- A day before the COP15 biodiversity summit began, the European Union agreed on the text of a law against imports of commodities like soy, cocoa and palm oil that come from deforested areas.
- When formally adopted, the law will be the first of its kind in the world, but activists note that it only covers forests and not “other wooded land” such as Brazil’s biodiverse Cerrado savanna, almost half of which has already been cleared, mostly to grow soy for export to China and the EU.
- A proposal that would require companies to respect international law on Indigenous and human rights also failed to make it into the final text, which only mandates that they follow national laws in the country of production.
- The text also doesn’t regulate corn, nor does it apply to the financial institutions that lend to commodity producers.
Officials and NGOs have hailed the European Union’s agreement on a law banning the import of commodities associated with deforestation, but say it falls short of protecting areas typically not considered forests yet nevertheless of huge ecological importance.
As the first law of its kind, its authors say they hope it will inspire other countries at the COP15 biodiversity summit taking place in Montreal this week to adopt similar legislation.
“The agreement reached will close the doors of our continent, the largest market in the world, to everyday products that have the highest impact on deforestation,” European Parliament member Pascal Canfin wrote. “It concerns the coffee we drink in the morning, the chocolate we eat, the tires of our cars, the charcoal we use in our barbecues, the paper in our books.”
But the fact that the negotiations between the European Parliament, European Council and European Commission lasted almost nine hours into early morning on Dec. 6 hinted at disagreements over key details. Campaigners pointed to several loopholes for deforestation left in the law, especially in Brazil, which exports 16% of its soy crop to the EU, mainly for animal feed. Only China imports more Brazilian soy. Up to a fifth of those EU imports are tainted by deforestation in the Amazon Rainforest and the neighboring Cerrado savanna, a 2020 study found.
“For both the environment and Indigenous peoples’ rights, [the legislation] has taken a step, but a smaller step than it could have,” Nicole Polsterer of Brussels-based forests NGO Fern told Mongabay by phone. “The Cerrado is massively under threat for conversion to soy production. It’s a major loss.”
“For soy in Brazil, for now it is very much business as usual,” Jean-François Timmers of WWF Brasil told Mongabay by phone.
The agreed text requires companies to provide a due diligence statement and geolocation coordinates showing that the cattle, cocoa, coffee, palm oil, soy or wood they are importing into the EU doesn’t come from forest areas that were degraded or cleared after 2020. Members of the European Parliament were also able to include rubber, charcoal, printed paper products and several palm oil derivatives, which are often found in personal care products, despite the lobbying of timber and tire producers, MEP Delara Burkhardt told Euractiv.
They failed, however, to include corn, which is often imported into the EU for chicken feed and has been linked to deforestation in the Amazon in the past. Financial institutions that lend to commodity producers also won’t be regulated under the new law.
The legislation is expected to be formally adopted and come into force next year.
‘Other wooded lands’ not protected
Over the past three decades, an area larger than the EU itself has been lost to global deforestation, a tenth of which is driven by the European market, according to the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO).
The law will prohibit products from cleared and degraded forests, including those converted into tree plantations. Crucially, however, it doesn’t apply to “other wooded land” with sparser tree cover, as the European Parliament had proposed in amendments in July. That kind of land makes up most of the Cerrado, a huge mixed forest and grassland biome that abuts the southeastern Amazon, where more than half of Brazil’s soy crop is produced. Including “other wooded land” in the law would have increased the amount of the remaining Cerrado biome covered by the EU regulation from 26% to 82%, according to WWF.
A 2019 study found that banning soy agriculture in natural areas of the Cerrado would save almost 3.6 million hectares (8.9 million acres) of native vegetation by 2050. Within a year after the new law comes into effect, the European Commission will have to evaluate whether to expand it to “other wooded land.”
In that time, however, campaigners say they worry the Cerrado will see a boom in land clearing, like that in the Amazon as Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro prepares to leave office on Jan. 1, 2023.
Christophe Hansen, the European Parliament’s lead negotiator on the law, told Mongabay and other journalists on Dec. 5 that he would be “strongly disappointed” if “other wooded land” wasn’t eventually included, since the clearing of land in forests could then just be “delocalized to other ecosystems.”
Indigenous peoples and local communities in the Cerrado previously said in an open letter that without including savannas, grasslands and wetlands, the EU legislation would have a “perverse effect, as it would intensify the pressure of destruction on these ecosystems and on its people.”
But international animal feed producers have been lobbying to keep the law’s “limited scope to deforestation and forest degradation,” rather than expand it to other land types.
The ‘cradle of waters’ is drying up
While Brazil adopted a moratorium on growing soy in the Amazon in 2006 and has designated almost half of it protected area or Indigenous territory, the lesser-known Cerrado has remained mostly unprotected. Landowners across most of the biome can legally clear up to 80% of their property, compared to just 20% in the Amazon. Between 2008 and 2018, 10.4 million hectares (25.7 million acres) of the Cerrado was burned or plowed over to grow soy and raise cattle — 50% more territory than was destroyed in the larger Amazon during that same period.
The 104 million hectares (257 million acres) of the biome that remains intact hosts 5% of all known plant and animal species on the planet and stores the equivalent of 13.7 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide — more than a third of global annual emissions. “What is at stake is the extinction of 500 plant species, thousands of people displaced, massive destruction of ecosystems,” said Timmers from WWF Brasil.
Land clearing is also drying up the Cerrado, which is sometimes called the “cradle of waters” because its eight major river basins sustain communities and hydropower plants. Rainwater collects in the deep roots of the savanna plants, feeding the rivers even during a dry season that can last up to eight months. River flow has decreased by 15.4% in recent years due to deforestation, irrigation and rising global temperatures, according to a study supported by the Brazilian NGO Institute of Society, Population and Nature (ISPN).
Another recent study found that land changes in the Cerrado have reduced the rate of evapotranspiration — the water “exhaled” by plants that eventually form rain clouds — by 10%, which is expected to lead to less rainfall.
“We’re talking about using hydropower to grow soy and export it to Europe, China and the United States,” Raisa Pina of the ISPN told Mongabay by phone. “Brazil is facing a strong possibility of water insecurity and also energy insecurity.”
The Cerrado is also home to an estimated 100,000 Indigenous people, as well as dozens of Quilombola communities of Afro-Brazilians descended from slaves. Many of them have been losing their ancestral lands to soy farms and cattle ranches.
The European Parliament wanted to ban products made in violation of Indigenous and human rights as laid out in international law, including the right to free, prior and informed consent. But the agreed text will only require that products comply with human and Indigenous rights legislation in the country of origin.
“If free, prior and informed consent was applied nationally, we wouldn’t have land grabs,” said Polsterer from the NGO Fern.
Sweden had pushed back against the European Parliament’s proposal, saying the law should refer to free, prior and informed consent only “as a principle, not as a right,” according to a letter obtained by Greenpeace through a freedom of information request. Indigenous Sami people have accused Sweden of failing to obtain that consent from them, most recently with the approval of a British iron mine in reindeer-herding areas.
Ultimately, the choice between development and conservation is often a false one. Much of 25 million hectares (62 million acres) of already-cleared land in the Cerrado could be used for agriculture, for instance, if ranchers employed techniques to raise cattle on smaller pastures, according to a recent study.
“Not-so-huge intensification would spare land for soybean production, but to have it happening we need policies, we need planning, we need subsidies, we need governance,” Aline Soterroni, who studies land use and climate at the University of Oxford but was not involved in the study, told Mongabay by phone. “We have to protect the Cerrado, it’s urgent, and if this legislation doesn’t cover the Cerrado, it will give the wrong signal. It’s not going to be effective in Brazil.”
A giant anteater and its baby walk through Chapada dos Veadeiros, in the Brazilian state of Goiás, in the heart of the Cerrado, a biome that hosts 5% of all known plant and animal species on the planet. Photo courtesy of ISPN/André Dib.
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