Comment: What the EU must do to address its role in deforestation and meet its UN commitments

Wednesday, October 26th, 2016

By Nicole Polsterer, Sustainable Consumption and Production Campaigner for Fern

In September 2015, world leaders committed to a set of 17 ‘Sustainable Development Goals’ (SDGs). The goals should frame the way these countries act on issues of development, environment, social justice and climate for the next fifteen years. The EU is now deliberating on how to meet its SDG commitments. What is clear is that it will not meet them without concerted action to reduce its role in the trade, production and consumption of products grown on land that has been deforested, often illegally.

A growing problem

Deforestation is responsible for an estimated ten per cent of global greenhouse gas emissions,  and the scientific evidence is increasingly clear that keeping climate change from becoming globally catastrophic will not be possible unless forests are protected. Even drastic cuts in fossil fuel emissions will not be enough unless forests are protected as well. Forests also play a vital role in providing clean water, food, and in the livelihoods of an estimated 1.6 billion of the poorest people on the planet. The ongoing deforestation disaster threatens the rights and food security of these people.

Recent studies have shown that seventy per cent of recent tropical deforestation was caused by commercial agriculture, that most of this deforestation was illegal, and that most of this illegal deforestation was to produce products for export.

The EU plays a central role in the demand for the products driving forest loss; between 1990 and 2008, it was the leading importer of commodities linked to deforestation (Cuypers et al.). In 2015, Fern revealed an even more damning picture, estimating that almost a quarter of the total world trade in products grown or reared on illegally deforested land entered the EU. Member states are estimated to be importing EUR 6 billion-worth of palm oil, soy, beef and leather each year which were produced on land illegally cleared of forest for the purpose.

Deforestation for commercial agriculture not only contributes to environmental, climate and local community crises, it also reinforces corruption and undermines those who are trying to improve the way forest land is owned and managed for the benefit of communities. Allowing this to continue increasingly tilts the balance of power towards corrupt vested interests and weakens the hand of local communities, forest defenders and their allies.

Defending forests is dangerous. In 2015, 185 environmental defenders were assassinated, according to a Global Witness report. Of these, 35 were defending land against agribusiness and logging. In Brazil (the origin of more than half of the total value of the commodities linked to illegal deforestation imported by the EU) ranchers and illegal loggers are cited as the main perpetrators of these killings.

What must the EU do?

Decades of experience and evidence has demonstrated that the only way to tackle illegal logging in the long run is to improve governance. That means, among other things, breaking through corruption and improving the quality and availability of information available about what’s really going on in the forests, building the capacity of local and national actors, increasing cooperation across government departments and strengthening forest sector accountability.

The EU’s flagship programme to tackle illegal logging, called Forest Law Enforcement, Governance and Trade (FLEGT), has successfully linked improving governance in tropical forested countries with measures to limit demand for illegal timber in the EU. Emerging results suggest an improvement in forest governance and a reduction in illegal logging in a number of countries.

Now the EU needs to turn its attention to what has become the biggest driver of illegal deforestation – commercial agriculture. The FLEGT approach provides precedent for how this can be pursued in a way that improves the transnational and collaborative approach to these problems.

A coalition of environmental and human rights organisations has issued a call for a new EU Action Plan to tackle deforestation and protect rights. A new Action Plan needs to learn lessons from FLEGT about linking on-the-ground governance improvements in producing countries with measures aimed at stripping deforestation out of the supply chains that are currently delivering tainted goods to our supermarket shelves.

The European Commission has commissioned a feasibility study of just such an Action Plan, anticipated for early 2017. Before then, the Commission is expected to reveal an outline for how the EU will meet their commitment to the 17 Sustainable Development Goals. Action to deal with the EU’s role in deforestation and human rights conflicts related to commercial agriculture could, and should, be a significant part of the plan.

Three of the SDGs in particular cannot be meaningfully addressed without such action.

Sustainable consumption and production patterns (SDG 12) will never be ensured unless the EU is able to strip deforestation out of its supply chains, which would be a core element of what NGOs are calling for. It is increasingly clear that it will be impossible to combat climate change and its impacts (SDG 13) unless forests are protected against conversion to agricultural land, in addition to drastic cuts to carbon emissions. Keeping forests standing and functioning naturally as well as maintaining other natural ecosystems would dramatically slow the loss of biodiversity, enable forest dependent people to maintain their livelihoods and, through avoided emissions from deforestation and carbon sequestration, is a major part of the solution to climate change. Runaway demand for products grown or reared on cleared forest land needs to be reduced if forest ecosystems are to be restored and sustainably managed (SDG 15).

Commercial agriculture has emerged as the gravest threat to forests and forest communities of this decade, and the EU is contributing to the problem. It also has an opportunity to be part of the solution – starting with recognising this in its plans for meeting the SDGs.


Cuypers D et al., ‘The impact of EU consumption on deforestation: comprehensive analysis of the impact of EU consumption on deforestation’, Technical Report 2013-063 (Final Report), European Commission, Brussels, Belgium. doi: 10.2779/82226