This Editorial comment first appeared in the May 18 issue of C&CI, click on subscribe now if you wish to read more informative articles in the May and future issues of C&CI.
According to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization around 7.6 million hectares of forest were lost every year at the global level between 2010 and 2015. Whilst the rate of deforestation appears to have slowed compared to previous decades, it remains alarmingly high.
There are substantial regional differences in the rate at which forests are being lost, with deforestation at its highest in tropical and subtropical regions, particularly in the three major forest basins of the Amazon, Congo and Southeast Asia. The associated environmental, economic and social impacts are significant. The livelihoods of more than 1.6 billion people are estimated to be dependent on forest resources. Forests are not only an essential source of timber, food and fibres, but they are also home to 80 per cent of the world’s terrestrial biodiversity, are a major provider of ecosystem services, and play a significant role in the global carbon cycle. Deforestation accounts annually for more greenhouse gas emissions than the entire EU economy.
This loss of forest can be categorised as ‘deforestation’ (conversion of forest to another land use or the long-term reduction of the tree canopy cover below the minimum 10 per cent threshold) and ‘forest degradation’ (the reduction of the capacity of a forest to provide goods and services). There are many underlying drivers of deforestation, but agricultural expansion for production of several key commodities – among them coffee and cocoa – is a key driver across all geographies, whereas forest degradation is linked more to the extraction of timber and non-timber forest products than to agriculture.
C&CI has focused on deforestation on several occasions recently, including elsewhere in this issue, where we look at a study published in March by the European Commission that sets out options for the EU to step up action against deforestation, including the regulation of commodities that can be linked to deforestation, forest degradation and violations of community land rights.
The report has the potential to be an important first step in ensuring that the EU takes responsibility to prevent deforestation, forest degradation and land rights violations. However, it is vital that the study is not left on the shelf gathering dust.
The EU needs to deliver an action plan that includes binding legislation to ensure that demand for agricultural commodities does not fuel environmental destruction or human rights violations, and ensure that companies are held accountable should they fail to guarantee better sustainability practices in their supply chains.
It would be easy to assume that responsibility for deforestation lies with the countries in which it is taking place, with farmers and smallholders that cut down mature forest and with companies that encourage this kind of behaviour, but as consumers we all also share in responsibility for the loss of forests.
This is particularly true in EU countries (and of course elsewhere) because Europeans are major importers of commodities whose production is driving deforestation. This includes coffee and cocoa.
Unfortunately, most European consumers buying coffee and chocolate are unaware that production strategies focus on using more land to grow crops – and on cutting down forest – rather than on producing more from existing acreage by employing better agricultural practices. Unbeknown to them, European consumers are contributing to environmental damage on a huge scale.
The EU signed up to a series of ambitious commitments under the Paris climate agreement and sustainable development goals. If it is to deliver on them, it must now show some real leadership and step up its action against deforestation, forest degradation and land rights violations.
The study explores options to step up EU action against deforestation, but given the complexity of the problem, any potential initiative should consider a package of interventions which address supply, demand and finance.
As a major importer of many agricultural commodities, the EU is clearly part of the problem of global deforestation, but it can also be part of the solution, by stepping up its efforts to address the impacts of consumption, adopting a coherent and comprehensive approach, and by building on and reinforcing existing action. It should also play a role alongside government and private sector commitments on zero deforestation, and other relevant international initiatives.■ C&CI