Billions worth of EU imports linked to illegal deforestation

Written by Julie Levy-Abegnoli on 8 April 2015 in News
News

The EU is responsible for 'a quarter' of products linked to illegal deforestation, reveals NGO Fern.

According to Fern's report, "the EU is one of the largest importers of products resulting from illegal deforestation [and in] 2012 imported €6bn of soy, beef, leather and palm oil which were grown or reared on land illegally cleared of forests in the tropics - almost a quarter of the total world trade".

To get a better idea of what this represents, the document says that "one football pitch of forest was illegally felled every two minutes in the period 2000-12 in order to supply the EU with these commodities".

While it is easy to spot products containing beef or soy, the same cannot be said for palm oil, which according to the world wildlife foundation can be found in lipstick, chocolate, shampoo and pizza dough, among others. 

In Brazil, it was found that "90 per cent of the deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon during 2000-09 was illegal".

"One football pitch of forest was illegally felled every two minutes in the period 2000-12 in order to supply the EU with soy, beef, leather and palm oil" - Fern

Elsewhere in Latin America, for example in Argentina, Bolivia and Paraguay, "the available evidence suggests that most such deforestation is also illegal".

In Indonesia, "80 per cent of [oil palm] plantations had cleared forest without the necessary permissions from the ministry of forestry". Moreover, "it is common for companies to illegally use fire to clear forest, and these fires commonly extend well beyond licence boundaries".

The country's government is well aware of this, with the report saying that "in August 2014 the minister of forestry publically admitted that half of the oil palm plantations in Riau - the province with the largest area of such plantations in Indonesia - were illegal".

In Malaysia, "in 2011, leaked official documents showed that some 200,000 hectares had been leased for oil palm developments to companies connected to the chief minister, for payments which appear to be far below true value".

In some countries, illegal deforestation has just begun. In the Congo Basin, for example, recently announced rubber and oil palm developments are "expected to increase the deforestation rate in the three countries affected - Cameroon, Republic of Congo and Gabon - by between 12 (Cameroon) and 140 (Gabon) per cent".

According to Fern's investigation, "of the three largest such projects to have actually broken ground to date, two have been found by official independent monitors and government inspectors to be operating illegally".

In Papua New Guinea - "one of the world's largest exporters of tropical timber" - it was revealed that "90 per cent" of forest clearance licenses "were obtained through fraudulent or corrupt means".

This can mean a license being granted without the consent of landowners, in exchange for a bribe, or for a protected area, for example. 

It can also mean the perpetrators have failed to pay agreed compensation to local communities, pollution of rivers with debris, or even taking down trees without a license.

The EU's role

And while commission officials and MEPs have repeatedly highlighted their commitment for the Union to become a world leader in terms of climate change and sustainable development - particularly ahead of the COP21 summit in Paris later this year - it turns out the EU is vastly complicit in this illegal tropical deforestation.

Fern underlines that "the EU is the destination for 30 per cent of all palm oil exports, and nearly a fifth of all soy exports, from tropical forest countries. The EU is also one of the world's largest importers of beef and leather from the tropics".

"If the EU is to succeed in its goal of helping halt deforestation, the first thing it needs to do is stop contributing to that deforestation through its consumption of forest-risk commodities" - Fern

The NGO's research reveals that "the EU imported €6bn of beef, leather, soy and oil palm primary products linked to illegal deforestation in 2012 - an average of more than €10 for every EU citizen".

In total, it is estimated that "a little under a quarter (by value) of all agricultural commodities from illegal deforestation in international trade are destined for the EU, including 27 per cent of all soy, 18 per cent of all palm oil, 15 per cent of all beef and 31 per cent of all leather".

And this is not simply an environmental issue. In contributing to illegal deforestation, the EU - winner of the 2012 Nobel peace prize - is also contributing to human rights abuses. 

Fern's report reveals that those attempting to put an end to this activity "have been threatened, attacked or even killed. Many of these people are representatives of the communities whose land is being taken and whose livelihoods are being threatened". 

Parliament reacts

MEPs said they were shocked by the findings, with UK deputy Paul Brannen commenting, "unfortunately, we are all complicit in this 'embodied deforestation' as a result of our collective and ever increasing demand for more meat, cosmetics and leather".

"The EU imported €6bn of beef, leather, soy and oil palm primary products linked to illegal deforestation in 2012 - an average of more than €10 for every EU citizen" - Fern

He added, "particularly troubling is growing deforestation induced by forest conversion into palm oil plantations which subsequently supply the EU biofuels market".Yannick Jadot, a vice-chair of parliament's international trade committee, underlined that, "deforestation and indirect land use changes (ILUC) account for around 25 per cent of greenhouse gas emissions worldwide, partly due to European consumption".

The Green MEP urged the EU to use this information to broker a deal with other countries ahead of COP21, "so that reluctant states stop using forests in calculations for their emissions reductions efforts".

Catherine Bearder, who will be co-hosting an event for the launch of the report later this month, said, "an EU action plan is desperately needed to reduce deforestation and ensure that all imports into Europe are legally and sustainably sourced".

Next steps

There is already an EU action plan on forest law enforcement, governance and trade in place, but Fern highlights that it was set up at a time when illegal deforestation was linked to a demand for timber and wood products, whereas now "illegal timber comes from illegal conversion of forests for commercial agriculture, and the trade in the products grown or reared in place of those forests is the principal driver".

Additionally, the EU has pledged "to help reduce gross tropical forest loss by 50 per cent by 2020 and halt global forest loss altogether by 2030". It has also endorsed the New York declaration on forests, which "includes a specific commitment to helping tackle deforestation stemming from the production of agricultural commodities such as palm oil, soy, paper and beef".

Clearly, further legislation is required, but as Fern points out, "if the EU is to succeed in its goal of helping halt deforestation, the first thing it needs to do is stop contributing to that deforestation through its consumption of forest-risk commodities".

 

About the author

Julie Levy-Abegnoli is a journalist and editorial assistant for the Parliament Magazine

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