Relying on green labels to satisfy our thirst for the products of deforestation would be a disaster (commentary)



  • New promises on forests at COP26 will only make sense if they are accompanied by concrete actions. A key test will take place shortly after the end of the conference.
  • Deforestation and associated human rights violations are driven by foreign demand for agricultural products like palm oil, soybeans and beef. They will not be stopped until this request is stopped. New draft EU legislation – due to be released next week – could cut off one of the biggest sources of that demand.
  • However, as policymakers debate the finer points of the law, such as the products it will cover, none of them will matter if they don’t tackle a larger problem: flawed “independent certification” systems that it would seem to rely on, whether or not they have a formal “green lane”.
  • This article is a commentary. The views expressed are those of the author, not necessarily Mongabay.

We cannot expect the forest countries to stop the bulldozers if we continue to pay for fuel. Yet this is what we will continue to do if the EU does not apply its new law correctly.

Agribusiness is by far the main driver of forest loss. In Southeast Asia, forests are razed to make way for vast monocultures of oil palms, rubber trees and acacias. In Latin America, for cattle grazing and soybeans. In most cases, the goods produced on these lands are destined for export. Among the biggest consumers are the countries of the rich world.

The world has now realized this problem. But the new UK-led ‘Forests, Agriculture, Commodities and Trade’ (FACT) initiative launched with great fanfare at the COP is little more than a speech. Its goals of “exploring options” and “building understanding” show no appreciation for the urgency of the crisis facing the planet. It’s so meaningless that even Jair Bolsonaro’s Brazil – the most openly pro-deforestation administration on the planet – was happy to join.

For this reason, what happens soon after the cups and plates are cleared in Glasgow conference rooms is likely to be far more important to forests than any promises made during that time. The 17the In November, the EU is expected to issue a new bill to address the massive damage the bloc is suffering abroad as a result of its consumption of risky forest products like beef, soybeans, palm oil, wood and leather. If successful, this could be revolutionary, paving the way for other key markets to follow, the first step in finally cutting off fuel to bulldozers.

Other important markets are also moving in the same direction. A similar bill has been introduced in the UK and the US. But the EU is a much larger market for the commodities involved, and its approach is more ambitious. It is therefore extremely important to do the right thing.

There are many ways it could go wrong. Environmental and human rights groups around the world have campaigned in recent months on many crucial issues, such as products covered by the law, the definition of forests, the fight against past deforestation , how indigenous rights are treated and whether funding as well as consumption is included. To give just one example, it looks like the law will not include leather – thus doing nothing to address the way the EU’s auto giants are currently driving the illegal destruction of the forest home to a ‘no tribe’. contacted ”.

It is important to do these things well. But such debates could turn out to be moot if a much more fundamental problem with the planned law is not addressed. It does not matter what the law includes and what it does not include, if it is not applied. And if the past is a guide, it will not be.

The new EU law uses as a model an existing law, the EU Timber Regulation (EUTR). This law, intended to prevent the consumption of illegally felled timber abroad, has been in place since 2013. But it has not worked.

Deforestation in West Kalimantan, Indonesia on land likely to be converted to oil palm plantation. Image by Rhett A. Butler / Mongabay.

Compared to the previous legislation intended to deal with ethical issues concerning trade in commodities, the EUTR was truly revolutionary. He launched a two-pronged approach, in which a general ban on purchasing timber of illegal origin was coupled with a parallel obligation for importers to ensure that the risks of violating this ban were reduced to a level ” negligible ”.

Because it is so difficult for European authorities to know for sure whether goods have broken laws abroad, the second part of the law, “due diligence”, is crucial, as it reverses the burden of evidence. The first leaked EU bills suggest it will follow the same approach. It’s good news. The problem lies in how due diligence is applied in practice.

Earthsight has been monitoring the implementation of the EUTR since day one. What we have found, time and time again, is that the authorities’ biggest demand for due diligence is the purchase of timber that has been “certified” as legal and sustainable by one of the many. global green labels. As a result, the use of these diets has exploded. They now cover about a third of the world’s production forests. Yet these certification systems are fundamentally flawed. As a result, they repeatedly stamped illegal and high-risk timber.

In 2018, Earthsight revealed how illegal timber from Ukraine bearing the imprimatur of the world’s largest green timber label, FSC, flowed into Europe. In 2020, we showed how the timber from this century’s biggest illegal timber scam in Russia was laundered by FSC’s biggest competitor, PEFC, and 100,000 tonnes entered the EU. In 2021, we exposed another scandal involving an FSC-certified forest in Siberia, where the illegal logging of 4 million trees by a corrupt politician had gone unnoticed by listeners. The wood has found its way into IKEA children’s furniture, including those sold in the EU and the US.

The reasons why certification systems cannot guarantee EUTR compliance are written in their DNA. First and foremost, the burden of proof with certification systems, including the FSC, is the complete reverse of that required by the EUTR. Certification schemes assume that companies are innocent until proven guilty, while the EUTR (and the expected wider EU deforestation law) requires ‘negligible risk’. Auditors used this excuse to take no action after Earthsight revealed that several FSC-certified companies in Ukraine were formally investigated for high-level corruption. They quoted him again when explaining how they ignored all publicly documented court cases involved in the Siberia case study. The FSC Association Policy specifically states that companies can stay inside the tent even when the “preponderance of evidence” suggests they are guilty of massive illegal logging or serious human rights violations. man.

Second, certification systems don’t even deliver what they claim. Riddled with structural flaws and conflicts of interest, and captured by industry, they systematically fail to detect abuse of illegal timber and rights by certified companies.

A wood yard in a wood processing plant. Photo credit: Rhett A. Butler

In July 2021, the EU issued official guidelines, approved by the authorities of the member states, making it clear that certification systems cannot be invoked to ensure the legality of Ukrainian timber. Companies must be forced to do more if they want to continue importing timber from there. But the guidelines are not binding, and certification issues are not limited to Ukraine.

The week before the COP, 34 NGOs from around the world sent an unprecedented open letter to FSC, calling on it to make immediate changes to its systems to adequately reflect the global deforestation crisis.

Meanwhile, suspect certified timber continues to flow into Europe. The fact that the EU has not learned the broader lesson from the case of Ukraine is also clear from the flawed study on the use of certification in the EUTR that it commissioned and finalized earlier this year. . This study was meant to judge the extent to which certification systems could ensure compliance with the law, but completely ignored the fundamental difference in the burden of proof between the two. As a result, he gave a false positive assessment of the value of the schemes. Perhaps not surprisingly, given that the company that wrote the report receives millions of dollars a year to audit logging and lumber companies against these same certification programs.

A recently leaked draft of the new European deforestation law does not give certification programs a formal “green lane”. But neither did the EUTR, and in practice it made no difference. Although they clearly cannot guarantee compliance, EU authorities continue to accept faulty green labels or suspicious documents issued by governments of source countries. Why? Perhaps because they do not want to accept the reality that to apply the law correctly would mean completely blocking all imports from certain countries. It doesn’t appear to be something authorities are ready to consider – perhaps because of pressure from billion-dollar European companies that depend on this timber.

What turned out to be a terminal problem for wood will be a worse problem for soybeans, beef or palm oil. Most of the risky forest products that the new law seeks to address already have their own “green labels”. As a major study published by Greenpeace earlier this year showed, these are even more imperfect than those in wood.

Without a stronger will on the part of the European authorities to treat these regimes for what they are, the new law will only trigger their expansion. It will certainly not achieve its goal of preventing the EU from continuing to drive deforestation and human rights abuses abroad. Given the urgency of the planetary emergency, the EU cannot afford to wait and correct the law later. It has to be fair from the start. Anything less, and the forests it seeks to protect will be doomed.

Sam Lawson is the director of Earthsight.

Certification, Climate change, Commentary, Deforestation, Environmental law, Environmental policy, Forests, International trade, Law enforcement, Tropical forests, Sustainability, Timber, Timber laws


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