To step up action on deforestation, the European Union needs to regulate

Guest blog from Nicole Polsterer, Fern

Large scale forest clearance for a soy plantation, Chaco region, Argentina, photo: Jim Wickens/2017.

On December 18 2018, in a long anticipated move, the European Commission published a roadmap announcing plans to “step up European Action against Deforestation and Forest Degradation”. The document foresees a new Communication in the second quarter of 2019 and a consultation is open for submissions until February 25.

This development is the result of many calls for ambitious action. These included a letter from Member States; a petition signed by 200,000 citizens; and calls from the European Parliament as well as the private sector for a regulation requiring companies to prove that goods placed on the EU market don’t drive human rights abuses and deforestation

This announcement also follows the publication, in March 2018, of a feasibility study offering policy options to tackle deforestation, which found that regulation would have “the greatest impact on the objective while at the same time requiring the largest effort and time on the part of the EU”.

So, is the EU Commission’s initial proposal in line with its findings and the multiples calls for ambition?

To answer bluntly: no.

Promoting sustainable transparent supply chains

The roadmap’s main objective is to develop a more “coherent and comprehensive approach” to step up EU action on deforestation. It includes a list of possible actions that will be considered in an upcoming Communication, including promoting “sustainable and transparent supply chains”, “enhancing the transparency of investment flows”, or building effective partnerships with forested countries to “support the uptake of sustainable agricultural and forestry practices” and “improve land governance”.

But it fails to expressly recommend filling gaps in the existing framework with new regulatory measures to contribute to halting, preventing and reversing deforestation.

Company action needs support

More than 450 companies in the food and agriculture sector have made commitments to stop deforesting and to respect human rights, notably in the timber and palm oil sectors. But it has become increasingly clear that these companies simply cannot achieve this goal on their own.

A Forest 500 systematic analysis of 250 companies, 150 financial institutions and 50 national and subnational jurisdictions revealed that the rate of progress by most companies is inadequate to meet the EU’s 2020 deforestation target. What’s more: there is no evidence these commitments are having the intended impact.

A report published last year by Fern and Forest Trends found that voluntary commitments are a crucial first step, but they need to be followed by government regulation to really get deforestation under control.

Government intervention would deliver a level playing field, create a political climate where commitments made can be enforced, and create legal clarity where companies could be held to account.

EU: driving deforestation

The EU consumes vast quantities of agricultural commodities, whose production is responsible for 80 per cent of global forest land clearing, and added to the fact that it is a major trading bloc, this makes the EU a natural starting point for regulation. Such measures could trigger global change.

The EU has already regulated illegal timber, illegal fishing and conflict minerals, but there is still no legislation of agricultural imports. This is why Fern calls for an Action Plan to Protect Forests and Respect Rights which includes a regulation to control the import, financing of and investment in agricultural commodities cultivated on forest land converted in violation of community tenure rights or other human rights abuses.

In exploring regulatory options, Fern recommends that the EU builds on Member State initiatives such as France’s ‘Loi sur le Devoir de Vigilance’, coupling them with lessons from the EU Timber Regulation (EUTR) and the EU Illegal Fisheries Regulation (IUU).

The focus of such a regulation could be human rights due diligence, because large-scale land conversion for agriculture often goes hand in hand with violations of community tenure rights. There is already an internationally-agreed framework that could be built on: the Voluntary Guidelines on the Governance of Tenure.

Future EU action on deforestation should not only be about promoting sustainable supply chains, it should also trigger governance reforms that increase transparency, increase participation in decision making, and stop products being grown on land stolen from communities.

The clock is ticking — the EU has only a few months to uphold its international commitment to halt deforestation by 2020.

Nicole Polsterer is Fern’s Sustainable Consumption and Production Campaigner.

Fern is a non-governmental organisation (NGO) created in 1995 to make the EU work for forests and people. Our work centres on forests and forest peoples’ rights and the issues that affect them such as EU consumption, trade, investment and climate change. All of our work is done in close collaboration with social and environmental organisations and movements across the world