- A new report investigates deforestation and land rights abuse allegations in central and western Africa by companies that supply top European tire makers like Michelin and Continental.
- The EU is home to the world’s top tire manufacturers, even though it does not produce any natural rubber, and rubber imports are currently not subject to the European nations’ deforestation regulations.
- Between 2000 and 2020, 200 square miles of forested area was likely destroyed to make way for industrial rubber plantations in six African countries, which together exported $503 million worth of natural rubber to the EU in 2020.
- Emphasizing the role of the EU, the report describes how rubber plantation owning companies are also heavily financed by European banks like Rabobank, BNP Paribas and Deutsche Bank.
Top European tire makers, including France’s Michelin and Germany’s Continental AG, are sourcing rubber from agribusinesses implicated in deforestation and undermining land rights in western and central Africa, a report by the non-profit Global Witness found.
Rubber is used to manufacture everything from shoes to condoms, but three-quarters of the world’s natural rubber ends up in tires. The EU consumes over a million tons of natural rubber every year, but does not produce any of it, depending entirely on imports from Southeast Asia and Africa.
Its vast appetite for imported goods makes the EU the second largest importer of deforestation after China. In 2017, the bloc was linked to 16% of the tropical forest loss generated by global trade. With the EU seeking to tighten import rules for forest-risk commodities this year, rubber is facing renewed scrutiny since its import isn’t currently subject to these timber regulations.
The report focused on the impact of European rubber demand on deforestation in Gabon, Cameroon, Ghana, Nigeria, Liberia and Côte d’Ivoire. In 2020, the six African countries exported $503 million worth of natural rubber to the EU. Between 2000 and 2020, a forested area 16 times the size of Brussels (200 square miles), was likely destroyed to make way for large-scale rubber plantations in the six countries, the report’s authors estimate.
Like many other cash crops, rubber cultivation brings meager returns for most rubber-growing countries because much of the processing happens elsewhere. None of the world’s biggest rubber producers, located in Asia and Africa, are leading exporters of rubber products.
While on African land, the plantations are themselves owned by multimillion-dollar foreign companies. Singapore-based agribusinesses Olam and Halcyon Agri, and the Belgian-based Socfin control a majority of the rubber plantations associated with natural forest destruction, according to a new Global Witness analysis. Some of the world’s biggest tire makers, Michelin and Continental, have used rubber from Halcyon Agri and Socfin’s plantations in the past.
In May, the Oakland Institute released a statement condemning human rights abuses on plantations across Africa, directly or indirectly controlled by Socfin.
A Michelin spokesperson told Mongabay that the company buys rubber from Socfin. “The accusations made against this producer are potentially serious since they contradict the Michelin Group’s natural rubber purchasing policy, but Michelin deeply regrets that these accusations are not supported by any precise information that would enable the Group to assess the materiality of the events denounced,” the spokesperson said.
Socfin did not respond to Mongabay’s request for comment.
There is now greater recognition that countries are responsible not just for deforestation within their own borders but also for forest loss in other countries driven by their consumption patterns. The EU regulates the entry of forest-risk commodities into the common market through the EU Timber Regulation (EUTR). The latest iteration of the EUTR will tighten regulations around other commodities like palm oil, soy, beef, wood, coffee and cocoa. Rubber, considered a critical raw material, is not regulated under the EUTR though environmental groups including Global Witness and Mighty Earth are campaigning for its inclusion.
The new report suggests that top European tire manufacturers successfully lobbied to keep rubber out of the updated EUTR, which is expected to be finalized this year, through the European Tyre & Rubber Manufacturers Association (ETRMA). This trade group represents companies like Michelin, the Italian group Pirelli and US tire manufacturer Goodyear.
View more reporting about the rubber industry here.
ETRMA has argued that the deforestation footprint of rubber is not big enough to warrant EU regulation. Global Witness contests this claim. The industry group also described the extension of deforestation legislation to rubber as “impractical,” in a statement.
Exclusion from stricter EU rules will not only shield tire makers from anti-deforestation regulations, but also from responsibility for respecting the rights of local communities and Indigenous groups. At the Halcyon Agri-owned Sudcam project in Cameroon, some residents complained to Global Witness researchers that they were never properly consulted about establishing a rubber concession, or compensated for losing traditional rights to the forest.
In their statements to Mongabay, both Olam and Halcyon Agri defended their record on deforestation within their concessions. Halcyon Agri disputes accounts of human rights and land rights abuses at its plantations, including in Sudcam. “Protecting forests and areas of high conservation value and eliminating unacceptable land use practices is a priority for Olam across our agricultural supply chains worldwide,” an Olam spokesperson told Mongabay. The companies shared more details about specific plantations with Global Witness, which are included in its report.
Not only do foreign companies own plantations that satisfy European appetite for rubber, but these operations are also heavily financed by European banks. The report highlights the role of banks like Rabobank, BNP Paribas, Deutsche Bank and Barclays in financing companies linked to deforestation in Africa.
The Dutch Rabobank extended more than $1 billion in credit to Olam between 2016 and 2020, while the French bank BNP Paribas lent the agribusiness over $750 million.
“As one of the world’s largest Food & Agri banks, we have strict policies and monitoring systems on deforestation. Farmers or companies who illegally deforest do not get a loan. Clients need to adjust to our high standards,” a Rabobank spokesperson told Mongabay. The bank collaborates with NGOs and tracks land-use remotely. “However, we are not standing next to the farmers or companies 24/7, and a 100% guarantee of desired behavior is unfortunately impossible,” the spokesperson said.
Mongabay reached out to tire manufacturers Continental and Pirelli for comment but did not receive a response. BNP Paribas, Deutsche Bank and Barclays also did not respond to requests for comment.
The rubber market is growing steadily; it is expected to cross $50 billion by 2027, driven partly by the persistent demand for automobiles. “It’s a paradox. People in Europe driving fancy cars have no idea that the rubber in their tires is grown in a place where the local population is almost destitute,” Nahounou Daleba, an environmental activist from Côte d’Ivoire, Africa’s largest rubber producer, told the Global Witness team.
Banner image: A rubber farmer taps a rubber tree for latex at a rubber plantation in Liberia. Image by Bill E. Diggs / Solidarity Center via Flickr (CC BY-ND 2.0).
See related report:
Climate, biodiversity & farmers benefit from rubber agroforestry: report