actions by the governments of those countries that import the commodities driving deforestation. The EU’s own feasibility study, published last year, concluded that regulatory actions by the EU would be by far the most impactful on the problem. Yet these findings appear to have been rejected.

Legal forest reserve on a mechanized soy farm in the Brazilian Amazon. Photo by Rhett Butler.

Instead, the EU’s new ‘roadmap’ (open for public comment until February 25) indicates that it is favoring options judged by its experts to be of little probable value, having as their only advantage the fact that they are relatively cheap and unlikely to face significant pushback from powerful corporations. The proposals focus on ‘encouraging’ and ‘supporting’ good practices, but make no mention of actions to ensure that bad practices are prevented. Given that bad practices are always more profitable, such a soft approach is doomed to failure.

The tone of the EU’s roadmap suggests that it believes its role should be limited to ‘promoting’ voluntary action by the private sector. No doubt this proposed approach has been influenced by the many high-profile promises of action on deforestation made by agro-commodity and consumer goods companies in recent years. Surely, the thinking perhaps goes, the problem is already on its way to being addressed, so all the EU needs to do is add a little more gentle assistance and it will be solved. No need for anything so cumbersome as regulation. Yet the premise of this argument is entirely false.

As Earthsight has argued for some time, these voluntary corporate ‘zero deforestation’ pledges cannot be expected to halt deforestation. There will always be companies that refuse to sign up, such as those we have found are now leading the charge into frontier intact forest areas in the Congo Basin and Papua. But it has also become increasingly clear that even the supposed ‘leaders’ of the zero deforestation movement are failing to deliver on their promises. Last year, Greenpeace found Wilmar, a major palm oil trader that promised to break its links to deforestation in 2013, was still handling oil linked to deforestation from numerous sites across Indonesia, and major consumer goods companies were happily buying it. Greenpeace’s report concluded that the brands and suppliers with these policies had “totally failed to implement them effectively.” This shouldn’t be any surprise. We spent years learning these lessons with timber. We simply can’t afford to waste time learning those same lessons all over again.

Instead of a law demanding that EU importers of relevant commodities meet certain minimum standards, the EU proposes to ‘promote sustainable supply chains’ through ‘public-private partnerships’ with ‘public financial support.’ What this will likely mean in practice is the payment of large sums of European taxpayers’ money to the same agribusiness giants that have been exposed time and again for profiting from illegal deforestation and associated corruption and abuse.

While the roadmap laudably supports the idea of ‘partnerships’ with producer countries, these will be toothless and ineffective if they do not involve the development of binding rules governing bilateral trade and are not backed by firm regulatory measures in Europe.

It is true that more meaningful measures will be a tougher sell. But if the EU is to meet its own commitments, including on climate change, it must do more. It must follow the pioneering and successful approach already taken to address imports of illegal wood, which involved binding regulatory demands on EU importers and the development of binding bilateral arrangements with supplier country governments. Measures to enforce transparency regarding the allocation of land must be absolutely central.

The first phase of feedback on the roadmap revealed that nearly every major forest think tank and NGO also supports firm regulatory action. The European Parliament itself has specifically called for a firm regulatory response on agro-commodities and deforestation, while a number of major EU member states have called on the Commission to be “ambitious” in developing its action plan. This roadmap is anything but.

These companies have manifestly failed to clean up their own act. The idea that this will change courtesy of some gentle hand-holding by the EU and a generous dollop of taxpayers’ money is fantasy.

Peat forest cleared for palm oil in Indonesia. Photo by Rhett Butler.

Sam Lawson is Director of the non-profit investigative organization Earthsight.

Editor’s Note: This commentary was submitted to the European Commission as part of the formal consultation on the ‘roadmap.’ Mongabay has a partnership with Earthsight to collaborate on investigative journalism projects.

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