OPINION: Britain's plan to stop illegal deforestation is full of holes

Thursday, 8 October 2020 14:24 GMT

FILE PHOTO: Farmers inspect cocoa trees in the fields outside the village of Ebikwawkrom, Ghana, May 1, 2015. REUTERS/Matthew Mpoke Bigg

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A proposed new law to ensure products are not linked to forest destruction needs to cover more companies and be stricter on what it prohibits

Britons, on average, devour 700,000 tonnes of chocolate a year, or three bars a week per person. But how many of them are aware of the provenance of their chocolate, or its true cost?

Most chocolate sold in the UK is made from cocoa beans imported from Côte d’Ivoire and Ghana, the planet’s two biggest cocoa producers, responsible for 60% of the global trade. But the West African nations pay a heavy price for this market dominance.

Global Forest Watch (GFW) found that in 2018, rainforest destruction rose in those countries more than anywhere in the world. Driving this, to a large degree, is cocoa production. 

The misery associated with the industry doesn’t end there: more than 2 million children are estimated  to work in West Africa’s cocoa fields, and the smallholders who dominate the industry are paid a pittance of the profits from a global industry worth more than $100 billion a year in sales.

Yet cocoa is far from the only agricultural commodity tainted by deforestation and human rights violations consumed by Britons in vast quantities.

The UK’s beef imports from Brazil have helped fuel the destruction of the Amazon; its palm oil imports have driven the bulldozing of forests in Indonesia; its soy imports have been linked to Brazil’s devastating forest fires. All these examples fit a wider pattern in which agriculture is the world’s single biggest cause of deforestation.

As awareness has grown of agriculture’s terrible impact on forests, biodiversity, the climate and people’s rights, so has the pressure for new laws to tackle it.

SERIOUS FAILINGS

The European Union (EU) - where a poll found that 87% of consumers support laws to end forest destruction - is currently considering regulations making it mandatory for companies to know the origin of any agricultural commodity they import, and to mitigate the risks involved.

Britain is following suit, and this week closed its consultation on a law that would require companies to ensure their products aren’t linked to illegal deforestation. The UK government’s focus on the issue is welcome, but the proposal it has put forward is marred by serious failings.

For a start, it makes no reference to human rights, despite all the evidence that razing forests for agriculture is frequently accompanied by threats and violence against environmental defenders and local communities, land grabs and abusive labour practices.

Another shortcoming is that it relies on environmental laws in producer countries to determine whether products should be allowed to enter the UK.

The example of Brazil under President Jair Bolsonaro underlines just how inadequate this is. Under the Brazilian Forest Code, about 88 million hectares - an area nearly four times the size of the UK - can be cleared legally. And 56 bills are under negotiation that would open even more land to legal deforestation.

Ghana offers another salient example of why relying on local laws cannot guarantee that the goods lining UK supermarket shelves are not tainted by environmental destruction. Although Ghana’s forestry laws prohibit planting cocoa in protected areas, its cocoa laws do not. This conflict in legal interpretation is open to exploitation - which the proposed UK due-diligence regulation does nothing to address.

Another failing in the proposed UK legislation is that it would only apply to “a relatively small number of large-sized companies”, thereby excluding many of the agri-food companies with greatest responsibility for imported deforestation.

Finally, as the legislation would not apply to financial institutions, it would not address the financial flows to companies driving deforestation. As Britain has one of the world’s most important finance sectors, regulating it might be the single most effective way the UK could reduce global forest loss. Between 2013 and 2020, a number of major UK banks were found to have funnelled around $9.5 billion into forest-risk commodity companies.

If Britain wants to end its complicity in the destruction of the world’s forests - whether through chocolate made from Ghanaian cocoa beans or steak from imported Brazilian beef - it must raise its ambition and fix these shortcomings.

Obed Owusu-Addai  is the co-founder and managing campaigner of EcoCare Ghana, a local Ghanaian NGO that works to transform decision-making processes around natural resources. 

Alexandra Benjamin is a forest governance campaigner at Fern, the forests and rights NGO.

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