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FOREST Act bill would hold global suppliers accountable for illegal deforestation

by Maxwell RadwinMongaBayCreative Commons

  • A new bill in the U.S. congress would create legislation to prohibit agricultural commodities like palm oil, cattle, soybeans, rubber, pulp and cocoa from import if they have contributed to illegal deforestation.
  • It also creates financial penalties and “action plans” for countries struggling to improve regulation of problematic, deforestation-causing industries.
  • Deforestation in tropical countries – much of it caused by commercial agriculture – produces approximately 4.8 gigatons of greenhouse gas emissions annually.
  • The legislation, if enacted, would require U.S. trade partner buy-in and cooperation to meet the new environmental standards.

(MongaBay) – Agricultural suppliers around the world may soon have to rethink how to sell products that contribute to global forest loss.

U.S. lawmakers have introduced an ambitious bill in congress that would prohibit the import of products connected to illegally deforested land, and would establish a roadmap for countries that need to strengthen environmental regulations.

The FOREST Act of 2021, sponsored by Senator Brian Schatz (D-HI) and Representative Earl Blumenauer (D-OR), is designed to hold countries accountable for agricultural products that are destroying forests all over the globe.

“Companies and governments are increasingly making commitments to end deforestation within their supply chains and borders,” the senators said in a release. They noted that the clearing of forests has accelerated in violation of producer countries’ laws, and that companies are consistently falling short of their goals.

“Elimination of commodity-driven deforestation is good for the environment and good for business,” they said.

Deforestation in tropical countries results in around 4.8 gigatons of annual greenhouse gas emissions, according to Global Forest Watch. And the UN Food and Agriculture Organization estimates that around 420 million hectares (1.6 million square miles) of forest have been converted since 1990, often to make way for palm oil, cattle, soybeans, rubber, pulp and cocoa, among other agricultural commodities.

In Southeast Asia, the palm oil industry has been plagued by a lack of transparency, making it almost impossible to connect deforestation to specific actors. Earlier this year, Mongabay reported that some little-known companies in Indonesia might have gotten away with deforesting land for palm oil that entered the global market.

Similarly, the cattle ranching industry throughout Latin America – from Brazil and Nicaragua to Guatemala and Mexico – has struggled to confirm whether animals are grazing in protected areas burned down by indirect suppliers. Several Mongabay investigations have found that the some illegally-sourced cattle gets into the U.S. market.

In a letter signed by 42 NGOs, the conservation community urged the U.S. to take action on the issue. “As one of the world’s largest producers and consumers of agricultural commodities, the United States must play a key role in setting standards for trade and finance that promote good governance,” states the letter. It also pointed to the need to protect people and the “ecological integrity of the world’s remaining forests.”

Should the FOREST Act pass, countries deemed at “high risk” of illegal deforestation will be put on an action plan that requires importers to improve how they document the source of their products. The action plans, the first of which will be developed over the next three years, will also aim to help the countries develop new laws and enforcement methods.

Financial penalties on offending countries will be put in a fund that USAID and the State Department can use to provide financial and technical assistance to countries trying to meet the goals of their action plan.

Combatting illegal deforestation also helps mitigate a host of other social issues, the language of the bill points out. It uses examples such as stopping organized crime groups and corrupt officials from using cattle ranching to launder illicit revenue. Illegal deforestation has also been shown to contribute to human rights abuses, violence against women, and attacks on Indigenous peoples.

A cattle herd in Brazil, where the government has struggled to track how legal supply chains connect to illegal deforestation. Image by Rhett A. Butler/Mongabay.

The U.S. has passed similar laws – such as the Lacey Act – prohibiting the trafficking of flora and fauna, including timber produced from illegal logging. It has also demonstrated a willingness to intercede if imports are having negative environmental and social impacts. This year, for example, U.S. Customs and Border Protection blocked palm oil import from Malaysia’s Sime Darby and of tuna produced by China’s Dalian Ocean Fishing, in both cases over forced labor allegations.

The EU and U.K. have also developed legislation aimed at cleaning up international supply chains, including fining domestic supermarkets that sell products linked to illegal deforestation. But it has not always had the desired result.

In 2019, when the EU announced it would be phasing out palm-based biodiesel by 2030 and called on greater transparency in palm oil supply chains, Indonesia and Malaysia said they planned to fight the “black campaign” being waged against one of their top exports and claimed the EU was trying to protects its own vegetable oil production.

The goals of the FOREST Act may encounter similar blockades if countries view it as an economic threat, or struggle to find realistic ways to implement the necessary regulations.

“Since the act is geared at illegal deforestation, it will have limited impact in places like Brazil, whose federal government is promoting the legalization of environmental crimes – especially those related to forest areas,” said Adriana Abdenur, of Plataforma CIPÓ, a climate, governance and peacebuilding think tank in Latin America, in an interview.

While the legislation does look promising for curbing deforestation and improving traceability, Abdenur said, the problem is only going to be resolved if tackled in equal good faith by the U.S. side as well as on the side of its trade partners.

Banner image caption: Fires burn during the clearing of forest at a palm oil plantation in Indonesia. Image by Rhett A. Butler

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by Maxwell RadwinMongaBayCreative Commons

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