The UK Environment Bill includes measures to tackle illegal deforestation, but this is only half the story.

The global deforestation crisis is continuing to worsen, with devastating impacts for the global climate, biodiversity, and indigenous peoples and forest communities. This year has so far seen the highest deforestation rates in the Brazilian Amazon in over a decade and more forest fires this June than any since 2007. Against this backdrop, the need for the UK to tackle its role in global deforestation has never been more urgent. 

In May 2021, proposed measures to address deforestation in UK supply chains passed to the House of Lords as part of the UK Environment Bill. While the government’s efforts to tackle forest destruction are a welcome move, currently the measures only cover illegal deforestation and therefore fall far short of making UK supply chains deforestation free.

Almost a third of tropical deforestation linked to forest-risk commodities like palm oil, soy or beef is allowed under local rules and falls outside the current remit of the proposed UK legislation.

Last year, citizens, scientists, indigenous peoples, forest organisations and major UK businesses all made it clear that the government should take a deforestation-free approach, rather than narrowly focusing on illegal deforestation. The overwhelming majority of the 63,000 submissions to the UK government consultation included calls to adopt a ‘no deforestation’ approach.

At the time, government officials chose not to act on this advice. However, they have now had an opportunity to better understand the practical challenges of implementing the current legislative approach.

A clearer legal standard makes deforestation rules easier to uphold

Deforestation is most rampant where laws are weak, poorly enforced and judicial systems are slow.

A challenge in implementing the UK’s proposed deforestation rules is that it is not clear how the UK will identify what deforestation is ‘illegal’ if it is reliant on the same third-party country laws and legal systems which have so far failed to stamp out forest destruction.

As Brazilian researchers recently told Global Witness:

“[M]issing, inadequate and incomplete data in Brazil makes it impossible to differentiate between legal and illegal deforestation, illustrating the practical pitfalls of [the UK] relying on definitions of ‘illegality’.” - Ana Paula Valdiones, Coordinator for Environmental Transparency for the Instituto Centro de Vida (ICV), Brazil

The current measures include a legal loophole that risks rewarding countries who re-write laws to make previously illegal deforestation legal – as Indonesia has recently done – or who make it more difficult to prove whether instances of deforestation are illegal or not by defunding forest enforcement.

In Brazil, the Bolsonaro government has cut federal budgets for inspections of environmental crime and forest fires by 34.5% compared to what it was in 2019. Right now, the Brazilian National Congress is also debating legislation that could allow further deforestation to occur, by granting amnesty to land grabbers and reducing protection of indigenous lands.

All this shows the potential limitations of passing legislation that focuses purely on ‘illegal’ deforestation. The UK should commit to ending its complicity in all deforestation.

Forest experts have urged the UK to adopt a deforestation-free approach

Undoubtedly, the greatest experts on how to stop deforestation are the indigenous peoples and forest communities who have spent decades on the frontlines of safeguarding tropical forests. These communities and affiliated forest organisations have repeatedly urged the UK to adopt a no deforestation approach, if not even more ambitious measures.

“The current scope of the [UK proposal]…is limited to illegal deforestation and therefore it is a concern that the regulation would not be able to halt all deforestation and land use change.”
“[We call on…] the United Kingdom to go beyond the objectives of respecting legality in production processes…[and integrate sustainability criteria]. Cameroon’s legislation, like that of all Central African forest countries, remains very weak on essential points…”

- Forest and Communities Platform, Cameroon

NGOs in Indonesia have emphasized that as of 2019, at least 3.58 million hectares of natural forest (almost 22 times the size of London) was allocated inside oil palm plantation concessions.

The human impact of failing to safeguard forests, as well as indigenous peoples’ land rights, has also been stressed by Sônia Guajajara, Executive Coordinator of the Network of the Indigenous Peoples of Brazil (Articulação dos Povos Indígenas do Brasil – APIB):

“Agribusiness is a widespread driver of deforestation in the Amazon and is causing threats and violence against indigenous communities who are protecting our land, our forests and the global climate. We are being silenced, jailed, attacked and even killed.”

Scientists in Brazil have also weighed in on the need for the UK legislation to cover all deforestation, noting:

“Currently in Brazil, approximately 88 million hectares, the same as nearly 4 times the size of the UK, could be cleared legally on private properties under the Brazilian forest law.”

This highlights how limiting the UK measures to only ‘illegal’ deforestation falls short. Just as the UK doesn’t permit its businesses to be linked to bribery or wildlife trafficking – irrespective of what local laws allow – it should take a strong stand against all forms of forest destruction.

A no-deforestation approach is better for business

Ensuring the UK legislation covers all deforestation will be easier for businesses to implement – as it is far simpler and more streamlined to simply examine if any deforestation has occurred.

While global satellite tools and databases that track deforestation are readily available, no such global tools exist to identify if deforestation is likely to contravene local laws.

Major UK businesses have themselves recognised the need for the law to cover all deforestation. Last year over 20 UK businesses, including Aldi, Sainsburys, Tesco and McDonalds, took the extraordinary step of publicly writing to the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and asking for government to adopt a more rigorous standard.  

This reflects that companies are painfully aware that their consumers, and the UK public at large, want the certainty of knowing that everyday items they buy are not fuelling deforestation. While new UK measures will certainly help, if they fail to address one third of deforestation, they will not safeguard companies from future consumer concern and criticism.

At the end of the day, if the UK wants to make its supply chains deforestation-free, the easiest, clearest path is to simply state this in its new deforestation rules.

The coming months present a great opportunity for parliament to show that, whatever your politics, there are compelling reasons to bring the proposed legislation in line with the UK’s ambition to tackle global deforestation and what the climate and biodiversity crisis demands. This would ensure the UK’s approach is truly ‘world leading’, as the government has promised.

Note: An amendment (264a) has been tabled in the House of Lords that, if adopted, could close this loophole.

Listing image credit: Lalo de Almeida/Panos/Global Witness

Agribusiness Supply chains