The European Parliament has just set the bar high in demanding strong new laws to stop EU consumption and financing from contributing to global deforestation and associated human rights abuses: will the European Commission follow suit with ambitious legislation? 

When I joined Global Witness forests’ campaign in summer 2019, the devastating images of the Amazon fires were making headline news around the world as this vital ecosystem was being destroyed before our eyes. This crisis was a wake-up call for EU policymakers, starkly illustrating the impact of deforestation and Europe’s role in driving it through the consumption and financing of products like soy, beef and palm oil.

In recent years, studies by European Commission and NGO campaigns had laid the groundwork for this much-needed realisation about the EU’s complicity in the destruction of forests and the need for policy change. This included the finding that over the period 1990-2008, the EU imported and consumed 10% of the global production of crops and livestock products associated with deforestation. In September 2019, Global Witness’s ground-breaking investigation revealed EU-based banks were the biggest provider of international finance to six of the most harmful agribusinesses involved in the destruction of climate-critical forests in the Amazon, Congo Basin and Papua New Guinea, funding them to the tune of €7 billion between 2013 and 2019.

Despite this clear evidence of the need for action, it still felt like we had a mountain to climb to get to the stage of the legislation we knew was needed to systematically tackle the EU’s global deforestation footprint. Thankfully, the new Commission, which was just about to take office last summer, and a freshly elected European Parliament, presented a renewed opportunity to take this agenda forward.

A blueprint for change

A crucial moment came on 22nd October, when the European Parliament adopted a landmark report, led by MEP Delara Burkhardt, which sets out an ambitious blueprint for legislation to halt and reverse EU-driven deforestation.

The European Parliament’s vote builds on growing concern across the EU institutions that more must be done to address deforestation, but it is the first time that a parliamentary report has set out a clear and detailed plan for how to actually deliver on this aspiration. This positive vote represents the result of tireless work from those both inside and outside the EU institutions to push deforestation high up the agenda, symbolising a glimmer of hope to those of us working on these issues.

The report proposes the EU put forward legislation requiring all companies placing goods on the European single market to check, mitigate and prevent the risk of deforestation and associated human rights abuses in their supply chains. These measures would apply to all deforestation – ensuring that it does not open a loophole that would allow companies to be complicit in forest destruction if it is allowed under local rules.  

Crucially, the report specifies that the same legal framework should apply to all financial institutions authorised to operate in the EU that are providing money to companies that harvest, extract, produce, process or trade forest-risk commodities and derived products. It is a welcome move that the European Parliament responded to calls by Global Witness and others to not let finance off the hook; it is only by addressing the money pipeline bankrolling deforestation that real change can be achieved.

Furthermore, the European Parliament’s report recognises that protecting and supporting forests communities must be at the centre of any EU law on deforestation. The proposal calls for legislation to safeguard the rights of Indigenous Peoples and local communities, and require businesses to only operate where they have their Free, Prior and Informed Consent (FPIC).

The report also includes provisions for affected communities to seek remedy for harms, as well as a clear regime of civil liability and sanctions. These are key elements in order to ensure there is real accountability for companies who fail to protect human rights and the environment. The stakes have never been so high, with those on the frontline of defending their land and our global climate being murdered in higher numbers than ever before, including many fighting to protect their forests against big agribusiness.

The UK government could do well to also reflect on these points as the UK develops its own legislative plans on deforestation and sets priorities for its hosting of the COP26 climate summit.

No more excuses

As one of the world’s biggest markets for forest-risk commodities and a global standard-setter on the environment and human rights, strong EU laws could galvanise global change and help the EU deliver on its promise to be a real climate leader – fulfilling its commitments on the Sustainable Development Goals and the Paris Climate Agreement.

Next year provides a crucial opportunity for the EU to follow through, with the European Commission having committed to introduce proposed legislation to tackle the EU’s role in deforestation. The Commission should heed the recommendations of the European Parliament’s report and ensure that any proposed legislation applies to all goods placed on the EU market, includes finance, prioritises the rights of local communities and includes proper accountability mechanisms.

It is not just civil society or Members of the European Parliament calling for strong legislation, but those they represent too. Nearly 1 million members of the public have already urged the European Commission to introduce binding rules to protect forests as part of a public consultation on deforestation. And there’s still time to add your voice, as the consultation is open until 10 December.

The question now is – will the European Commission step up and make the EU part of the solution to global deforestation rather than part of the problem?