On 6 December 2022, European Union (EU) policymakers finished negotiating the Regulation on deforestation-free products, which aims to prevent agricultural goods tainted by deforestation from being imported into the EU market. This is a historic first, the first law of such a kind—and with the law covering the world’s second-largest importer of deforestation (the EU being second only to China in that respect), there are hopes it could help make a real dent in global deforestation rates. However, the law fails to include strong provisions to protect the land rights of Indigenous Peoples and local communities who, time and again, have proven to be the best guardians of the forests.
This was particularly surprising, given statements by French President Emmanuel Macron and Member of the European Parliament Christophe Hansen promising to stand up for Indigenous land rights.
Nicole Polsterer, Fern’s sustainable production and consumption campaigner said, “By failing to ensure that products placed on the EU market comply will international human rights laws on Indigenous Peoples, the EU has missed the chance to signal to the world that the most important solution to stopping deforestation is upholding Indigenous’ rights.”
The European Parliament had voted in September to make respect for international human rights norms and standards on land rights, such as the right to Free, Prior and Informed Consent (FPIC), a prerequisite for importing products into the EU (FW 278). But in the final agreement, although language on FPIC has been added, companies will have to verify compliance with such rights only if they are enshrined in the relevant legislation of the country of production. This may have the perverse effect of directing commerce toward countries with lower standards.
Organisations such as Fern had been calling for legislation on this issue since 2015, when we revealed that the EU led the world in imports of embodied deforestation. The final version of the Regulation includes most forest-risk commodities, including beef and leather, soy, palm oil, rubber, charcoal, timber, printed materials, coffee and cacao. Companies placing these products on the EU market will soon have to conduct “due diligence” to prove that they are legal, and that they have not caused deforestation or forest degradation after a 2020 cut-off date.
Companies will need to carry out a different level of due diligence depending on a country’s risk rating. The Commission proposes assigning a high, medium or low rating to producer countries based on deforestation rates, as verified through satellite monitoring, producer country legal frameworks, countries’ deforestation pledges and agreements between the EU and third countries. It would not consider land rights violations, however, which means companies would need to conduct only low levels of due diligence on goods coming from countries where land grabs are still happening.
Policymakers have yet to reach an agreement on measures to support smallholders, despite many requests to include text to ensure they are not harmed, and receive adequate remuneration.
Overall, such efforts may help clean up EU supply chains, but products that cannot be sold in the EU could still be sold in other consumer markets, such as China or Indonesia. To reduce this risk, NGOs are campaigning for the EU to build agreements with governments in forested countries to tackle the root causes of deforestation, e.g., weak forest governance and unclear land tenure. Such agreements could also help producer countries and small producers to comply with the Regulation. The Regulation will require the Commission to develop a strategic framework for partnerships with producer countries, which Fern welcomes.
Although the law will enter into force next year, lawmakers have created an 18-month transition period, meaning companies will be obliged to meet its requirements from 2025 onward.