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Consumer countries mull best approach to end deforestation abroad

Two men cutting down a tree.

Many tropical countries export goods from land where forest once stood. Image by Souro Souvik via Unsplash.

  • Major global consumers like the U.K., the U.S. and the EU are debating how best to reduce the amount of tropical deforestation resulting from the production of the commodities they import.
  • Some experts argue that laws should restrict any products tinged with deforestation, while others say regulations should allow in imports that come from areas that were deforested legally in the countries in which they were produced.
  • The debate involves questions around sovereignty, equality, and, ultimately, what strategy will best address the urgent need to stem the loss of some of the world’s most important repositories of carbon and biodiversity.

Tropical deforestation is a cost our planet pays every day for the food we eat. The palm oil in our ice cream, the steak on our tables, and the soy that feeds the chickens whose eggs we fry and scramble — so much of what we depend on comes at the expense of forests, including those irreplaceable, old-growth bastions of biodiversity, stored carbon and much more.

In 2018 alone, 614 square kilometers (237 square miles) of forest vanished in Brazil’s Amazon rainforest and Cerrado savanna to make way for soybean plants, according to a November 2021 study in the journal Environmental Research Letters. But Brazil exports most of its soy, meaning that the United States and other importers of Brazilian soy share responsibility for that tree loss.

Like many tropical countries that export goods from land where forest once stood, Brazil’s laws differentiate between legal and illegal deforestation. The role those laws play in the importing countries’ own efforts to stamp out deforestation is less clear, however.

Logged forest and oil palm plantations in Malaysian Borneo. Image by Rhett A. Butler/Mongabay.

One school of thought holds that consumer markets like the European Union and the U.S. should restrict the import of goods only if they were produced on land illegally deforested in the country of origin. Proponents of this “legality”-centered approach say it respects the sovereignty of the producer countries and lays the groundwork for collaboration that could eventually be leveraged into eliminating deforestation from supply chains entirely.

Others, including the researchers who wrote the Environmental Research Letters study, contend that consumer countries should ban or sanction any import tinged with deforestation, legal or not. The logic behind this “zero-deforestation” approach rests on the fact that laws in countries like Brazil don’t prohibit all deforestation.

“There is a lot that can be legally cleared” under current Brazilian law, lead author Tiago Reis, a land systems scientist with the Trase commodities tracking platform run by the U.K.-based NGO Global Canopy, told Mongabay.

Researchers and conservationists agree deforestation requires immediate action from the countries on the demand side of these transactions. But what strategies will be most effective? Some of the world’s largest consumers, including the EU, the U.S. and the U.K., have taken up that very question in debates over how they should minimize their deforestation footprint. And the EU in particular is moving toward the approval of sweeping draft legislation that would penalize companies that import goods connected to any deforestation.

The stakes remain incredibly high: Deforestation is decimating habitat and driving species toward extinction. If not abated, it could prove to be an insurmountable hurdle to limiting global warming to 1.5° Celsius (2.7° Fahrenheit) above pre-industrial levels. Scientists say staying below that increase will avoid the worst impacts of climate change, the oft-repeated Paris Agreement goal to prevent catastrophic climate change that was reaffirmed in the Glasgow Forest Declaration at the COP26 climate summit in November 2021.

The EU accounted for 10% of Brazil’s forest loss between 2013 and 2018, Trase researchers found. At the heart of the debate among European leaders is how member states can use their influence to diminish this impact on the tropics. Early on, the conversation took up the issue of whether a legality or a zero-deforestation approach would be most effective, with each tactic offering potential benefits and problems.

“Regulating embedded deforestation in the imports of commodities is very tricky,” Reis said in an interview, calling it “a social and economic problem with ecological consequences.”

A tiger leg monkey tree frog in Peruvian Amazon. Deforestation is decimating habitat and driving species toward extinction. Image by Rhett A. Butler/Mongabay.

The case for zero deforestation

Reis and his colleagues argue that stricter, zero-deforestation restrictions will ultimately result in less deforestation than a legality-based approach. They say satellite monitoring for all deforestation is easier than trying to tease apart which areas were cleared legally and which were not. But their main argument is that zero-deforestation is better because, under Brazil’s laws, a lot of continuing deforestation is legal.

Brazil’s Forest Code requires many landowners in the Amazon biome to keep 80% of their property untouched as a “legal reserve.” As beneficial as that may sound for conservation, it still allows medium- and large-scale producers to clear 20% of their land legally. (Different rules govern conversion by smallholders.)

Moreover, legal loopholes allow state and local governments to authorize landowners to clear forest from up to half of their property. Changes to the code in 2012 provided “amnesties” to landowners who had illegally cleared their lands before a specific date.

Reis and his colleagues point to the figures that capture projected deforestation in Brazil. In their study, they calculated that Brazil could lose 32,500 km2 (12,500 mi2) of forest and other “natural habitat” in the next three years under current Brazilian law. That area holds the equivalent of 152.8 million metric tons of carbon dioxide. That’s the same amount of CO2 that’s released by burning 65 billion liters (17.2 billion gallons) of gasoline — enough to fuel nearly 33 million cars for a year. They concluded that consumer country regulations that rely on Brazil’s laws to regulate imports will be “insufficient” to stop deforestation.

In practice, Brazilian authorities rarely force landowners to pay the fines levied against them for illegal deforestation. That means the forest code is a weak deterrent, and so deforestation driven by agriculture and the big profits it provides continue apace in Brazil.

A strip of forest amid Amazon cattle pasture in Brazil. Image by Rhett A. Butler/Mongabay.
Maps showing the largest CO2 stocks (in metric tons) and native vegetation areas (in hectares) at high risk of legal conversion in Brazil until 2025. Image courtesy of Reis et al. (2021).

Reis and his colleagues also say Brazilian authorities could further blunt these laws or provide new amnesties, bringing even more land clearance within legal bounds. As a result, regulations imposed by consumer countries resting on legal deforestation could end up incentivizing weakened forest protection.

Recent moves by the Brazilian government have prompted some policy analysts to predict the country could embrace a sort of nuclear option to end illegal deforestation: simply making all deforestation legal. Actions like that could encourage more destruction, Reis said.

“It’s very worrisome,” he said. He sees little indication that Brazil will change course and tighten its forest laws or enforcement without serious external pressure in the form of foreign zero-deforestation legislation.

The tendency lately has been to blame Brazil’s current president for the assault on the Amazon. Jair Bolsonaro ran in 2018 on a platform of opening up Brazil’s frontier, including protected areas and Indigenous territories, to agriculture, mining and other forms of economic activity. His administration has largely followed through on those promises.

But the erosion of forest protections is more deeply embedded in Brazil’s politics, going back to the earlier Michel Temer and Dilma Rousseff presidential administrations along with entrenched sociopolitical norms.

“There is a whole configuration of state-level politics and political constituencies in the Amazon,” as well as in the savanna biome of the Cerrado, Reis said. “Politicians simply don’t get elected if they adopt stringent environmental discourse, or even if they implement enforcement measures.”

Fire in the Amazon next to the borders of the Kaxarari Indigenous territory, in Labrea, Amazonas state, Brazil. Image © Christian Braga / Greenpeace.

Other researchers say Brazil has structures in place that encourage land grabbing and fail to protect the Indigenous and traditional groups who science has shown to be the best stewards of the forest.

Reis and his colleagues’ study is “a nice illustration as to why I don’t think that, in the end, legality’s enough,” said Martin Persson, an associate professor in physical resource theory at Sweden’s Chalmers University of Technology, who wasn’t involved in Reis’s research.

The EU’s drafted deforestation regulation embraces zero-deforestation restrictions on all imports by its member nations. If it’s finalized by 2023, as anticipated, it would ban imports produced on lands deforested after Dec. 31, 2020.

To justify its stance, the EU echoes Reis’s rationale for taking the zero-deforestation tack: that too much deforestation is legal. The regulation’s authors also wanted to avoid spurring “a race to the bottom” by relying solely on producer countries’ laws. Their case is that this would effectively incentivize producer countries to relax those laws and lead to a rise in the proportion of their exports produced on newly legally deforested land. Finally, they saw the benefit in landing on a clear definition of deforestation for widespread application around the world.

The comment period on the text in 2020 attracted lots of public attention, with nearly 1.2 million EU citizens and groups registering opinions, mostly in favor of strong laws on the importation of commodities carrying deforestation risk. When the current draft was released in November 2021, the conservation community was broadly supportive, though commentators did argue that provisions to protect human rights and other sensitive ecosystems, such as peatlands, savannas and wetlands, would bolster its impact.

Indigenous men making their way down a tributary of the Amazon River in Manaus, Brazil. Researchers say Brazil has structures in place that encourage land grabbing and fail to protect the Indigenous and traditional groups who science has shown to be the best stewards of the forest. Image by Julio Pantoja / World Bank via Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).

The case for legality

But the legality approach also has a cadre of supporters. Among them is Michael Wolosin, an adviser to the U.S.-based NGO Forest Trends and president of Climate Analytics, a nonprofit science and policy organization. Wolosin wrote a report published Feb. 1 by Forest Trends supporting a legality-led approach. He said he understands legal deforestation in forest-rich countries presents a sizable risk.

“There is no question that plenty of deforestation could happen in Brazil within the bounds of existing Brazilian land use laws,” Wolosin told Mongabay in an email.

Still, one of his main premises in favor of legality rests on data showing that most tropical forest clearance for large-scale food production is illegal. Commercial agriculture alone has been responsible for more than half of tropical deforestation in recent years, and tackling this problem seems a logical place to start.

Persson and other researchers broadly agree with Wolosin that this would be a strong step.

“If we could just enforce those laws in producer countries, we will get a long way,” Persson told Mongabay.

What’s more, recent data support the case that government zero-deforestation policies may not be as effective as some have hoped. Research published Jan. 5 modeled what might have happened if restrictions by the EU had kept “high-deforestation palm oil” from Indonesia out of Europe between 2000 and 2015. The authors of the study found that such a ban would have reduced deforestation in Indonesia over that period by just 1.6%.

But if throttling imports produced at the expense of forests isn’t likely to work, what will?  Wolosin says it starts with consumer countries respecting producer countries’ laws rather than enacting strict zero-deforestation policies that could be seen as hostile to, and even threaten the sovereignty of, countries such as Brazil.

A transport truck loaded with palm fruits in Aceh Province, Indonesia. Image by Dita Alangkara/CIFOR via Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).

“The most stable and equitable path to eliminating agro-conversion lies through full ownership by forest countries of their deforestation reduction goals and solutions,” Wolosin said.

At the same time, he said, relying solely on the legality approach won’t fully address the significant loss of habitat and its contributions to climate change.

“Just because deforestation may be legal doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try to stop it,” Wolosin added.

Consumer countries must go beyond a singular focus on legal production to provide a suite of supportive programs and investments to reduce deforestation and enhance law enforcement, he said.

For example, consumer countries could encourage farmers and ranchers to move toward a goal of zero deforestation by rewarding them with favorable financing and higher purchase prices when they follow through. They could also invest in the capacity of producer countries to monitor their forests and increase transparency around how they’re managed. With these tools, they may be able to address not just deforestation but adjacent issues such as Indigenous rights and ending the corruption that undermines forest protection laws.

Down the line, domestic laws should become more tightly woven into the fabric of society, Wolosin said, and opportunities to build on that foundation with progressively stricter forest protection laws could emerge.

“They will strengthen their laws and regulations to get there,” Wolosin wrote in a March 2022 commentary for Mongabay. “And the international community and private sector will have built the systems to keep bad actors from undermining forest country objectives.”

Habitats of endangered endemic animals like the proboscis monkey are being destroyed to make way for oil palm plantations in Borneo. Image by Rhett A. Butler/Mongabay.

This broader toolkit isn’t tied exclusively to the legality approach. The EU draft zero-deforestation regulation calls for substantive partnerships with commodity-producing countries aimed at enhancing their ability to curb deforestation. But Wolosin says the toolkit pairs best with the legality approach.

His concern is that a confrontational zero-deforestation policy by consumer nations could ultimately hamstring these and other efforts to tackle deforestation and climate change. For starters, Brazil and other producer countries might decide to complain to the World Trade Organization about a lack of respect for their own laws, delaying any progress toward reducing deforestation by years. As an example, he pointed to Indonesia’s push to get the EU to alter its sustainability standards for palm oil imported for biofuel.

Brazil’s Bolsonaro has complained repeatedly that criticism of the accelerating deforestation of the Amazon is an attack on Brazil’s right to govern itself. In a 2019 address to the United Nations, he dismissed attempts to claim the Amazon rainforest as the heritage of all humanity.

“Using and resorting to these fallacies, certain countries, instead of helping … behaved in a disrespectful manner and with a colonialist spirit,” he said, according to the BBC. “They even called into question that which we hold as a most sacred value, our sovereignty.”

The way that Bolsonaro has chafed at attempts to scale back deforestation speaks to another of Wolosin’s points: that the push to clear Brazil’s forests isn’t the result of outside pressure, nor is that pressure likely to diminish deforestation. “It is about domestic politics,” Wolosin said.

He said that only a consensus around ending deforestation within these countries is likely to produce results.

Other voices have pointed out different pitfalls of the zero-deforestation approach. Alain Karsenty, an environmental economist and senior scientist at the French Agricultural Research Centre for International Development (CIRAD) in Montpellier, France, told Mongabay that the strict approach of the EU regulation may go too far. He wrote a February 2022 commentary for Mongabay that asks whether the EU’s draft zero-deforestation requirements are “too punitive,” especially, and somewhat ironically, to countries that have lower deforestation rates. He pointed to Gabon in Central Africa as an example. In contrast to the substantial amount of forest that Brazil has lost in recent decades, Gabon’s portion of the Congo Basin remains relatively intact.

Now, however, Gabon will be limited to growing oil palm on harder-to-find swaths of land cleared prior to 2021 if it wants to export palm oil, a growing sector in its economy, to the EU. Brazil’s producers, meanwhile, have a massive bank of degraded land on which to grow oil palm, or soy, or cattle.

Emergent canopy tree felled for timber in Gabon. Image by Rhett A. Butler/Mongabay.

Searching for (converging) solutions

Still, Wolosin acknowledges the possibility that producer countries’ laws governing forests could instead change for the worse. “I’m hugely concerned about efforts in Brazil to dramatically weaken their environmental laws — and the increases in human rights violations, land theft, and deforestation that are likely to follow,” he said.

That’s why he says there’s only so much consumer countries can do. To bolster these efforts, many private companies have already made pledges to end deforestation in their supply chains. They can play a unique role, Wolosin writes, because they aren’t constrained by the impacts on diplomatic relations that consumer countries’ regulations on deforestation can have. And companies have other incentives to improve their own practices, whether to differentiate themselves from the competition, meet the expectations of consumers who demand ethically produced goods, or avoid the reputational harm of being caught acting unethically.

The legality approach and this more stringent corporate action together “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,” Wolosin wrote in his March 9 commentary for Mongabay.

Still, the divide exists, with key global entities falling on one side or the other in major legislation on the table. The U.S.’s proposed FOREST Act focuses on rooting out illegal deforestation around key commodities, as does the U.K.’s Environment Act, which parliament signed into law in 2021. At the same time, the EU has set its sights on rules that would outlaw any deforestation, legal or not, attached to the products it imports.

Despite the varying approaches, all of these laws contain language requiring support for producing countries. For example, the architects of the EU’s proposed regulation call for working through a structure called Forest Partnerships. The scheme aims to provide bespoke support to countries looking to rid their supply chains of deforestation, such as providing technical training in sustainable forest management or support for Indigenous communities who care for key forest landscapes. It’s the kind of support that Wolosin says requires the equitable partnerships established through the legality approach to succeed. But the EU is betting that a potentially confrontational zero-deforestation approach won’t hamper the collaboration necessary to end commodity-driven deforestation.

Time — and the state of the world’s tropical forests in countries like Brazil — will tell whether the combination of action, in whatever form it may take, by consumer countries, producer countries and the companies that supply the goods we all rely on, are enough to stem the disappearance of such unique and vital landscapes.

A healthy peat forest in Indonesian Borneo. Image by Rhett A. Butler/Mongabay.

Banner image: Many tropical countries export goods from land where forest once stood. Image by Souro Souvik via Unsplash.

John Cannon is a staff features writer with Mongabay. Find him on Twitter: @johnccannon


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Reis, T. N.P. dos, De Faria, V. G., Russo Lopes, G., Sparovek, G., West, C., Rajão, R., … Elvira, M. V. (2021). Trading deforestation-why the legality of forest-risk commodities is insufficient. Environmental Research Letters, 16(12), 124025. doi:10.1088/1748-9326/ac358d

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