Commission study shows path to end agricultural deforestation – now it must act

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Open burning in a newly cleared rainforest at Duta Palma's PT Ledo Lestari palm oil plantation. West Kalimantan, Borneo. 2009. [Rainforest Action Network / Flickr]

A new feasibility study on options to fight deforestation will be a litmus test for the European Union’s commitment to halt deforestation by 2020, writes Nicole Polsterer.

Nicole Polsterer is a campaigner at FERN, the forests and rights NGO.

In 2012, the EU imported an estimated €6 billion of commodities such as soy, beef, leather and palm oil, which were grown on land illegally cleared of forests. This makes the EU one of the world’s biggest importers of agricultural products resulting from illegal deforestation.

Recognising the scale of the problem, in 2013 the European Parliament and the Council instructed the European Commission to develop an Action Plan to tackle deforestation and degradation. Two years later, the EU committed to halt deforestation by 2020, and commissioned a feasibility study. Last Friday (March 16), one-year overdue, the study was finally published.

Multiple options to tackle one vast problem

So, is this long-awaited study an adequate response to what – until now – has been an intractable problem?

First, the study correctly identifies the underlying causes of deforestation in producer countries, including insecure land tenure, weak law enforcement and weak governance. It is also very attentive to possible repercussions on European small and medium enterprises.

And it offers three possible options:

  • Publish a new Communication on Deforestation without requiring any new measures
  • Introduce new, non-legislative actions as part of an Action Plan
  • Introduce new legislative action including placing mandatory due diligence on companies importing and consuming forest risk commodities

The study states that the third option “should have the greatest impact on the objective while at the same time requiring the largest effort and time on the part of the EU”.

On this, they are absolutely right: regulation is the strongest option to address the EU’s deforestation problem.

Voluntary commitments do not work

Regulation is urgently required. Voluntary commitments to zero deforestation and sustainability labels alone do not work, as a body of evidence shows. Even major companies agree, as revealed when we interviewed them last year.

The Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) is a good example.

Established in 2004 to promote the growth and use of “sustainable palm oil”, this initiative has repeatedly faced criticism, following reports from NGOs and communities showing how RSPO certified palm oil plantations destroyed primary forests and violated human rights. Such reports also show that RSPO failed to audit palm oil plantations properly and that communities frequently wait for years for a decision after complaining to RSPO dispute resolution channels.

The Amazon soy moratorium is another example. Adopted in 2006, it is the first major voluntary zero-deforestation agreement taken by the private sector in tropical forests. But its announcement caused a deforestation spike before being adopted, and it failed to address the roots of the problem, therefore, moving deforestation to other regions, such as the Cerrado. This could have been avoided with a more holistic policy intervention covering all ecosystems.

An opportunity to better trace imports

Another major problem with “forest risk commodities” is the difficulty in tracing the origin of the products.

A progress report issued by the signatories of the New York forest declaration shows that only 2% of palm oil companies and 14% of soy companies can actually trace their products back to its origin.

A regulation with mandatory due diligence requirements could change this situation, as it would require companies to fully trace their supply chain. Such a push would improve reporting requirements as well as transparency efforts. This would, in turn, help companies to face their current traceability challenges and achieve their commitments to reduce deforestation.

The feasibility study’s third option gives the EU the opportunity to establish such due diligence measures. This would send a strong signal to the market that commodities tainted with deforestation and human rights abuses are unacceptable.

Member States have started taking action

The good news is that member states have not waited for the European Commission. Some are already taking action to reduce the deforestation they cause.

In 2017, France adopted the ground-breaking ‘Devoir de Vigilance’ Law, requiring French companies to establish a risk assessment, and report and act on environmental and social damage within their supply chains, including subcontractors and suppliers all over the world.

At the Environment Council in March 2018, Germany, the Netherlands, the UK, Denmark and France, all members of the Amsterdam Declaration group, pushed member states to call on the Commission to propose, as soon as possible, an ambitious strategy to combat imported deforestation. They also encouraged other member states to step up zero-deforestation activities.

Is the EU serious about protecting forests and the local communities that depend on them?

It remains unclear whether the European Commission will follow up this study with concrete policy proposals.

The EU can make a huge difference by regulating the demand side, and France has shown that it is feasible. But it takes political will.

It also requires policy coherence, and not pushing for trade deals that could fatally undermine efforts to stamp out deforestation. The Commission is currently doing everything it can to finalise a free trade agreement with Mercosur countries, including Brazil which produces 60% of the commodities imported by the EU that are linked to illegally-sourced deforestation. Such a deal could have devastating impacts on forests and forest peoples’ rights.

This begs the question of where the Commission’s priorities lie.

It has already shown it can ensure that the fish we eat and the timber we buy is legal. It must now follow up the publication of this feasibility study with a regulation to stop EU imports of agricultural products that cause deforestation and negative social impacts.

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