Critical moment in deforestation fight

| 14th February 2019
The public has until February 25 to have their voices heard in the  European Commission’s public consultation on deforestation.

The public has until February 25 to have their voices heard in the  European Commission’s public consultation on deforestation.

The 1980s Save the Rainforest campaign stirred people in the way that the crusade against plastic and its lethal impact on oceans has today.

Sting travelled the world drumming up support for the cause with Chief Raoni. Save the Rainforest t-shirts were de rigueur among environmentalists. And saving the Amazon became synonymous with saving the planet.

Forests’ status as an environmental issue may have waned in the public imagination in the years since. Lately though, this has begun to change.

Vanishing

Not only is there a growing awareness that forests can be a natural bulwark against the impending calamity of climate chaos, but consumers are increasingly conscious that their supermarket shelves heave with goods which destroy forests.

Shopping without adding to the planet’s burden can be bewildering.

How can you be sure that your steak doesn’t come from cattle reared on land cleared of forest in Argentina? That the palm oil in your shampoo isn’t responsible for wiping out rainforests in Indonesia? That your chocolate isn’t helping turn the dense tropical forests of Ghana into desolate, barren moonscapes.

What about your car tyres? Was the rubber grown on a plantation in the Congo Basin which was once pristine rainforest?  And do you know whether your milk is from cows who were fed soy produced on land razed of forest and illegally seized from indigenous people in Brazil?

Forests around the world are vanishing at a startling rate, but these days the chainsaws and bulldozers are out less to harvest timber, and more to clear land for agriculture – which accounts for 80 percent of deforestation worldwide.

Supply chains

But if the concerned consumer looks to companies for assurance on how and where their goods are made, they are likely to end up even more baffled; especially if it means navigating their way around the 463 eco-labels which exist across 25 industry categories.

And if the public is confused, so are companies.

While more than 470 food and agriculture companies have responded to consumer pressure by pledging to eliminate deforestation from their supply chains by 2020, not only are these commitments generally weak, but they are, as many companies themselves concede, difficult to fulfil.

This is because - incredible as it may seem -  companies are largely blind to where some of their most damaging products are grown. Only 14 percent of all soy companies can trace their goods back to their farm of origin. For palm oil companies the figures are even worse, with only 2 percent able to trace their products back to where it was grown. They need help.

Unravelling the opaque, tangled supply chains carrying many of our agricultural goods from their sources to our supermarkets shelves, requires a level of transparency which can only be enforced through law.

Agricultural deforestation

Some countries, including France and Norway, have already started to act. But they cannot do it alone: and just as in the finance sector, there’s a risk that companies bypass the laws of one country by operating in another.

This is why the solution must come from the European level. Collectively, the European Union (EU)  is the second biggest importer of agricultural products resulting from deforestation. An area of forest the size of Portugal was lost globally between 1990 and 2005 because of EU consumption of commodities grown on deforested land.

So if the EU passes regulations to tackle this the global impact will be profound.

And right now, the long campaign for such regulations is at a critical juncture. The European Commission is currently running a public consultation on how to stop deforestation. This will be followed in the spring by a Communication in which it will outline its plans.

The groundswell of support for action has gathered pace: EU Member States, hundreds of thousands of citizens, the European Parliament and even companies, have called for EU regulations to tackle the scourge of agricultural deforestation. Yet, so far, the Commission has failed to heed their call.

Land grab

Now the public has the chance to ramp up the pressure on the Commission, and ensure the simple act of shopping no longer means walking an ethical tightrope.

We need laws that guarantee that neither products sold in the EU, nor the financial markets underpinning them, are destroying the planet’s forests and driving land grabs and other human rights abuses.

Only then will the vast swathe of people who care deeply about forests have something to cheer, and the aims of the Save the Rainforest slogan of yesteryear come closer to being realised.

This Author

Nicole Polsterer is the sustainable consumption campaigner at Fern, the Brussels-based forests and rights NGO.

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