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To cooperatively stop deforestation for commodities, navigating ‘legal’ vs ‘zero’ is key (commentary)

  • As a decade-long effort by the private sector to voluntarily eliminate deforestation from commodity supply chains stalls, the EU, UK, and US are all considering trade regulations.
  • But policy makers and advocates have been debating the relative merits of trade barriers based on a “legality” or “zero-deforestation” standard: we believe this presents a false dichotomy. Both are necessary, from different stakeholders.
  • Importing countries must support forest country governance and ownership of deforestation reduction goals, while the private sector must rapidly accelerate their implementation of zero-deforestation commitments. This “international partnership pathway” offers a more equitable and likely faster strategy, a new op-ed argues.
  • This post is a commentary. The views expressed are those of the author, not necessarily Mongabay.

Illegal deforestation represents an outsized share of global deforestation. Tropical forest loss is accelerating climate change, displacing Indigenous and local communities, and destroying landscapes that biodiversity and communities depend on to survive. An estimated 60% of tropical forest loss between 2013-2019 was driven by commercial agriculture. At least 69% of this agro-conversion was illegal, meaning that producers obtained land illegally, cleared more than permitted, engaged in fraud and corruption, perpetrated human rights abuses, evaded taxes, or otherwise breached the law.

There is broad international agreement that deforestation must come to an end. Researchers have shown that there is already enough land in global agricultural production to provide healthy diets for a growing human population. There is little justification for further commercial agro-conversion of forests to produce commodities such as timber, soy, palm oil, cattle, and increasingly, cocoa, maize, and coffee (collectively “deforestation-risk commodities”).

Demand-side trade regulation of deforestation-risk commodities is currently being considered by several major consumer markets (the European Union, United Kingdom, and United States in particular). There is active debate among policy makers and stakeholders on whether and how these regulations should be constructed – particularly whether they should be based on a legality or zero-deforestation standard. Some in our community are arguing that demand-side legality regulation is not good enough – or even helpful – when what the world clearly needs is a zero-deforestation future.

Natural forest (left) versus an oil palm plantation (right) in Indonesia. Photo credits: Rhett A. Butler
Natural forest (left) versus an oil palm plantation (right) in Indonesia. Photo credits: Rhett A. Butler

But this sets up a false dichotomy, which confuses objective with strategy. We must make a distinction between the objective of reducing agro-conversion to zero, and the specific strategies we pursue to achieve it. And we must also recognize that success in meeting the objective will largely depend on who it is setting the standards, and where.

Over 20 years of experience in forest policy and trade has taught us that the most stable and fastest progress reversing deforestation will occur when producer countries themselves steer the direction of their rural development pathway. Simply put, we will never get to zero deforestation without political will of countries with tropical forests, broadly supported by their populations.

Of course producer countries can and must enforce their own land use laws and recognize the rights of Indigenous Peoples and local and traditional communities. In too many places illegal activities are considered acceptable business practices. Compliance with existing legal frameworks, even if they are not perfect, would eliminate 69% of all deforestation linked to commercial agriculture.

Consumer country governments should support producer country ownership of land-use objectives, and the effective governance necessary to achieve them, by advancing trade regulations that ban imports of agricultural commodities produced on illegally converted land. This legality approach to trade fosters a path of partnership and collaboration based on reciprocity and mutual respect between producer and consumer governments.

Meanwhile, manufacturers and retailers, traders, and large producers should adopt, fully implement, and transparently report on zero-deforestation supply chain commitments in line with existing best practice guidance, such as that from the Accountability Framework Initiative.

Demand-side regulations based on legality and corporate commitments based on zero deforestation work together to create a “pincer” movement whereby legality sets a minimum standard, and voluntary action by corporate leaders raises the bar. Together, the two strategies squeeze out illegal production, dramatically increase zero-deforestation production, and force all traders and buyers to know their suppliers and trace purchases to the source.

See related: Is a European proposal on imported deforestation too punitive?

Peatlands deforestation for oil palm in Sumatra, Indonesia. Image by Rhett A. Butler / Mongabay.

At the same time, all entities involved should support capacity building and technical assistance, monitoring and transparency initiatives, outreach and organizing, and preferential financing and purchasing for zero-deforestation production.

The international community must also provide dramatically increased incentives to support forest country policies that aim to completely eliminate forest loss and protect community rights. These incentives should be channeled through the many global agendas that touch on forest loss, including climate, development, trade, security, human rights, wildlife and biodiversity, anti-corruption, and more.

Over time, producer countries will inevitably come to see how their own national socio-economic objectives are not only aligned with a deforestation-free future, but demand it. They will strengthen their laws and regulations to get there. And the international community and private sector will have built the systems to keep bad actors from undermining forest country objectives.

The stakes for failing to reverse ecosystem degradation as quickly as possible are incredibly high. The pathway we propose charts a way forward. History shows us that the most rapid and stable solutions to international collective action problems involve cooperation, rather than retreating to our corners. We must work together in partnership to put out these fires – and we can, with mutual respect and understanding and a shared commitment to changing the world.


Michael Wolosin is a policy expert on reducing emissions from global deforestation. He is President at Forest Climate Analytics, an Advisor to Forest Trends, and a Senior Fellow with Climate Advisers.

Related listening from Mongabay’s podcast: Oil palm plantations are entering the Brazilian Amazon and bringing their usual impacts, listen here: 

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