In historic victory for forests, EU approves anti-deforestation law
New regulation leaves Cerrado and other biomes unprotected for now, but guarantees traceability to origin and should set a precedent for the market
In a negotiation that dragged on until 4 am, the European Union approved on Tuesday (6) a regulation that bans commodities produced in deforested areas from entering the European market after December 31st, 2020. Although it contains several flaws, the new regulation is a milestone for forests: for the first time, commodity buyers will be able to audit sellers and reject meat, soy, timber, rubber, cocoa, coffee, and palm oil from any property with deforestation or degradation, legal or illegal.
The news is especially encouraging for the Brazilian Amazon: Europe is the second largest consumer market for Brazilian commodities, and strict regulation on deforestation by the bloc is likely to be used as a reference by other importers, such as China and the United States. This tends to move the private sector and facilitate the achievement of the goal announced by the president-elect, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, of zero deforestation and zero conversion in the country by 2030.
The approval one day before COP15, the UN biodiversity conference in Montreal, also sends an important signal for the negotiations of a global goal to protect the Earth’s natural ecosystems.
While crucial for forests, European legislation has failed with other biomes. The text approved in a “trialogue” between the European Commission, the European Council (representing member states), and the European Parliament rejected the parliament’s proposal to include “other wooded land” in the audits. As a result, 74% of the Brazilian Cerrado will be unprotected. It is especially severe because the Cerrado is the biome that produces most of the commodities exported to the EU.
By restricting production with deforestation in the Amazon, the Atlantic Forest, and the Chaco, the most typically forested biomes in South America, the new regulation could cause “leakage” of deforestation and conversion to the Cerrado, increasing its destruction. The text promises to review the law one year after it comes into effect to evaluate the inclusion of other wooded lands and other biomes in two years. The accountability of banks and other institutions that finance deforestation and conversion was also left out for review. Between 2016 and 2020 alone, European banks profited €401 million in business with companies that deforest tropical forests.
Another point that suffered in the final agreement was human rights. Absent from the European Commission’s original proposal, presented in November 2021, the inclusion of a mention of human rights generated intense pressure from the indigenous movement. Parliament advanced on this point, but in the “trialogue,” it was weakened. Despite the inclusion of Free, Prior, and Informed Consent (FPIC) in the definition of the legislation of the country of production, the text limits the scope of human rights to national laws and makes no reference to relevant international conventions, such as Convention 169 of the ILO (International Labor Organization).
The legislation’s cut-off date, December 2020, means that audits by buyers (called due diligence in market jargon) on sellers will have to refuse products grown or raised in deforested areas after this date. This will reward, for example, producers who deforested halfway through the Bolsonaro government’s term. In Brazil, the soy moratorium already audits properties since 2006, and there was a technical condition to move back the cut-off date to before 2020. The European Commission’s original proposal prevailed over the European Council’s, which wanted 2023.
Despite the loopholes, the new legislation innovates by dealing with one of the essential points to combat deforestation: traceability. When the legislation goes into effect, operators will be obliged to provide the geolocation of their goods up to the polygon (parcel of land) where they were produced. The agribusiness lobby, inside and outside Europe, has tried every way to exclude geolocation from the law, claiming increased costs for producers. In a public position to the EU, the Climate Observatory and other civil society organizations argued that this claim is flimsy, since the soy industry in Brazil has been practicing traceability to the polygon for more than 15 years – and remote sensing technology allows doing it anywhere in the world.
However, there was an exemption for small producers (up to 4 hectares) and the approval of a rule dividing countries into high, medium, and low deforestation risk categories. The latter will be rewarded with simplified auditing and fewer inspections by the buyers.
“The approval of the European legislation is an important milestone in the fight to end deforestation. Although it should have included the Cerrado to have a broader effect in Brazil, it was important that the final text recognized and included the right of indigenous peoples. For Brazil, it is a clear and unequivocal message that the only way for agribusiness to prosper is to eliminate deforestation and conversion from production chains as soon as possible,” said Maurício Voivodic, executive director of WWF Brazil.
“The regulation should serve as a buffer, a kind of environmental safeguard, to unblock the EU-Mercosur agreement. And the result of this for the Cerrado will be a greater acceleration of deforestation and violation of the rights of traditional peoples and communities,” said Guilherme Eidt, Public Policy Advisor for ISPN (Institute for Society, Population and Nature). “Once again, the Cerrado is placed as a sacrificial biome. The Europeans gave an important signal to the world but missed the opportunity to make an effective law. The Cerrado is the main source of deforestation imported by Europe today. For us, it increases the risk of frayed water resources, water, and energy supply crisis for the largest urban centers in the country, and the intensification of violence in the countryside.”
“The European legislation is far from perfect, but it gives a critical signal to the whole world: deforestation should no longer be tolerated,” said Marcio Astrini, executive secretary of the OC. “From now on, the markets will close to those who destroy or degrade forests. Those who bet on the passing of the buck during the Bolsonaro government and thought they could devastate with impunity broke their backs. Fortunately, although loud, this portion of agribusiness is in the minority.”