Global Witness calls on Congress to pass the FOREST Act to stem the flow of illegal deforestation-linked imports into the country

Tuesday 26 March 2024, LondonAn area of tropical forest the size of Los Angeles has been lost in just two years thanks to imports of deforestation-linked palm oil, beef, coffee and other products flooding the US market, according to new research provided by Trase to Global Witness.

Of the estimated total 122,800 hectares (ha) of deforestation linked to these imports between October 2021 and November 2023, just over a third (41,000ha) were linked to palm oil, around a third (39,100ha) to cattle products like beef, and almost a quarter (29,700ha) to coffee.

The new findings shine a spotlight on the impact of the US Government’s delayed efforts to end global deforestation by 2030. While a proposed bill in Congress known as the FOREST Act could add more safeguards to US trade policy and limit the import of high-risk commodities produced on land illegally deforested overseas, negotiations around the Act are still being drawn out - despite bipartisan support.

Without the Act in force, huge volumes of deforestation-linked imports continue to enter the US market.  

The US now lags behind both the EU and the UK, which have taken forward new laws to prevent the import of deforestation-linked products.

Naomi Hirst, Campaign Strategy Lead for Global Witness’ Forests campaign, said:

“Illegal forest conversion results in emissions of CO2 equivalent to annual fossil fuel emissions of India. This illegal deforestation is closely associated with violations of rights of Indigenous peoples and other local communities.

“The US remains a significant market for products produced on illegally deforested land. Continued absence of importer due diligence requirements means that citizens continue to be at risk of association with deforestation and human rights abuses.”

The new research analyses the US’ direct import of seven ‘forest risk’ commodities associated with deforestation, including palm oil, cattle products, and coffee, which all carry a high risk of coming from deforested areas. The FOREST Act would cover five of the assessed commodities: beef, palm oil, rubber, cocoa, and soy products.

While both palm oil and cattle products would be covered by the FOREST Act, coffee is currently missing from the list of commodities the Act applies to – despite it making up almost a quarter of the country’s deforestation footprint, according to the analysis.

These figures are very likely to be a significant underestimate, as they only related to the importation of raw commodities and exclude processed products that include forest-risk ingredients, such as certain lipstick and shampoo products, which both often contain palm oil.

Furthermore, the FOREST Act would only apply to products linked to illegal deforestation, unlike the EU’s regulation passed last year – to be brought into force for large traders on 30 December 2024.

The Act also overlooks the role of US-based banks in financing agribusinesses based overseas that drive the deforestation.

Ashley Thomson, Senior US Policy Advisor at Global Witness, said: 

"The past two years have seen deforestation linked products continue to find their way onto US supermarket shelves. The FOREST Act holds immense potential for curbing deforestation in tropical forests the world over – as this new research shows.

“We urge Congress to seize this crucial opportunity and pass this legislation, allowing the US to join the international fight to protect the planet’s precious forests.”     

Overall, the research found that almost a third of the destruction linked to the US occurred in the tropical forests of Indonesia – home to ecosystems important for biodiversity. Almost all of this was for deforestation for palm oil.

Colombia ranked second in the list of countries associated with the US’s deforestation exposure in the new analysis provided by Trase, with 94% of the 23,200ha linked to land clearance for coffee.

In addition to the US’ climate goals, the country has committed to end deforestation and begin forest restoration by 2030. Leaders will convene at the UN Biodiversity Conference (CBD COP16) in Cali, Colombia, later this year to assess progress on the Global Biodiversity Framework, an ambitious plan to halt and reverse all biodiversity loss by the end of the decade. The US is one of the only countries in the world not signed up to this agreement to protect the planet’s biodiversity, on which the food system and world economy relies.

Thomson added: “Ahead of COP16 in Cali, we shouldn’t talk about “forest protection” without being clear what we’re protecting against. As this analysis shows, it’s very clear a broken trade system is one of the main culprits of forest destruction. It's positive for the US to send more resources to forest protection, but it’s nonsensical to offer water with one hand as we light a fire with the other.” 

In October 2023, Trase undertook similar research for Global Witness on the UK, which found that the country’s deforestation footprint was just over 20,000 ha (November 2021 – July 2023) – six times smaller than that of the US.