Europe's hidden hand in deforestation

29 mai 2014

Written by: Fred Pearce

Europe's hidden hand in deforestation

Through imports of agricultural commodities, EU countries are collectively the biggest cause of deforestation worldwide

In Liberia, a European company is accused of beating villagers protesting against their land being seized for the planting of oil palm. In Cambodia, displaced rice farmers take to the streets of the capital Phnom Penh to demand the return of land taken by senior politicians to grow sugar cane for supply to Europe. At a port in France, journalists track down timber illegally logged in Republic of Congo and shipped to Europe in contravention of new EU rules.

These three instances from the past year represent the tip of a very large iceberg of illegality, deforestation and abuse of community land rights that can be traced back to the demands of European consumers and the ruthlessness of corporations in feeding that demand.

They give a glimpse into a world very different from the narrative usually heard in European capitals, in which the European Union is on the frontline of protecting forests, defending community rights, fighting climate change, and banging the drum for sustainable development. 

Recent studies reveal that EU member states are, through their imports of agricultural commodities, collectively the largest single cause of deforestation worldwide. A handful of major imports dominate the EU’s forest footprint. The biggest are soy from Brazil and Argentina, and palm oil from Southeast Asia. 

A comparison with China is telling. Despite having less than half the population of China, the EU’s contribution to so-called embodied deforestation - forest lands cleared for crops and livestock products - has been twice as great. The gap between rhetoric and reality is a growing threat to the EU’s reputation worldwide. 

The EU is taking steps to make its imports of timber environmentally and socially sustainable. In 2013, for the first time it required those placing timber onto the EU market to demonstrate that the timber was logged legally.

Photo: Oil palm harvesting in Indonesia, by Lucy McHugh/CIFOR, Flickr/cc.

To help supplier countries clean up their timber trade, it offers them the chance to enter into Voluntary Partnership Agreements (VPAs).  The agreements give them automatic access to EU markets in return for forest and land reform programmes, including improved social justice. 

But there has so far been no parallel action on agricultural commodities, even though they are a much bigger cause of deforestation. This policy black hole must be filled urgently.

It requires more than market pressure from concerned consumers, more than campaigning by NGOs, and more than piecemeal corporate commitments. It requires smart and rigorous regulation from the world’s largest market for tainted agricultural commodities that destroy nature and wreck lives: the EU.


There is an overwhelming case for action to check Europe’s hidden hand in deforestation. It is made more compelling because a substantial part of the deforestation that fills the shelves of European stores is illegal. 

Around 40 percent of all soy and palm oil in international trade comes from illegal forest clearance. Illegality is the norm in Brazil and Indonesia – which together account for over half of the EU’s embodied deforestation. 

The reasons vary. In Brazil, it is mostly breaches of the Forest Code, which says farmers must keep some forest land. In Indonesia, crimes include blatant corruption, land grabbing from communities and planting on deforested peat bogs. 

But the bottom line is that, as the largest importer of products from these lands, Europe is complicit in massive and frequently illegal deforestation that impacts the lives of hundreds of millions of people who live in and rely on forests.

The world knows about conflict diamonds and conflict gold. It is likely to hear more about conflict timber, conflict coffee and conflict palm oil.

Relying on corporations to burnish their public images through developing cleaner and more just supply chains will never be enough. Promoting the good is valuable, but it must be accompanied by sanctions against the bad – both to ensure that the “good” products are not undercut in the marketplace and to curb demand when it exceeds sustainable supply. 

Addressing these deep-rooted problems, and reducing the EU’s gargantuan forest footprint, requires regulatory action. 


An important first step could be to ensure that VPAs on timber fully cover wood “salvaged” from the conversion of forests to commercial agriculture. This is an expanding black hole, with salvage timber probably accounting for more than half the global timber trade. 

Another advance could be agreements under which countries supplying agricultural commodities to the EU comply with the U.N. Committee on Food Security’s voluntary guidelines on land tenure, which aim to curb land grabbing.

Another way to build consensus for action would be to amalgamate social and land-use objectives with existing EU schemes such as the Resource Efficiency Initiative, which aims to help members “shift towards a resource-efficient, low-carbon economy to achieve sustainable growth”. 

Its purview includes climate change, energy, transport, industry, raw materials, agriculture, fisheries, biodiversity and regional development. This is potentially a good fit for addressing the damage done to forests and their inhabitants by commodity supply chains.

If the EU wants to maintain its reputation for addressing the emerging environmental and social agendas behind sustainability, then serious and savvy regulation of its corporate and consumer behaviour to curb its hidden hand in deforestation is essential. The forest dwellers of Liberia, Cambodia, Congo and elsewhere will be watching.

This is an abridged version of an essay Fred Pearce has written for FERN’s forthcoming annual report.  

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