As the European Commission (EC) develops new legislation to decrease the import of products associated with deforestation and forest degradation, civil society organisations and Indigenous Peoples are extremely concerned that rubber may be dropped from the list of forest-risk commodities. They question the EC’s change of heart, and urge it to keep rubber in the new legislation.
With significant impacts on forests and biodiversity loss, land grabs and human rights abuses, rubber is a commodity of global importance, used in everything from tyres and mattresses to medical equipment and clothing. A quarter of global rubber production goes to the EU (mainly France, Germany, Italy and Spain) and of the six largest global tyre corporations, three (Continental, Michelin and Pirelli) are based in the EU. Indeed, rubber is listed among the EU’s critical raw materials.
Both demand and the price of rubber is rising post-pandemic, and a new wave of rubber-related deforestation and rights abuses is expected in coming years; 2011 saw massive deforestation in Asia due to spiking prices from China’s growing demand. This could happen again and rubber production may shift from Asia to Africa.
In this context, why would the EC consider dropping rubber? Why reverse its earlier recognition that rubber drives deforestation, given its Green Deal commitments? Using economic criteria to limit the numbers of targeted commodities, and avoiding inconveniences to the rubber industry – a laggard in establishing deforestation-free supply chains – appear to be the primary reasons.
While the EC appears to leave open the possibility to add rubber at a later stage, this is not good enough, considering the urgency of the climate crisis and the snail’s pace of EU legislative processes.
Rallying in front of the EC Delegation in Yaoundé, Cameroonian activists and Indigenous Peoples, including Baka communities, called to keep rubber in the new regulation, highlighting that rubber cultivation affects the rights of the guardians of the forests. Smallholders and farmers provide 85 per cent of the world’s natural rubber supply, yet rubber production is rarely profitable for them, as prices are set in Asia by the distant Shanghai Futures Exchange through a process that has nothing do with production costs. Low incomes oblige smallholders to over-tap their rubber trees, leading in turn to diseases, poverty and even negative impacts on global production volumes.
Including rubber in the new law would require the rubber sector to finally take responsibility and catch up with deforestation-free production. If this window of opportunity closes, vulnerable groups will be pushed further into poverty, and forests toward greater destruction.