Imported deforestation

The European Union wants to ban destructive imports

Companies that import palm oil, soya, coffee, cocoa, timber, rubber or beef into Europe will have to ensure that these products do not come from deforested areas. The future European regulation appears to be a real step forward for the protection of the environment, but it could prove to be ineffective. Explanations.

Europeans are finally tackling the impact of their consumption on deforestation in other regions of the world. On December 6, the European Parliament and the Council of Europe agreed on a future regulation (1) aimed at combating imported deforestation. The text targets palm oil, beef, soy, coffee, cocoa, timber (including charcoal) and rubber, which contribute a large part to the disappearance of tropical and equatorial forests. It is regrettable that corn and biodiesel were not included in the list (France was not in favor of it), but this exemption should be reassessed.

In the future, companies will have to ensure (so-called “strict due diligence”) that the products they import and market in the European Union (EU) do not contribute to the destruction or degradation of forests. For this, they will be required to “collect the geographical coordinates of the land” on which the products they market are grown, in order to ensure that “only zero deforestation products enter the EU market”, explains the Commission. The countries will be classified according to the risk of deforestation (high, standard, low) and the imports will be controlled more or less frequently according to this level of risk.

This law, a world first, elicited enthusiastic reactions from negotiators, as well as environmental activists. It is indeed urgent to act to protect these fragile natural environments. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), 420 million hectares of forest, or about 10% of the world’s forests, disappeared between 1990 and 2020. This is more than the surface from the EU…

Gaps To Be Filled

Certainly, the European initiative is going in the right direction, but it suffers from several limits. First of all, shortcomings weaken its scope:

  • financial institutions are exempted from ensuring that their investments do not contribute to deforestation;
  • the protection of indigenous populations is very insufficient;
  • only forests are concerned, whereas other wooded lands with a high level of biodiversity or carbon storage should also be included, such as the Brazilian Cerrado, the bush, the savannah or peat bogs ‒ Brussels will have to decide on this within a deadline one to two years after the entry into force of the law.

“Bleached” Illegal Productions

Imported deforestation

Moreover, this law depends on how it will be applied in the countries of origin of the products. François-Michel Le Tourneau, geographer at the CNRS, illustrates these difficulties with the Brazilian case. Thus, how to associate such a carcass of meat or such a shipment of soybeans with a given plot, even when “much of the deforestation that occurs in Brazil, in particular in the Amazon, is already illegal? Products from it are already banned. If they are put on the market, it is by hiding themselves, in particular by pretending that they come from regions where they would be legal ”, in particular via false certificates, explains the researcher on the information site The Conversation.

Another problem is the reference date that has been chosen: plots deforested before the end of 2019 are not prohibited, which means that only “4.3% of the Amazonian agricultural area would be prohibited from export to the EU at the end of 2019. ‘actual hour “.

Countries Without Concern

But the most serious pitfall is the separation of exports into two markets:

  • the first outlet for the EU, from land that complies with European requirements;
  • and the second outlet, coming from recently deforested areas and intended for countries with little regard for environmental conditions, like China.

However, the latter is now Brazil’s main customer, importing 70% of its soybeans, 56% of its beef and 43% of its soybean meal. The EU, meanwhile, imports only 14% of Brazilian soybeans and 9% of meat – and still 45% of oil cake. It is therefore not, by far, the main market of the Latin American giant. If its other customers are not concerned about deforestation, then the impact of this regulation will remain limited, underlines François-Michel Le Tourneau.

With this future law, the EU is taking a big step in the fight against deforestation. But it would also be appropriate for it to pay a payment for environmental services to local producers who do not clear land. And that it works to reduce its own consumption, before imposing conditions on other countries…

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