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‘Amazing first step’ as EU law cracks down on deforestation-linked imports

Aerial photo of riparian forest and deforestation for soy.

Riparian forest and deforestation for soy in Brazil's Amazon. Image by Rhett A. Butler/Mongabay.

  • The European Union has agreed to adopt a law that will ban the trade of commodities associated with deforestation and forest degradation.
  • The law will be the first of its kind in the world, and aims to tackle deforestation caused by the EU’s consumption of various agricultural commodities that are the main drivers of global forest loss, including palm oil, cattle, rubber, soy and cocoa.
  • Green groups have lauded the law, but say it falls short on several key points, including failing to protect other wooded ecosystems like savannas, and providing limited rights protection for Indigenous peoples.

JAKARTA — The European Union has finalized a law that will ban the trade of commodities associated with deforestation and forest degradation.

On Dec. 6, the European Council, Parliament and Commission struck a preliminary deal to adopt the deforestation-free regulation, proposed by the European Commission in 2021. The Parliament and the Council will still have to formally approve the agreement.

Once adopted, the law will be the first of its kind in the world to tackle global deforestation by banning deforestation and forest degradation, regardless of whether it’s legal or not, from supply chains.

“The EU is a large consumer and trader of commodities that play a substantial part in deforestation — like beef, cocoa, soy and timber,” said Marian Jurečka, the environment minister of the Czech Republic, which negotiated on behalf of the 27 EU member countries.

The EU is responsible for 16% of tropical deforestation associated with international trade, second only to China.

“Protecting the environment around the world, including forests and rainforests, is a common goal for all countries and the EU is ready to take its responsibility,” Jurečka said.

Under the law, companies will be required to issue a due diligence statement verifying that goods they import into the EU market don’t come from deforested land and have not led to forest degradation anywhere in the world after Dec. 31, 2020. Operators and traders will also have to prove that the goods are legal by complying with all relevant applicable laws in force in the country of production.

The law covers commodities like palm oil, cattle, timber, coffee, cocoa, rubber and soy, as well as manufactured products like beef, chocolate, furniture and printed paper. The EU has identified these commodities as the main agricultural drivers of deforestation.

“I hope that this innovative regulation will give impetus to the protection of forests around the globe and inspire other countries at the COP15 [U.N. Biodiversity Conference in Montreal],” said the European Parliament’s lead negotiator, Christophe Hansen.

Some green groups have lauded the decision to adopt the law, with WWF calling it “groundbreaking.”

“We have made history with this world-first law against deforestation,” said Anke Schulmeister-Oldenhove, senior forest policy officer at WWF’s European policy office. “As a major trading bloc, the EU will not only change the rules of the game for consumption within its borders, but will also create a big incentive for other countries fueling deforestation to change their policies.”

By requiring companies to invest in addressing deforestation and forest degradation in their supply chains as a requirement for access to the EU market, the law will raise the bar for the agricultural sector, according to Helen Bellfield, policy director at U.K.-based NGO Global Canopy.

“This is very welcome news for the world’s forests,” she said.

Efforts to prevent EU consumption from fueling deforestation and forest degradation in other countries have been made previously through voluntary certification schemes.

“But [these] have been unreliable at best and actively greenwashing nature destruction at worst,” Greenpeace EU spokesman John Hyland told Mongabay.

That’s why the law is a major breakthrough for forests, he said.

“For the first time, the companies profiting from forest destruction will have the legal responsibility to do due diligence to ensure what they’re selling isn’t linked to deforestation if they want to sell in the EU,” Hyland said.

The law will require the goods in question to be traced back to where they were produced, down to the precise geographical information for the farms where the commodities were grown.

“The great specificity of this law — and this is a world first for palm oil, cocoa, coffee, beef, and rubber — is the obligation to have a certificate based on satellite images and GPS coordinates to know exactly where the commodity comes from,” said Pascal Canfin, chair of the European Parliament’s environment committee.

To ensure compliance, EU member states will be required to carry out checks covering 9% of companies exporting from countries with a high risk of deforestation, 3% from standard-risk countries and 1% for low-risk countries.

Companies that are found to be noncompliant will face fines of up to 4% of their turnover in an EU member state.

cerrado grasslands
Because much of the Cerrado’s landscape doesn’t fall under the FAO definition of a forest, it would not be protected by the newly proposed EU deforestation legislation. Image by Sarah Sax.


The law has also come under criticism from green groups.

One point of contention centers on how it defines forest degradation. In the dialogue with the Commission and the Council, the European Parliament pushed for a wider definition of forest degradation, one that covers the conversion of primary forests or naturally generating ones to plantation forests.

The Commission and the Council eventually agreed to the proposed definition, but it was a “very bitter pill for the EU Council to swallow,” a parliamentary source told EURACTIV following the agreement.

Hansen called the adopted definition a “strong” one and said it will cover an extensive area of forest.

But groups like WWF and Greenpeace said the definition isn’t ambitious enough as it doesn’t address the degradation within an existing forest due to timber harvesting. This means the law doesn’t cover large-scale clear-cutting of native forests unless the land is converted to another use.

Greenpeace said the definition was adopted under pressure from the European forestry sector and the Canadian government, and that it’s essentially a loophole that allows continued unsustainable logging of natural forests.

Green groups also criticize the law for not protecting other wooded ecosystems like savannas and wetlands, which have trees but are not a dense, closed forest.

Delara Burkhardt, a German member of the European Parliament, who served on the parliamentary negotiating team, said the Council “vehemently opposed” the inclusion of ecosystems like scrublands and savannas in the law, despite the Parliament pushing for these areas to also be covered.

“There is thus a danger that agricultural activities will simply switch from now protected forests to still unprotected savannah landscapes, as can already be observed in the South American Cerrado savannah,” Burkhardt said.

Anke of WWF noted that while savannas and wetlands are considered non-forest ecosystems, they store huge amounts of carbon dioxide, serve as a refuge for a rich diversity of wildlife, and provide livelihoods for Indigenous peoples and local communities.

The Cerrado savanna, for instance, is home to 5% of the planet’s animal and plant species, even though it lacks the gigantic rainforest trees of the neighboring Amazon. And ecosystems like the Cerrado savanna are already under immense pressure from agricultural conversion. The Cerrado biome is the fastest-growing frontier of agricultural expansion in Brazil, and scientists predict it could collapse in less than 30 years if agribusiness keeps advancing at its current frenetic pace.

“It is a shame that other wooded land is not included from the start, as it would have made a huge difference for regions that are under constant threat, such as the Brazilian Cerrado — which might now face even more destruction as a result,” Anke said.

While other wooded land isn’t included in the law at the moment, this will be reconsidered within a year of the law’s enforcement. The protection of other ecosystems, including land with high carbon stock and high biodiversity value, as well as other commodities will be assessed within two years.

Bellfield of Global Canopy said the EU should speed up the review process to include other wooded lands in the law as soon as possible.

“The EU’s ambitions on biodiversity and the climate would be well served by accelerating the inclusion of ‘Other Wooded Lands’ — now put on the shelf for a year while soy fields and [cattle] pastures spread rapidly across vulnerable savannas such as the Cerrado in Brazil,” she said.

Activists also say the law doesn’t provide strong protection for Indigenous peoples who are affected by agricultural production. The law only requires the right to free, prior and informed consent for Indigenous People to be respected if the producing country guarantees that right since it doesn’t acknowledge international human rights law, according to Michael Rice, a lawyer at environmental law NGO ClientEarth.

“Protecting the rights of the Indigenous and local communities on the frontline of forest protection is an essential part of solving the deforestation problem,” he said. “The world’s forests cannot be preserved when their lands are grabbed and land tenure conflicts continue. This is an obvious and disappointing gap in the law.”

Despite the weaknesses in the law, it could still work in protecting forests if it’s implemented properly, green groups say.

“The law is far from perfect — other ecosystems are still not protected, there is a big loophole for the forestry industry with a weak definition of forest degradation, and human rights are not adequately protected,” Hyland from Greenpeace EU said. “But it is really an amazing first step, and will curb the EU’s contribution to deforestation.”


Banner image: Riparian forest and deforestation for soy in Brazil’s Amazon. Image by Rhett A. Butler/Mongabay.


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