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Blog: How can EU policies halt deforestation?

By Nicole Polsterer

In the five years between 2010 and 2015, EU consumption raized an area of forests the size of Portugal. In 2012 alone, the EU imported EUR 6 billion of soy, palm, leather, and beef produced on forests illegally converted to agricultural land. So how can EU policies ensure that we, as EU citizens and consumers, are not complicit in human rights abuses and deforestation, just by eating beef, using shampoo or filling up our cars with biofuels?

There is no silver bullet, in fact when Fern completed a three-year investigation into the topic we found changes would be needed to EU trade, climate, agricultural and energy policies. You can find them in series of publications ‘Protecting Forests, Respecting Rights’ or simply read our new summary with recommendations for an Action Plan to Protect Forests and Respect Rights.

All solutions do however have common themes – they won’t work unless we start by reducing EU consumption of forest risk commodities, and we need to ensure that our commodities are legally and sustainably produced. To achieve this, the EU will need to work with producer countries, supporting them to develop legal and sustainable supply chains. The good news is that a lot is already happening.

For a start, many companies have made zero- deforestation commitments, and all UN Member States have agreed to halt deforestation by 2020. The EU can and should build on these initiatives.

What the EU should not do is hide behind these commitments as if saying you will do something is the same as achieving it! Our interviews and analysis of 23 major companies trading and consuming forest risk commodities clearly indicate that they cannot meet the goals of halting deforestation without the help of producer country governments, for example in the creation of clear, just land tenure systems.

Agricultural expansion, the largest driver of deforestation, goes hand in hand with human rights violation, and even killings in the cases of Honduras, Brazil and Laos. Most of these were related to land conflicts. It is therefore essential that respect for human rights and specifically community tenure, (communities and Indigenous Peoples are estimated to hold as much as 65 percent of the world’s land area under customary systems) is at the forefront of EU action to tackle its forest risk commodities footprint.

So what role can EU policy play?  Let me focus on two principles:

First, transparency, a key part of accountability. The EU can and should require transparency in commodity supply chains and the financial sector. Transparency is one of the key ingredients of an EU recipe to halt deforestation.

The second ingredient is improving governance, and specifically respect for community tenure rights.

We don’t start from scratch here either. The EU could help implement the FAO Guidelines for the Responsible Governance of Tenure of Land, Forests and Fisheries which have already been adopted by 190 countries, and form part of the OECD Guidelines for Responsible Agricultural Supply Chains. There is already international consensus about what should happen, and experts and organisations are starting to put the agreed principles into practice.

But how could the EU help implementation?

The EU could support producer countries to work with civil society and businesses to agree country specific definitions of what responsible governance of tenure means, and design structures to reform supply chains to be deforestation-free.

The EU and other importing countries could then ensure importers of forest risk commodities and their financial supporters conduct due diligence exercises to only import where supply chains are shown to be free of destruction. Again, there is a precedent as the EU has adopted mandatory due diligence when regulating conflict minerals and illegal timber and illegal fisheries.

Although global supply chains are increasingly complex, there are policy measures the EU can use to ensure we are not complicit in deforesting the planet. Transparency and respect for community tenure rights must be the first ingredients. To read more visit: Recommendations for an EU Action Plan to Protect Forests and Respect Rights


Drawing out links between the Common Agricultural Policy, soy, and deforestation in South America

The European Union’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) is fuelling tropical deforestation, according to a new report published by Fern at an event in the European Parliament yesterday. The event was hosted by MEP Maria Noichl (pictured, above), and chaired by Monika Hoegen. The report, Agriculture and deforestation – The EU Common Agricultural Policy, soy and forest destruction - looks at the links between CAP and soy imports from South America, where the expansion of the crop has resulted in large-scale deforestation, much of it illegal. We organised a lively discussion at the European Parliament to mark the launch of the report. If you missed it, you can watch the entire event here.

European farmers rely on soy imports from Brazil, Argentina and Paraguay to use as animal feed, mostly for pigs and chicken but also for cattle, other farm animals and farmed fish. Soy production in these countries is clearly linked to large-scale deforestation and land rights violations. While the CAP provides financial incentives for EU farmers to produce meat, it offers relatively few to produce sustainable feed for the animals, meaning that it’s cheaper for them to rely on soy imports from countries where its production is driving deforestation. As the EU embarks on another round of CAP reform, it must implement measures to reduce farmers’ reliance on disastrous soy imports. The new CAP should put conditions on farmers’ payments so that they only support socially and ecologically viable production. For animal feed this means meeting specific criteria on respecting land tenure rights and ensuring that forests have not been cleared to produce soy.

During the event at the European Parliament, the report author Dr Adrian Muller, a scientist at the independent research institute, Research Institute of Organic Agriculture (FiBL), delivered a presentation with a simple message; "The next CAP reform must move clearly towards an integrated food policy, combining approaches that increase sustainability on the production level with such that target consumption."


Other measures for reform, which are highlighted in the report, include: -
  • Amending the few remaining parts of the existing CAP that provide incentives to production systems that lead to deforestation. Specifically, this means changing the CAP so that agricultural support is conditional on reducing nitrogen surpluses, and improving animal welfare.
  • Support should also increasingly be targeted towards less intensive production systems such as organic production, grassland-based livestock systems or permaculture.
  • As long as consumers want high quantities of cheap animal products, and as long as producers are allowed to meet this demand, concentrate-based mass production of livestock will dominate. Lower consumption levels and a move towards a true circular economy will be crucial in addressing this.

Paulo Barreto, a senior researcher at Brazilian NGO Imazon: told participants at the event that ”The EU’s agricultural and trade policies need to stipulate strict deforestation criteria for its food and feed imports, and support the development of a soy moratorium in the Cerrado and other risk areas.”


DI Olga Voglauer delivered a lesson in connecting with consumers as she told participants about her organic dairy farm in Austria. “Under a new CAP, the EU can support farmers in developing socially and ecologically viable local markets, with grassland based livestock production systems as one of the options. Consumers should also be made aware of how the animals were fed.”


The EU’s hunger for soy is causing destruction in Brazil. Here’s how it can be stopped.

By Paulo Barreto and Nicole Polsterer

Delegates from across the world are gathering in Brasilia this week for the Annual General Assembly of the Tropical Forest Alliance 2020, a global coalition of governments, NGOs and companies, who aim to tackle the destruction of the world’s tropical forests, which is being driven by a voracious hunger for commodities including palm oil, soy and beef.
The task couldn’t be more urgent - for the climate, for alleviating poverty among millions of smallholder farmers and forest communities, and for protecting the natural habitats and ecosystems on which we all rely.  
A major cause of deforestation in the host country Brazil in the last 20 years has been the clearing of lands for soya bean plantations.
Brazil supplies a quarter of the world’s soya beans – and the EU is a key market, importing 14 million tonnes from the country, mostly for animal feed.
The exponential growth of the EU as a market for Brazil’s soy can be traced back to the 2001 foot-and-mouth epidemic in the UK, which was widely attributed to a farmer feeding pigs uncooked food waste, known as swill. 
The result was that in 2002 the EU introduced a pigswill ban, ending a practice that’s endured for millennia.
Farmers turned to a soybean-based pig feed, mostly imported from Latin America by major agribusinesses - with Brazil supplying 44 per cent of the total.
This market was also boosted by the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) and international trade agreements, which mean that shipping soybeans (and soy meal and cake) thousands of miles across the ocean is cheaper than producing animal feed in Europe.
But whatever the financial benefits in the EU, the real cost has been extortionate – with the soy often grown on land illegally stripped of forests and savannah, known as the Cerrado),  and in violation of the rights of its inhabitants.
In the Brazilian state of Mato Grosso, the soy ‘capital’, more than 95 percent of deforestation is estimated to be illegal.
So what should the Tropical Forest Alliance, and more specifically the Brazilian government and the EU, do about this?
From the Brazilian side, a powerful signal must be sent to President Michel Temer’s government and the private sector urging them to reverse the relentless dismantling of environmental protections that’s occurred in recent years.
The story of Brazil’s efforts to tackle deforestation is one of progress marred by major setbacks.
From 2004 policy developments – the creation of conservation units, the acknowledgement of indigenous rights, better enforcement of environmental rules and the forest code – had a breath-taking impact in protecting threatened areas.
Deforestation decreased from 27,000 square kilometres to about 5,000 square kilometres between 2004 and 2012 in the Amazon.
Since then however, this remarkable success story has soured, with a backlash led by the agricultural sector to weaken environmental rules, starting with the forest code, which was reversed to give an amnesty to some of the past illegal deforestation.
The government has also reduced the area and the degree of protection of Conservation Units and reduced the staff and budget of institutions responsible for enforcement of environmental laws and biodiversity protection.
The result has been devastating: Brazil’s deforestation rate has risen by a staggering 75 per cent since 2012 in the Amazon and continues in the Cerrado. 
From the EU side, the Memorandum of Understanding signed by the US and Brazil’s Presidents in 2016, in which Brazil committed to restoring up to 12 million hectares of forest in order to reduce carbon emissions, offers a framework for a potential deal.
The technology now exists to ensure full traceability of the soy supply chain. So for the major agribusinesses involved in importing soy to the EU, public transparency regarding precisely where they are sourcing their soy from, and the conditions under which it’s been produced are a must.
A Soy Moratorium was initiated in the Amazon in 2006. Since then the proportion of soy expansion in newly deforested area decreased from 30 per cent (in the two years prior to the moratorium) to 1 per cent in 2014.
In this period, farmers increased plantations of soya to 1.3 million hectares of formerly deforested areas in the Amazon; whereas in the Matopiba region of Cerrado, where significant soya expansion is taking place, from 2007 to 2013 about 40 per cent of expansion occurred in newly deforested areas.
Private companies should expand the Soy Moratorium from the Brazilian Amazon to the Cerrado.
There are also several specific measures that the EU can take to end its role in the razing of Brazil’s forests and Cerrado, and its accompanying human cost. These include: only offering financial support to farmers whose animal feedstock is proven to be legally and sustainably produced; providing incentives for producing protein crops in the EU; and reducing the import of feedstocks from countries where there is a high-risk of deforestation.

Tackling illegal logging in Ghana: Why civil society is generating pressure to deliver a VPA

by Samuel Mawutor

I have just returned from a two-week policy tour of Europe, visiting decision makers working on the EU Forest Law Enforcement Governance and Trade (FLEGT) Action Plan in Belgium, Germany, France and the Netherlands. I was hoping to whip up interest in and support for FLEGT Voluntary Partnership Agreements (VPAs) by showing Member States the successes and impacts that the Ghana VPA is already having. I also wanted to raise the challenges that civil society are having with the process. Together with my colleagues from Liberia and Cameroon, we also sought to highlight the fact that FLEGT is a transformational approach to developmental aid, which may be slow but could have far-reaching effects.

We engaged with competent authorities for the EU Timber Regulation, government officials working on FLEGT, members of the Timber Trade Federation and people working to use forests to help mitigate climate change. We were bringing messages for them, but they taught us a lot too. There was also a strong shared understanding of our collective responsibility for dealing with the drivers of deforestation and in particular illegal logging. Addressing the trade in illegal timber requires high-level political commitment between governments and the private sector, and a stronger push from civil society in both the EU and timber producer countries.

As the tour continued I was sad to find that enthusiasm for VPAs and interest in illegal logging was low despite the recent positive feedback from the FLEGT evaluation and the European Council. The issue seems to be that they measure the success or failure of VPAs according to the availability of FLEGT Licenses. This is over-simplification of a complex process which ignores the incremental but important progress that VPAs keep delivering. 

Does the fact that only Indonesia has FLEGT licensed timber mean that efforts by civil society in Ghana, Liberia, Cameroon and other countries is not relevant? Is it not worth anything that we have managed to push back corruption; challenge crooked politicians and bureaucrats; work with industry to ensure they meet their social obligations; reform laws driving deforestation and illegal logging; deliver benefits due to the local forest communities at the front line against illegal logging; and democratise the political space for forest decision making?

I should not have been surprised to find the waning enthusiasm as political will is also low in producer countries. It is one of the reasons for the slow pace of change in terms of improved capacity, development of the Legality Assurance Systems (LAS) and legal reform more widely. This needs to change and it is up to us, civil society, to take our advocacy a notch higher, to put systems back on the agenda and generate the pressure to get the LAS going.

Without civil society pressure Southern governments will not push forward the legal and policy reforms with the required speed, but they need to own the VPA process, as the long-term impact of a VPA is of greater benefit to producer countries than the EU.

So to move forward, the EU needs to show they are still supportive of FLEGT and civil society needs to convince their governments that VPAs need to be a priority. We need to re-examine our vision of the governance changes we want the VPA to deliver and define the steps to ensure that VPAs are nationally owned and working.


Guest blog: Why the failed Unilever takeover matters for forests

Whether one global mega-corporation succeeds in buying another global mega-corporation is not normally a subject of much interest to environmentalists. 

Kraft Heinz’s rapidly abandoned US $143 billion tilt at Unilever is different.

If the takeover had gone ahead, a company that thinks of itself as a global leader in sustainability would have come under the control of one with a reputation for ferocious cost cutting. 

Taking environmental issues seriously tends to be expensive for any company that tries it, at least in the short term.

While Kraft Heinz – its products range from soups to Philadelphia spreads and the Weight Watchers brand - made no public statements about its stance on sustainability, it is a reasonable bet that a Kraft-controlled Unilever would be more inclined to focus on next year’s profits and less concerned to burnish its image as a company that cares about the long term health of the planet.

If for no other reason than to find ways of recouping and justifying the enormous cost of the takeover to investors, Kraft would have had strong incentive to take an axe to Unilever’s business expenses, including measures that address environmental concerns.

The proposed multi-billion dollar price tag would have made this the second most expensive corporate takeover ever recorded.

You could argue that “what would have happened if” questions are not worth asking, as Kraft abandoned its plans within a few days of them becoming public knowledge in mid-February.

But that would be a mistake as a great deal was at stake for anyone who cares about deforestation, and there are important lessons to be learned.

Unilever is one of the largest corporate buyers of palm oil for use in its soaps, toiletries and food products, such as margarine and ice cream. Indeed, the company says its purchasing decisions have an impact on eight percent of global production.    

The destruction of tropical forests to make way for palm oil plantations has been one of the most important causes of forest loss due to agriculture - only cattle products and soy have had more impact - and land conversion to agriculture is reckoned to account for 70 per cent of all deforestation. 

While Unilever as major buyer of the product has to take its share of the blame for past destruction of forests and land conflicts with communities caused by palm oil expansion, in recent years it has been one of the better companies.  

It is committed to eliminating net deforestation from its own operations and those of its suppliers by 2020, and has adopted a raft of detailed policies to make sure this happens - not just relating to palm oil but also other agricultural products. 

Partly due to pressure from Unilever (and Nestlé), several hundred other companies in agricultural supply chains have made similar promises to stop causing deforestation over the last five years or so.

These two powerful consumer companies have worked with Greenpeace and other NGOs on this issue. 

But it is best not to get too starry eyed about the effectiveness of big company promises to change what actually happens on the ground.

Even so, Unilever has contributed to a significant shift in attitudes on environmental issues on the part of some corporate players. 

Unusually for a big corporation, Unilever claims that sustainability is a core concern and that taking a long term view will actually lead to higher profits. 

This approach has been championed by the chief executive Paul Polman over his eight years in the job.

If Kraft Heinz had bought Unilever, the chances are that preserving forests would have dropped down the list of company priorities, and more generally some of the momentum for improved corporate behaviour on this issue could have been lost.  

A look at the list of Kraft’s major investors does not suggest that this is a company likely to prioritise environmental concerns.  

The two largest stakeholders are the US financial guru Warren Buffet (through his company Berkshire Hathaway) and 3G, a Brazilian private equity group which has played a major role in the expansion of soy production, with devastating environmental consequences for the Cerrado and the Amazon.

Kraft’s failure to take control of Unilever is, however, not the end of the story.  A common feature of unsuccessful takeovers is that the prey company beats off the attack by promising investors that it will implement the same kind of policies as the predator would have introduced had it won to boost profits, often through slashing costs and paying more attention to short term financial concerns.

Ominously, Unilever announced plans for a thorough review of its business operations in the days following the failed bid attempt.

This is unlikely to result in Unilever changing tack on forests, but it does suggest that the company feels under pressure to be seen to be focussing more on the bottom line.

The lesson may be that there will always be a limit to how far any individual company can step out of line with its peers on tackling ethical issues perceived as likely to be expensive. 

At some point, investors will turn round and say “we want you to focus on the thing we most care about which is making us money”.


Angel and her friend playing among wooden boards in the garden and a truck in the distance carrying oil palm fruit. Photo by Icaro Cooke Vieira/CIFOR

Protest outside Heinz headquarters in Pittsburgh, PA. Photo by Rainforest Action Network.


Mark Gregory worked at the BBC for 20 years, including as the World Service’s business correspondent. His report with Duncan Brack for forests and rights NGO Fern, Promises and challenges: How companies are meeting commitments to end deforestation, is published later this month. 



Palm oil plantations in Cameroon ‘took away families’ crop land and burial lands’, hear participants at event in EU Parliament

By Nicole Polsterer

Testimonies on the devastating impact of palm oil production in Colombia, Cameroon and Liberia were the subject of a high level event in Brussels today attended by several MEPs and policymakers. It comes just ahead of a crucial European Parliament vote on MEP Katerina KONEČNÁ’s report on “Palm Oil and deforestation” and the review of the European Union Renewable Energy Directive.

Civil society representatives from palm oil producing countries and international NGOs alike called for a regulatory framework to ensure that  all products placed  on the EU market comply with international standards for community rights and human rights, and are free from deforestation and forest degradation.

Today’s event included a screening of the documentary “Frontera Invisible”, produced by NGO Transport and Environment. In the film, Colombian farmers talked about forced evictions and intimidations of farmers, pollution of waterways, and destruction of fish stocks due to large scale palm oil production.

(c) Jonathan Yiah

Jonathan Yiah of Sustainable Development Institute, Liberia explained that three palm oil concessions are operating in the remaining natural forest of Liberia and of West Africa to this matter. While these plantations are on customary land, the companies often do not respect the principle of “free, prior, and informed consent” of communities. Laurence Wete Soh of Forêts et Développement Rural in Cameroon painted an equally negative picture of the companies’ social responsibility record when it comes to respect for communities. She testified on companies’ land grabbing of land for palm oil used by the communities as burial grounds.

The European Union imports 100 per cent of the palm oil it consumes as biofuel, food or cosmetics, and has a large responsibility to bear when it sources palm oil. While many companies have made pledges to eliminate deforestation from their supply chain, currently there is no means for European consumers to know whether the palm oil has not infringed on human rights or stems from illegal deforestation.


This event was co-organised by T&E and Fern.

For the event in Parliament today Fern produced a new briefing sheet explaining, in simple terms, the problem with palm oil supply chains, the EU’s role in forest destruction associated with palm oil, and what needs to change.

You can also view the full presentation given by Jonathan Yiah.



Most recent publications

Blog: How can EU policies halt deforestation?

By Nicole Polsterer

In the five years between 2010 and 2015, EU consumption raized an area of forests the size of Portugal. In 2012 alone, the EU imported EUR 6 billion of soy, palm, leather, and beef produced on forests illegally converted to agricultural land. So how can EU policies ensure that we, as EU citizens and consumers, are not complicit in human rights abuses and deforestation, just by eating beef, using shampoo or filling up our cars with biofuels?

Recommendations for an EU Action Plan to Protect Forests and Respect Rights

Keeping forests standing and restoring ecosystems is essential if the world is to meet biodiversity objectives and the Paris Agreement goal of limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees.

PDF iconinternet version.pdf1.94 MB

Tackling deforestation and forest degradation: a case for EU action in 2017

This statement outlines eight NGOs' vision for an Action Plan to Protect Forests and Protect Rights. It proposes new measures that build on and strengthen governmental and corporate commitments for zero deforestation and respect for community rights.

PDF icondeforestation.pdf472.11 KB

Drawing out links between the Common Agricultural Policy, soy, and deforestation in South America

The European Union’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) is fuelling tropical deforestation, according to a new report published by Fern at an event in the European Parliament yesterday. The event was hosted by MEP Maria Noichl (pictured, above), and chaired by Monika Hoegen.

Agriculture and deforestation SUMMARY REPORT

The EU Common Agricultural Policy, soy, and forest destruction

Proposals for reform - SUMMARY

The biggest cause of forest loss – accounting for around 70 per cent – is agricultural deforestation, notably for beef, soy, palm oil and commercial timber. Soy ranks as the second largest agricultural driver of deforestation after cattle products.

This 20 page summary report outlines the key findings and recommendations that emerged from a detailed study of the linkages between the EU Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) and the expansion of soybean cultivation, which has been the largest source of agricultural deforestation over which the EU has a direct influence.

Agricultural commodity consumption in the EU - Soy

An area of forest the size of Portugal was lost globally between 2010 and 2015 because of EU consumption of commodities grown on deforested land, much of it illegal. Such destruction often violates the rights of local communities and indigenous peoples, causes massive biodiversity loss, and contributes to climate change. Fern is calling for an EU Action Plan to ensure imports of forest-risk commodities are legally sourced and ecologically viable.

This is the second in a series of background notes on agricultural commodities.

It will be of particular interest to journalists and those looking for an introduction to the topic.

To read a report on the EU Common Agricultural Policy, soy and deforestation click here