The European Parliament has adopted a landmark regulation on commodities and products associated with global deforestation and forest degradation.
With the new Deforestation Regulation, the European Union Parliament seeks to ban operators from placing on the EU market and exporting from the EU products containing, fed with or made using commodities that are not deforestation-free, have not been produced in accordance with the relevant legislation of the country of production and are not covered by a due-diligence statement.
The regulation specifically targets a number of problem commodities, including cattle, cocoa, coffee, rubber, palm oil, soya and timber. Companies dealing in these products will be required to prove that their products are not sourced from deforested land or land with forest degradation, or risk heavy fines and sanctions.
With the new regulation, there is a bigger attempt to attack the problem from the consumer side of the equation. The calculation is that if you cut off the retail outlets supplying these products to millions of EU consumers, farmers in producer countries will not have the reason or resources to cut down trees.
The Deforestation Regulation will now move up to the European Union Council and if adopted into law, it will be used to combat deforestation in reliable global carbon capture and storage treasures like the Congo Basin, Amazon and Greater Mekong Rainforests.
Prior to this, the EU had also adopted measures such as the 2005 European Union Forest Law Enforcement, Governance and Trade Action Plan (FLEGT) and the promotion of sustainable forest management practices (the EU Timber Regulation 995 of 2010) to address illegal logging and related trade.
Shortly after the Deforestation Regulation text was released, Malaysia’s Minister of Plantation Industries and Commodities, Fadillah Yusof, came out guns blazing, accusing the EU of protectionism: “The (law) is unjust and serves primarily to protect a domestic oilseeds market that is inefficient and cannot compete with Malaysia’s efficient and productive palm oil exports.”
Minister Fadillah Yusof’s press statement is laughable.
The fact is that what we have witnessed over the last couple of decades with the rampant destruction of millions of hectares of forest cover for profit is quite simply untenable. Something urgent had to be done, and if anything, the proposed law does not go far enough.
Deforestation and forest degradation: the problem areas
Let us take a look at some of the destruction that the world has witnessed over the last half-century.
In Latin America, the Amazon has lost almost 20% of its rainforest. More recently, it has been losing over 10,000 acres (4,050ha) a day, a phenomenon that accelerated under former president Jair Bolsonaro. Beef is the number one driver of deforestation in the Amazon and the Washington Post recently did a number of exposés on the topic, showing that the United States of America was the biggest buyer of this product.
According to WWF, “the forest conversion it generates more than doubles that generated by the production of soy, palm oil, and wood products (the second, third, and fourth biggest drivers) combined.”
In Asia, the number one driver of deforestation is undoubtedly palm oil. Vast tracts of virgin forest have been cut down in Malaysia and Indonesia to feed the world’s addiction to palm oil (Indonesia supplies more than half of the world’s palm oil). Indonesia and other countries like Vietnam and India have also cleared swathes of forest land to set up coffee and tea estates.
Following the collapse of the International Coffee Agreement (ICA) quota system in the early 1990s, Vietnam’s coffee production skyrocketed from just under 2 million bags in the early 1990s to over 30 million bags today. Neighbouring Indonesia’s production also shot up from 3 million bags in the 90s to over 10 million bags today. The new land for coffee production came primarily from forests. Europe consumes a lot of Vietnamese and Indonesian coffee.
In Africa, deforestation is mainly driven by cocoa, palm oil and rubber. A number of countries like Cote d’Ivoire and Ghana have significantly expanded their cocoa and rubber acreage to leverage the commodity boom that started in the early 2000s.
Cocoa plantations typically belong to Africans, but deforestation for large-scale commercial rubber and palm oil farms is mainly driven by major global biodiesel players like Herakles and Socfin/Bolloré.
Socfin/Bolloré is active in Cameroon, Democratic Republic of Congo, Sao Tome & Principe, Côte d’Ivoire, Nigeria and Sierra Leone. Its products are not consumed in Africa; the primary destination markets for its biofuels are the EU market, the US and Asia.
Fossil fuels have recently become a prime driver of deforestation. The Democratic Republic of Congo has issued exploration permits to find oil in the Congo Basin following recent finds in neighbouring Uganda.
Local communities under attack
Governments pay scant attention to the needs of indigenous people and local communities when they award concessions for large-scale commercial farms in forests. Through the colonial hangover of eminent domain laws, modern states almost never recognise customary tenure and the general attitude is that customary land is free land and therefore the property of the state. For this reason, local communities are generally not compensated when evictions occur.
Land grabs are a major problem in Africa where corrupt politicians have no hesitation in carving out and selling off large tracts of land to foreign investors. In many cases, villagers just wake up one morning and find out that their land has been sold off to somebody from a country they have never even heard of. When communities resist land grabbing by big foreign interests, they are brutalised, jailed and sometimes even hunted down and murdered by their own governments.
In Cameroon, the government sold off part of a village and forest reserve to Herakles without the knowledge or support of local communities.
In Tanzania, leaders from Maasai villages in Loliondo recently petitioned 16 embassies to help “swiftly neutralise the violent situation” as tensions rise over the government’s plans to “evict thousands of pastoralists from their ancestral lands to make way for conservation, trophy hunting and safari tourism”, according to the Mail & Guardian. In this case, the buyers were from the Middle East. Nationals of United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Abu Dhabi are particularly active in East Africa.
In Madagascar, South Korea’s Daewoo Logistics has negotiated a 99-year lease on some 3.2 million acres (1.3 million hectares) of farmland that belongs to poor, defenceless villagers to produce rice for the Korean market.
There are stories like this everywhere in Africa.
Why we must protect our forests
Forests are incredibly important for a number of reasons. Firstly, forests help to filter air and filter water.
Secondly, they are important for carbon capture and storage. It is widely recognised that the world’s forests hold over one trillion tonnes of carbon dioxide. Together with peatlands, they play a role that geoengineering may never be able to replicate.
Although we have always paid only little attention to the Sahel-Sudan region, new research by an international team including Nasa scientists found that the over 10 billion trees in this area store just under 1 billion metric tonnes of carbon. This seems small, but it is still an important asset for humanity.
Thirdly, the forest is the home of many indigenous communities including the Maya (Amazon) and the Baka (Gabon, Congo Brazzaville, Cameroon and Congo DRC), These communities rely on forests for food, sustenance, medication, etc.
Fourthly, forests are important areas of biodiversity. With every hectare that is cleared, the world loses many insects, animals and microorganisms, sometimes forever. Many orang-utan shelters have sprung up in Indonesia to care for orang-utans displaced by deforestation, but still unknown is the number of orang-utans or other less visible but equally important species that have died at the hands of farm workers.
Imagine living in a world in which we have lost most of our insects and we have to resort to the absurd spectacle that plays out in the US every year, with bee entrepreneurs shipping their bees from one farm to another to help pollinate crops. How sustainable is this?
A global effort is essential
We know why forests are disappearing every day: consumers in developed markets are addicted to cheap coffee and beef. If the world were to suddenly cut off cheap beef, coffee and soy imports, that would work miracles for forests.
It is difficult to gauge what impact the Deforestation Regulation is going to have at this stage for an important reason: many parts of the developing world, especially emerging economies, already have the capacity to absorb some of the products that the EU is going to cut off. The EU Parliament’s efforts are incredibly important — but the world must work together for any significant, long-lasting improvement to happen.
Senator Ajuoh Honoré from the Social Democratic Front party in Cameroon’s Upper House of Assembly believes that only a global compact can roll back deforestation: “Tough measures by some blocs are important, but we need multilateralism — we need the world to come together to save our rain forests. Unless this is done, then the EU’s decision would have been in vain. What stops a permit holder who used to sell to the EU from simply shifting their business to China? That is the real issue!”
There is a growing demand for edible oils in Africa where countries imported over eight million tonnes of palm oil in 2020. Following the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Indonesia limited exports of palm oil exports, a sign that it can absorb a lot of its production.
Similarly, African timber, which used to go mainly to Europe, has witnessed a rise in demand from Asia, especially China that imports over $3-billion worth of tropical timber from Congo Basin rainforest countries annually. Every day, the people of Dolizie in the Republic of Congo and Batouri in Cameroon witness helplessly as their tropical trees are cut down by the hundreds and shipped out on logging trucks.
These developments highlight the need for the world to work together for a global solution. The COP28 final document, Section XIV paragraph 47 states that: “In the context of the provision of adequate and predictable support to developing country Parties, Parties should collectively aim to slow, halt and reverse forest cover and carbon loss, in accordance with national circumstances, consistently with the ultimate objective of the Convention, as stated in its Article 2”.
This is a call for the world to emulate the strong measures that the EU is putting in place. As Africa’s regional economic communities work to build the African Continental Free Trade Area, they must also build strong measures to protect forests in all their decisions. DM