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19 October 2021

Why a UK law to criminalise deforestation won’t save the Amazon

Campaigners suggest UK plans to stop deforestation outside its borders are lacking in ambition.

By India Bourke

The dizzying reach of global supply chains means consumers are generally clueless about the origins of the ingredients in the products they buy, and therefore unable to have any impact on the habitat destruction taking place in their name. The UK, ahead of the EU and the US, will propose legislation this week to make companies more responsible for their products, but campaigners are concerned it will do little to stop deforestation in line with climate commitments.

“The UK will go further than ever before to clamp down on illegal deforestation and protect rainforests,” Boris Johnson’s administration announced last November – in reference to new laws being introduced through its Environment Bill.

The (long-delayed) bill passes back to the Commons from the House of Lords this week. And, in its current form, includes a ban on products that violate deforestation laws in their country of origin. This means UK companies would have to ensure that, not just timber but “forest risk” commodities – potentially including beef, soy and palm oil – have been sustainably sourced.

The proposed UK legislation will be a global first, but there are concerns that regulation limited to illegal deforestation will not put an end to deforestation overall, says Debbie Tripley, director of environmental policy and advocacy at WWF-UK.

In President Jair Bolsonaro’s Brazil, WWF research shows an additional 2.1 million hectares (an area the size of Wales) could already be cleared legally. And legislation progressing through Brazil’s parliament could expand legal deforestation across a further 178 million hectares of private land, and up to 115 million hectares of protected indigenous territories. 

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In such a context, deliberately excluding legal deforestation means the UK’s legislation can be seen as “effectively acquiescing to the end of the Amazon”, suggests a recent report by NGO ClientEarth. It could even give producer nations a perverse incentive to loosen forest protections.

Not establishing a standard that covers all deforestation could also make the regulation harder to monitor, campaigners argue. Unless local municipalities enforce protection laws transparently and accurately, data on compliance often can’t be traced, says Tripley.

And research shows existing third-party certification schemes are not always reliable. A study by NGO Earthsight revealed that timber in Ikea chairs bearing the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) label turned out to have been illegally felled in Ukraine. Ikea and the FSC told Channel 4 they were investigating the allegations.

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The need for change is clear. Unless the current rate of tropical deforestation slows, researchers believe it will be almost impossible to prevent global warming from breaching 2°C above pre-industrial levels. Last year saw the third-largest clearance of forests since monitoring began in 2002, shows data from Global Forest Watch.

Driving this destruction is global demand for a wide range of items often produced from deforested land in the Global South. Deliberate burning and clearance mean parts of the Amazon rainforest now emit more carbon than they absorb. But whether the land involved was felled legally or illegally can be impossible to prove.

“It is a problem with globalisation generally,” says Sam Lawson, director of Earthsight. “Complex global supply chains have distanced us from what we consume. We can’t see what we’re doing [as consumers] and the companies can’t either. It’s wilful blindness to the consequences of consumption.”

As well as expanding the ban to a full “no deforestation approach”, due diligence regulation should also protect the rights of indigenous peoples, says Jo Blackman, head of forest advocacy and policy at Global Witness: “80 per cent of indigenous and community lands do not have secure legal rights, so relying on local laws alone is likely to leave those communities exposed.”​

Violation of indigenous rights is also often linked to deforestation abuses, says Earthsight’s Rubens Carvalho. The organisation’s recent investigation revealed slaughterhouses in Paraguay sourcing from ranches illegally established on land inhabited by one of the world’s last uncontacted tribes. 

When asked why the new due diligence section of the Environment Bill is limited to illegal deforestation, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) said the legislation “is one part of a wider package of measures to improve the sustainability of our supply chains”. 

Part of this package, Defra highlighted, is the global Fact Dialogue the UK is hosting in Glasgow as part of its COP26 presidency. The initiative will bring countries together to agree solutions that protect forests while promoting trade and respecting sovereignty. The hope is that action that has the support of producer and consumer nations will be more effective, says Justin Adams, executive director of the Tropical Forest Alliance. “Understanding where people are coming from, and not just imposing a colonial agenda on the South, is so important.”

Secondary legislation the government aims to lay in 2022 will decide the kind of companies that will have to comply, the commodities to be included, and mechanisms for penalties and enforcement.

However, expanding the legislation's ambition to include all deforestation will likely have to wait for a later review. An amendment introduced by the House of Lords, if upheld, could see this process moved forward from two years after implementation to just one – but it would not begin before 2023 at the earliest.

Meanwhile, the European Commission is due to publish in November its proposal to minimise deforestation risk in supply chains. This plan is likely to include a deforestation-free requirement for market access. And in the US, a draft bill would see commodities produced on illegally cleared land prohibited.

[See also: Economic recovery is trumping climate action in Latin America]

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