Community leaders of 22 Indigenous organisations from 33 countries have said that the European Union’s landmark anti-deforestation law is likely to fail unless businesses are required to respect land rights. For this, relevant international law and standards provide a more reliable standard of compliance than un-harmonised producer-country rules.
In an open letter to European policy makers, the community leaders – including those living in the world’s two biggest rainforests, the Amazon and the Congo Basin – say that the EU’s proposed Regulation on deforestation-free products must include measures forcing businesses to respect communities’ property and land rights, and identifying and addressing risks of abuse against forest defenders. The associations making the appeal represent hundreds of thousands of forest-dependent people from almost every corner of the globe – Bangladesh to Brazil, Congo to Indonesia, Thailand to Chad – and is supported by more than 170 NGOs.
In November 2021, the European Commission released its long-awaited proposal for mandatory due diligence rules to stop agricultural goods that cause deforestation – including beef, palm oil, soy and leather – from entering the EU. Expected to be passed by the end of 2022, the new law was widely seen as a watershed moment in tackling the world’s biggest drivers of tropical deforestation as it will regulate imports of goods linked to deforestation for the first time.
Yet a serious weakness in the proposal is that it would rely on often inadequate as well as internally contradictory laws in producer countries to protect community land rights.
Numerous studies show that Indigenous Peoples and local communities are nature’s best protectors. Indigenous Peoples occupy half of the world’s great forests, which store more carbon and have lower rates of deforestation and degradation compared to other areas. Yet around the world, Indigenous Peoples and local communities with customary tenure rights are dispossessed or denied rights to their land, and are attacked, threatened and killed for defending their territories.
To address this, the letter’s signatories are demanding that EU’s new Regulation explicitly requires companies to uphold international law and standards on community tenure rights, meaningfully consult affected communities and obtain their free, prior and informed consent before embarking on activities in their areas. Businesses should identify and address any risks that their operations pose to forest defenders. And the EU should make sure its planned Forest Observatory monitors respect for land rights, and investigates claims of non-compliance.
In the coming months, the European Parliament and EU Member States will amend and vote on the Regulation, and France, which currently holds the presidency of the EU Council, has said it will be one of its priorities. Europe bears historical responsibility for dispossessing local and Indigenous communities of their land and this would be an important step toward redressing some of that.