The fragile Cerrado grasslands and the Pantanal wetlands, both under threat from soy and beef exploitation, have been excluded from a European Union draft anti-deforestation law, campaigners have said, and there are many other concerning loopholes.

The European Commission has pledged to introduce a law aimed at preventing beef, palm oil and other products linked to deforestation from being sold in the EU single market of 450 million consumers. But campaigners said a leaked impact assessment reveals “significant omissions” in the plans, including the exclusion of endangered grasslands and wetlands, as well as products that raise environmental concerns, such as rubber and maize.

The long-awaited draft regulation, expected to be published in December, will be limited to controlling EU imports of beef, palm oil, soy, wood, cocoa and coffee, according to a report seen by the Guardian.

Under the plans, countries that sell these commodities into the EU, such as Russia, Brazil and the United States, would be classed as high, standard and low-risk, with controls on relevant exports depending on their status.

According to the 182-page document, these measures would “decisively contribute to saving biodiversity” and prevent 71,920 hectares of forests being chopped down each year by 2030 – an area roughly half the size of Greater London.

Campaigners said the EU risks getting it wrong. They criticised the exclusion from the proposals of rubber, leather, maize and other kinds of meat, linking pigs and chickens to “embedded deforestation” through the use of soy as animal feed.

EU officials concluded that maize and rubber only account for a small fraction of deforestation, while overall trade in these goods is large, meaning that “a very large effort” will generate “little return in terms of curbing deforestation driven by EU consumption”. But a 2019 EU paper cited maize and rubber as part of the problem, while the latest leaked document acknowledges concern about deforestation being caused by demand for animal feed.

The document also reveals a rebuff to calls to include grasslands, wetlands and other ecosystems under the protection of the upcoming law. Last year, a coalition of 160 nongovernmental organisations, including Greenpeace and WWF, organised nearly 1.2 million people to take part in an EU consultation on the proposals. The Together4Forests campaign called for the regulation to ensure protection for all kinds of ecosystems, not only forests. It was one of the biggest public responses to an EU consultation, second only to the outpouring of views on proposals to scrap daylight saving time.

According to the current document, the regulation will be limited to forests and will exclude wooded grasslands, such as Brazil’s vast Cerrado region, the largest savannah in South America and home to 10,000 species of plants, half of which are found nowhere else in the world.

Other ecosystems will be excluded, even though the EU document concedes that stricter rules to protect the Amazon rainforest “have already been shown to accelerate conversion of Cerrado savannah and Pantanal wetlands for agricultural production”. It also notes that the Cerrado is “a critical region for storing carbon”, a source of water, vegetation and abundant plant life, but concludes that including such ecosystems would make it more difficult to monitor forests.

The Pantanal conservation zone in west-central Braziland spilling over into Bolivia and Paraguay, is one of the world’s largest freshwater wetlands and home to endangered species such as the giant armadillo and giant otter.

“The ecosystem destruction that the EU is complicit in is not confined to deforestation alone,” said Sini Eräjää, EU agriculture and forest campaigner at Greenpeace. “If this law does not extend its protection to wetlands, savannahs, peatlands and others, then consumption in Europe will continue to devastate natural areas that provide livelihoods for indigenous people, homes for countless species and essential defence against climate breakdown.”

The document also reveals that the law “will not specifically target the financial sector”, a blow to campaigners who argued that European banks play a role in fuelling deforestation through their lending.

While the EU agreed a plan to tackle illegal logging in 2003, the bloc has been slower to try to prevent deforestation caused by legal trade. As Europe plants more trees at home, politicians have come under increasing pressure to tackle how the EU’s appetite for beef, cocoa, coffee and palm oil drives deforestation beyond its borders.

EU consumption of such commodities is behind 10% of global deforestation, according to the commission.

The European Commission, which does not usually comment on leaked documents, did not respond to a request for comment. The draft regulation will have to be agreed by MEPs and environment ministers before it becomes law.


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