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The onus is on governments in forested and consumer countries to halt the trade in illegally or unsustainably produced agricultural goods, not only on businesses making voluntary zero-deforestation commitments, finds a new report commissioned by Forest Trends and Fern.

Agriculture is the world’s biggest driver of tropical deforestation and a major source of carbon emissions, said the organizations, noting that a study shows that illegal deforestation for industrial agriculture has generated losses to forested nations of more than US$17 billion per year in tax, revenue, the cost of conflict, and the loss of forest services like clean air and clean water.

“The companies are in danger of missing their own target to end or halve deforestation globally by 2020 – and we need to ask why,” said Fern and Forest Trends. “This research shows that voluntary commitments are a crucial first step, but that they need to be followed by government regulation to really get deforestation under control,” said Kerstin Canby, Director at Forest Trends, who commissioned the work.

The authors investigated the historic trajectory of similar efforts to eliminate illegal and unsustainable behaviour from global supply chains for timber, diamonds and ozone-depleting substances and for business activities potentially associated with modern slavery – all global ‘bads’ threatening global public ‘goods’ through global trade of goods.

“We discovered a consistent pattern showing that tackling these ‘bads’ can only be achieved effectively through national and international regulations and agreements,” said Duncan Brack, one of the authors of the study.

The study uses lessons from other supply chains to lay out the next steps for tackling the global trade in commercial agricultural products, such as cocoa, soy, palm oil and beef that are responsible for almost three quarters of tropical deforestation. It was published on the eve of major meetings in Oslo and Paris, where global policymakers will discuss how to tackle deforestation.

The findings come as the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goal target of ending deforestation by 2020 rapidly approaches. Despite 470 companies already making commitments to halve or eliminate deforestation from their supply chains, at least 10 million hectares  of tropical forest – an area more than three times the size of Belgium – continues to be lost and degraded every year, harming the forest communities that rely on these forests the most and emitting 10 per cent of global greenhouse gas emissions per year.

In March 2018, the European Union, which is the second biggest importer of goods that drive deforestation, published a feasibility study providing policy options to act on deforestation.

“EU action would be a significant first step towards regulation and could trigger a global effect. We call on the EU to seize the opportunity provided by the study and rapidly start discussions with producer countries, companies and civil society to develop the standards that determine EU market access. Improving governance and clarifying community tenure rights are pre-conditions for dealing with illegal deforestation,” said Hannah Mowat, campaigns coordinator at Fern.

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