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As illegal forest conversion for industrial ag worsens, this moment is pivotal (commentary)

  • A major new study released today finds that illegal conversion of forest for industrial agriculture and exports has been getting worse. Deforestation for consumer goods is up 28%, and more than 2/3 of this is illegal.
  • This has big consequences for the health of our planet: if illegal agro-conversion were a country, its emissions would be the third largest after China and the US.
  • Laws are now under development in the US, EU and UK, to address this, but whether they will be effective hangs in the balance: the German law has already been gutted, while the UK law leaves penalties to be determined at some later date.
  • This post is a commentary. The views expressed are those of the author, not necessarily Mongabay.

Seven years ago, I published a major report for the US think-tank Forest Trends: ‘Consumer Goods and Deforestation’ revealed how international markets for commodities like beef, soy and palm oil used in a wide range of foodstuffs and other consumables the world over, were by far the most important driver of a rapidly accelerating global deforestation and human rights crisis. It also revealed that most of this deforestation was happening illegally. The report sent shockwaves through the forest policy community.

Illegal didn’t mean clandestine. This wasn’t a case of small-scale criminals entering forests under cover of darkness. Aided by rampant corruption and electoral influence-peddling, this was brazen, industrial-scale illegality, carried out by big corporations, in broad daylight. The 2014 report was the first to put a figure on the scale of the problem. The result: commercial agriculture was responsible for nearly three-quarters of recent tropical deforestation, and nearly half of that conversion was illegal.

Consumer demand in wealthy overseas markets was resulting in the illegal clearance of five football fields of precious forest every minute in the tropics. Illustrating the big numbers with numerous case studies from around the world, the report showed that the impacts of this free-for-all on wildlife, the climate and forest-dependent and indigenous communities were horrific.

Illegal deforestation for palm oil production in Sumatra, Indonesia. Photo by Rhett A. Butler for Mongabay.

Now Forest Trends has published a sequel. And the news is not good. Far from tackling this huge problem, we have allowed it to get worse. The peer-reviewed study – Illicit Harvest, Complicit Goods – has found that tropical deforestation for these commodities was 28% higher in 2013-2019 than during the first twelve years of the millennium. And while 49% of this deforestation was thought to be illegal before, now it is estimated to be at least 69%. Illegal agro-conversion, the report’s authors found, is now destroying an area of forest the size of Norway each year.

Another thing which has changed since 2014 is the urgency of the climate emergency we face. And on that count, the most shocking statistic in the new study is about climate emissions. If illegal agro-conversion were a country, its emissions would be the third-largest after China and the US.

To me and my colleagues at Earthsight, the findings are no great surprise. Since 2016, we have been monitoring and reporting on this problem through our ‘Illegal Deforestation Monitor’ platform. In the years since, we have published over 200 stories revealing new examples of illegal agro-conversion and links to western consumption. The cases have encompassed a broad swathe of commodities and source countries. From avocados to coffee, sugar to leather, from Indonesia to Brazil, and from Mexico to Cameroon, the story was largely the same. Impunity. And suffering. Not least among forest dwellers and defenders, who have been murdered by the dozen.

More often than not we were able to trace connections to rich western markets, like beef from a notorious Brazilian meatpacking giant on the shelves of UK supermarkets. Leather from the illegal clearance of a protected area home to an uncontacted tribe in Paraguay being used for luxury cars sold in Europe. KitKats connected to the largest corruption case in Indonesia this century, with funds used by a politician to bribe a Supreme Court judge traced back to a vast illegal palm oil plantation in his home district in Borneo.

See related: Beef giant JBS vows to go deforestation-free — 14 years from now

KitKat bars use a large amount of palm oil and have been linked to illegal forest clearing and political corruption in Indonesia. Image via Nestlé.

There is one ray of light in this story however. One of the major recommendations of the original 2014 report was the need for action by governments in major consuming countries like the US, EU and UK to address their role in driving deforestation overseas. The report argued that voluntary commitments by big companies to clean up supply chains would not work, something that has proven all too true since.

There has been a growing recognition of the need for a response from western governments, and after years of painstaking advocacy by a wide range of environmental and human rights groups, meaningful action is finally on the horizon. Laws are under development in a range of jurisdictions including the EU, UK and US which seek to address their role in driving ecological destruction overseas. These laws seek to ban the import of relevant commodities, and/or force companies in these places to conduct checks to ensure they are not receiving them.

There are at least five relevant laws expected to be finalized and enter into effect within the next six to 12 months, including two in the EU and one each in the UK, US and Germany.

What happens with these laws has an importance that goes well beyond forests. Some of them extend into other ethical issues regarding what we import and consume. There are many such issues.

The long and complex supply chains of globalization mean the impacts of our consumption are hidden from us, and what is true of deforestation and associated abuses with regard to agri-commodities is also true of a wide swathe of other issues and products, such as child labor in clothing production, or the use of minerals driving armed conflict. Even those planned laws which are narrower in their scope are nevertheless pioneering a potentially powerful new approach to the wider problems inherent in our consumption. Where they go, others will follow.

The success or failure of these laws is thus doubly important. And it is a success which is by no means guaranteed. Though the argument for such laws has mostly been won, the crucial question now is what those laws will say. As Earthsight’s recent investigations have shown, powerful forces are already lobbying hard to water these laws down. But poorly designed, toothless laws would be worse than nothing. They would absorb the available political will and yet do nothing to address the issues they were meant to.

Related: Illegal deforestation for soy and sorghum threatens a wetland oasis in Bolivia

Oil palm plantation development. Photo © Ulet Ifansasti / Greenpeace.

There is sadly a long history of similar legislative efforts falling at this hurdle. The UK’s Modern Slavery Act, for example, has proved a gigantic waste of time, resulting in little more than meaningless pledges from corporations.

With regard to forests and forest peoples, environmental and human rights organizations are largely of one voice about the kinds of laws which are needed. They need to be broad in scope, encompassing all sizes of companies and stages in supply chains, and covering financing as well as trade. They need to address human rights issues regarding the agricultural commodity production concerned, even where deforestation was not also involved. They must include meaningful penalties, so that companies cannot just absorb the costs and carry on as before. Authorities charged with implementing these laws must be given sufficient funding and powers. To enable civil society to support those authorities, these laws must also demand transparency by companies on their activities and allow for civil action to be taken against transgressors in the courts, including by communities from the countries affected.

The early signs are worrying. Both the UK and US laws focus only on illegal deforestation. Aside from ignoring the equally damaging legal razing of precious forests, such a narrow focus is also likely to make the laws much harder to enforce. The German supply chain law has already been gutted, and won’t apply to environmental issues (unless human rights violations have been reported) or to any but the largest German firms. The UK law declines to mention the size of penalties, leaving these entirely up to a single politician to determine at some later stage. Big ag companies are already working behind the scenes to ensure that punishments are as light as possible.

It is essential that over the coming months, legislators are forced to stand up to lobbying from the companies responsible for the accelerating destruction of the world’s forests. They must pass strong laws. Earthsight will be doing its part to keep the spotlight on them.

Having made our point about the scale of the problem, we are retiring Illegal Deforestation Monitor, and will instead be focusing our attention on a smaller number of in-depth cases, carefully chosen to illustrate what these laws must do to be effective.

Among other things, they will show that a focus only on illegality is out of date. We are headed for a climate emergency and governments must double down on their efforts to halt all forest clearances, whether legal or not.

Sam Lawson is the director of Earthsight.

Related listening from Mongabay’s podcast: “Reforestation vs deforestation: Forest losses and gains this past year,” listen here: