The EU must stand strong in the face of industry pressure to protect the world’s forests

The EU is on the verge of making a once-in-a-generation move to tackle global deforestation. But industry forces are trying to derail it, writes Julia Christian.
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By Julia Christian

Julia Christian is a campaigner for Fern NGO and a lawyer specialising in climate and development

12 Apr 2022

Last year saw a milestone in the long campaign to end the European Union’s role in destroying the world’s tropical forests. 

On 17 November 2021, the European Commission finally released its proposal for a regulation on deforestation-free products. If passed, it will mean that – for the first time – companies will be legally required to guarantee that the products they place on the EU market are free from deforestation and forest degradation.

The need for this regulation has been painfully clear for years. Momentum for the EU to act gathered slowly at first, but recently it has grown irresistible.

Pressure has come from campaigners, progressive politicians and EU citizens, 87 per cent of whom want new laws to ensure that the food they eat and the products they buy don’t drive global deforestation, according to a 2019 YouGov Poll commissioned by the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA), Fern, Greenpeace and the World Wildlife Fund (WWF).  

Tropical forests are being razed around the world at an alarming rate. The principal cause of this destruction is to convert forests into agricultural land to produce beef, soya, palm oil, cocoa and other such commodities. 

The EU’s complicity is well-documented. Collectively, Member States are the world’s second biggest importers of agricultural goods which cause deforestation, much of it illegal. The EU’s imports of these so-called “forest-risk commodities” don’t just drive deforestation, they fuel human rights abuses, from child labour to land grabs.

The proposed regulation is therefore a once-in-a-generation chance for the EU to help save the world’s forests. An opportunity which – as the last remaining primary forests vanish, and the climate crisis accelerates –- we cannot afford to miss.

The proposed regulation is therefore a once-in-a-generation chance for the EU to help save the world’s forests. An opportunity which – as the last remaining primary forests vanish and the climate crisis accelerates – we cannot afford to miss

Yet already industry actors are attempting to hollow out the regulation from the inside. 

On 3 February, for instance, five organisations representing some of Europe’s biggest cocoa, coffee, palm oil and soy traders issued a statement challenging key elements of the regulation. 

Specifically, they claimed that the Commission’s proposal risks damaging the lives of smallholders, who they say, “will be negatively affected if the provisions [in the proposed regulation] are not sufficiently adapted to encourage their participation in deforestation-free supply chains”. 

The industry letter was written by the European lobby groups representing major traders in agricultural commodities, including Cargill and others. They expressed specific concerns about “requirements along the supply chain, in particular the element of connecting geo-localisation data from farm plot-level to the placing on the EU market”. 

Organisations representing more than 34,000 cocoa smallholders in Côte d’Ivoire – the world’s largest cocoa producer, which has seen more than 80 per cent of its forests disappear in the last 50 years – rejected these claims. 

In an open letter to European policymakers, they said that these industry representatives did not speak on their behalf. One of the letter’s signatories, Bakary Traoré, executive director of the non-governmental organisation IDEF and lead of the Civil Society Organisation Working Group on Transparency in the Cocoa Sector in Côte d'Ivoire, said that the industry letter was “more about safeguarding the companies’ stranglehold on the sector, than improving the lives of smallholders”.

To be truly effective, the regulation must also include a clearer plan to support smallholder farmers and help them comply

He added: “The industry players who are trying to prevent a traceability system involving the geolocation of plots and the identification of each producer, are in reality campaigning for nothing to change”.  

But the success of the regulation doesn’t just depend on stopping industry interests from weakening it. 
As it moves into the negotiation phase in the European Parliament and Council, there are also key elements which must be strengthened. 

For example, it should require companies to comply with international standards on customary tenure rights rather than national laws. The flaw in the latter is obvious: consider how, for example, the Bolsonaro government in Brazil has stripped away protections for Indigenous rights in recent years. 

To be truly effective, the regulation must also include a clearer plan to support smallholder farmers and help them comply. The European Commission should conduct an assessment of their compliance needs and ensure there is a funded support programme to meet them.

It should also work with producer countries and companies to ensure farmers are paid a sufficient price for what they grow, and to address governance issues driving deforestation on the ground. The EU could start by taking up the recent proposition of the governments of Ghana and Cote d’Ivoire for an Economic Pact for Sustainable Cocoa. 

If the EU can do all this – while withstanding pressure from those forces trying to thwart it – the regulation can truly fulfil the hopes of those, including Fern, who have campaigned so long for it: acting as a powerful brake on global deforestation and social injustice in commodity supply chains, and inspiring other major powers, such as China and the US, to follow suit.