Commission urged to investigate EU's role in illegal deforestation

Policymakers have met to discuss NGOs' findings that EU imported €6bn worth of products linked to illegal deforestation.

By Julie Levy-Abegnoli

02 Apr 2015

Last month, UK-based environmental NGO Fern published a report that revealed that the EU imported €6bn worth of goods linked to illegal deforestation between 2000 and 2012.

These include leather, palm oil, beef and soy from countries such as Indonesia and Brazil, which were produced on land where forests were cleared without permission, sometimes by setting fire to them.

In a follow-up report, the organisation outlined recommendations for policymakers, which were discussed earlier this week at the European parliament.

Kicking off the conference, ALDE MEP Catherine Bearder noted that, "the evidence is clear - our consumption habits are leading to biodiversity loss around the world".

Fern's latest publication acknowledges that some companies, such as L'Oréal and Unilever, have taken steps to address the issue, having "made public pledges that their products will not contain embodied deforestation".

Unfortunately, a lack of transparency means that it is impossible for outsiders to properly assess any progress made, and the report highlights that companies "often ignore the widespread illegal issuing of permits and licences for deforestation and agricultural activity".

"The bottom line is that a country must have the authority to declare what is legal and what is not" - Karl Falkenberg

The environmental campaigners have now called on corporations to "open up their supply chains to full scrutiny and to commission independent public audits of their performance on land rights and deforestation".

In turn, they believe that EU authorities "should require such audits and make it a criminal offence to facilitate or invest in projects that lead to illegal forest loss or land human rights violations".

Encouraging the production and use of biofuels has been high up on the EU's list of priorities to combat climate change, but Fern warns that they are not as environmentally friendly as it seems. 

According to the report, the production of commodities like sugar and palm oil "can cause indirect emissions that are greater than the emissions from burning the petrol it replaces".

To counter this, the analysis suggests that "subsidies for land-based biofuels should be eliminated and targets should be restricted to biofuels derived entirely from non-land sources".

Additionally, Fern's study found that EU-based finance institutions have loaned nearly €16bn to agricultural companies based in developing countries, and that "three of the top five national destinations for these investments are the deforestation hotspots of Indonesia, Brazil and Malaysia".

The forest advocacy group believes Brussels should strengthen its financial regulations to "specifically target investment in destructive commercial agriculture".

It also suggests giving people more information about the products they consume - as it stands, "most processed products do not have to show the origin of their ingredients and meat does not have to indicate where the feed given to the animal came from". 

In other words, you could be eating something derived from illegal deforestation without even knowing.


FLEGT and governance

The EU's current flagship policy on the matter, the forest law enforcement, governance and trade (FLEGT) action plan, dates back to 2003. Companies importing timber into the EU must conduct due diligence to make sure it has not been obtained illegally and if it has, it will not be traded.

In order to strengthen FLEGT, Europe has entered into a number of voluntary partnership agreements (VPAs) with countries that produce timber. VPAs are "drawn up with community and stakeholder engagement, and also aim to ensure land rights".

However, once they are signed, "individual exporters no longer have to demonstrate due diligence on each consignment, because the timber is assumed to be legal".

Fern lists six countries that have so far entered into VPAs with the EU - "Indonesia, Cameroon, Ghana, Liberia, the Central African Republic and the Republic of Congo; nine more are being negotiated".

"Maybe the best response [to Fern's findings] would be for the commission to carry out an expert report in cooperation with NGOs" - Yannick Jadot

The NGO has called for an extension of FLEGT's rules, "so that they cover agricultural commodities, starting with major ones such as palm oil, soy and beef".

The UK organisation does caution, however, that "this would not ensure zero deforestation on its own, but it would ensure legality, which is often the major barrier to achieving zero deforestation".


Brussels' response

Karl Falkenberg, director general of the commission's DG environment, said "the biggest problem currently is the absence of governance in developing countries".

The commission official "cannot see a different solution but to rely on the exporting countries - this is what we have tried to do with FLEGT, to work with authorities in exporting countries and see if they are certain that what is being exported is being legally traded".

In his view, "the bottom line is that a country must have the authority to declare what is legal and what is not".

In closing remarks, Greens/EFA MEP Yannick Jadot suggested that "maybe the best response [to Fern's findings] would be for the commission to carry out an expert report in cooperation with NGOs".

He also underlined that "the more agriculture trade is free, the less it will take into account environmental concerns - the way global trade is driving the agricultural model is towards more consumption and industrial farming, not sustainability".


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