On 27 July 2022, the Ambassadors of 14 countries that trade with the EU in forest-risk commodities penned a strongly worded objection to the EU’s proposed Regulation on deforestation-free products that would require due diligence for EU imports of certain key commodities.
The EU, the Ambassadors argue, “disregards local conditions and national legislation”; country assessment criteria are “discriminatory and punitive”, the due diligence mechanism is “burdensome”. They also contend that enforceable legislation would challenge World Trade Organisation (WTO) rules. Ultimately, they say, the Regulation would “only lead to a downward spiral” of, among other things, “increased impoverishment”.
We felt it was important to open space for civil society organisations to react.
One of Fern’s partners felt that, generally, the letter aimed at one objective alone: maintaining the status quo. He pointed out that, in his African nation, small producers welcomed the traceability with geo-location to which the Ambassadors had objected, as an element of added security. Where the Ambassadors found risk assessments by country to be discriminatory, he found this normal; saying that the lack of such assessments is problematic, as not all countries exhibit the same level of deforestation.
Certain organisations in the Congo Basin, and in West Africa, however, echoed the Ambassadors’ complaint that the EU had taken a unilateral approach in developing the Regulation’s details (such as in definitions and scope) and had failed to acknowledge existing processes, or to understand potential negative impacts on the ground. They felt that the concerns of local stakeholders must be respected, and must guide the road forward – something which has not always been the case.
Another Fern partner, EcoCare Ghana, echoed the concern about ‘unilateral’ action. While strongly favouring a regulatory option to address deforestation, a spokesperson said, “the seemingly unilateral approach and limited involvement of stakeholders in producer countries that will be worse affected is where we disagree with the EU, and agree with our ambassador.” They further consider that, in the fight against forest loss, the EU should be more ambitious in the commodities targeted; rubber and mining for bauxite and gold, for instance, are of particular concern in Ghana. Finally, they worry that the EU’s ‘one-size-fits-all’ definitions of forest and deforestation leave critical savannah, mangrove and transition forest without protection. They also stress that meaningful consultation with producer countries must improve.
In Indonesia, where government reaction has ranged from rejecting the Regulation as a perceived encroachment on Indonesia’s sovereignty, to an opportunity to demonstrate Indonesia’s ability to comply with its requirements, a civil society partner underscored that the letter generally illustrates the lack of cooperation between the EU and Indonesia. While Indonesian NGOs would like to convince their government to “jump on board” with the Regulation, they feel it offers few incentives for compliance. Therefore, cooperation between EU and Indonesia is urgently needed to provide such incentives so as to improve governance and address the needs of vulnerable stakeholders such as smallholders.
The coordinating committee of Observatório do Clima, a Brazilian civil society network offered a complete rebuttal. They were concerned that the Ambassadors’ letter did not substantiate its claims and underlined this by backing their own statements with figures and references. They found the letter’s general implication that environmental issues should not be tackled through trade to be flawed.
The urgency of tackling deforestation is underscored by the crises of 2022 that threaten millions and have already proven deadly, they said. Although “developed countries have no excuse for keeping immoral fossil fuel subsidies … it is likewise unacceptable not to tackle tropical deforestation”. The NGOs further underscore the link between tackling deforestation and protecting human rights, given the violence, murder, land-grabbing and displacement caused by forest conversion for agriculture.
The Brazilian NGOs provided detailed counter-arguments for some of the Ambassadors’ more specific allegations. Where the Ambassadors considered the traceability and geo-location requirements in the Regulation “impractical” and “costly”, Observatório do Clima pointed out that such monitoring has long been applied in Brazil, providing examples of institutions that make satellite technology publicly available. The Ambassadors’ professed concern for smallholders is disingenuous, they found, noting that in Brazil mostly large-scale holdings, sometimes with ties to organised crime, are responsible for deforestation.
A spectrum of considerations must therefore be integrated into the final Regulation, and what the EU chooses to prioritise at tripartite negotiations will be telling. Fern hopes the EU will increase its dialogue and cooperation with the key producer countries of the commodities covered by the EU Regulation.