On 28 June 2022, European Union Council of Environment Ministers (Council) adopted their opinion on the Commission’s proposal for a deforestation-free regulation intended to rein in the forest destruction caused by EU consumption of coffee, cocoa, palm oil, soya, beef and wood. While the text makes certain advances, other concerns and notable omissions must be addressed by the European Parliament when it adopts its position in mid-September.
The Council gave greater weight to international human rights standards, and notably the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples; however, this advance is integrated mainly in terms of how it applies to the risk assessment of a country. Overall, the text is still overly deferential to national laws, rather than harmonising up to international standards.
Simplifying due diligence to streamline administrative duplication may seem to make sense, but allowing companies to not undertake due diligence of commodities produced in “low-risk” countries or regions creates the possibility that commodities will be laundered through them. The Regulation’s underlying premise should be strict, uniform application, without exception.
The Council also proposed using a definition of forest degradation which scientists have rejected and which narrows to scope to only look at the impact on primary forests impacts.
It is extremely worrisome that the Commission’s proposed article on access to justice has vanished completely from the Council’s position. It foresees a system for submitting substantiated concerns, and receiving information about follow up, but where individuals and communities have their rights violated, they must also be able to seek remedy.
Finally, combatting the embedded deforestation in only the EU’s imports cannot prevent noncompliant products from being sold elsewhere. For that, broader tools are needed. It is therefore positive that the Council have asked the Commission to develop clear and strategic partnerships with forested countries to tackle the poor governance and unclear/unjust land tenure laws that often underpin deforestation. More disappointing is their failure to recognise the arduous, pioneering road already travelled by the Forest Law Enforcement, Governance and Trade (FLEGT) Regulation’s Voluntary Partnership Agreements (VPAs) between many timber-producing countries and the EU.
Building on FLEGT’s foundation, and maintaining a green lane for FLEGT-licensed products, is a matter of great significance for the private sector, authorities and civil society in VPA partner countries who have worked in good faith towards joint governance goals. Support should be earmarked to assist VPA countries’ timber to meet the additional requirements of the new deforestation Regulation.
Polls have consistently, and as recently as June 2022, found that Europeans do not wish to be unwitting participants in deforestation and human rights violations; they support politicians that strengthen provisions tackling these issues. As directly elected EU officials, Members of the European Parliament (MEPs) should tighten loopholes in the text’s application, such as by insisting that, regarding land tenure and principles of Free, Prior and Informed Consent, international law and standards must be upheld; and ensure that where infringements occur, access to justice is available.
The Parliament ENVI Committee has since improved things (see article here) and MEPs will decide their position in September. After that, the draft Regulation moves to ‘trilogue’ negotiations with Parliament, the Council and the Commission.