Millions of hectares of tropical forest disappear every year and many other rainforest areas are degraded through human activity. Agriculture and the timber trade are responsible for much of this environmental loss. And the EU is one of the biggest importers from Africa of them both.
Forests are cleared for agriculture like monoculture of palm oil, cocoa, rubber and other products destined for the European market. Tropical forests are the lungs of the earth and contain up to 75% of global biodiversity. What is more, in the wide and bushy band in the Equatorial African region there is an overlap of ecological degradation, social and political instability, forced migration and refugee movements and (still) extreme poverty. This happens while intensive agriculture
plantations,timber extraction and other not always legal business
activity are proceeding.
In African countries pressure on tropical forests is justified by the need of development and jobs. Nevertheless, forest degradation caused by large-scale felling and mono crop agriculture in cleared areas does nothing to solve food insecurity and triggers other environmental damage such as loss of water reservoirs, soil erosion and pollution and the fast loss of micro-nutrients.
Other bad consequences include disruption in the natural regulation of rainfall, loss of carbon fixation essential in the fight against climate change and an alarming loss of biodiversity. A less well-known consequence is that in tropical forests millions of indigenous people and other local communities are highly vulnerable to these “development” changes. In rural Africa it is more likely that opportunities with good stewardship of creation and support for the already existing small-scale family farming.
Rural communities have a strong interest in protecting the forest environment as they depend on it for their food, livelihoods, and they are essential to their culture. Many components of the daily diet come directly from forest fruits, tubers, mushrooms and leafy legumes, insects and animals harvested from forests. These provide important nutritional supplements that are vital for their food security while creating a symbiotic relationship with forest life. They hold an amazing knowledge of the particular forest they live in and how to steward it. But they suffer from hazardous environmental consequences and, sometimes, from direct distressing acts such as evictions, violence or other human rights violations. Uncertain employment opportunities, development assistance programs for the people affected or even restoring activities in degraded areas will never replace the value of a rainforest loss, however small the area. The damage is irreparable.
Africa Europe Faith and Justice Network (AEFJN), a network of forty-eight religious Congregations working for economic justice between Africa and Europe has called on the European Commission to meet the 2020 international goal to halt deforestation.
There is urgent need to tackle the drivers of deforestation and forest degradation and the Earth is waiting for an ambitious EU Action Plan to protect forests and respect forest peoples’ rights. This plan should be comprehensive and tackle the many aspects involved in tropical rainforests by readdressing several EU policies.
It must be guaranteed that no production or financial transactions linked to the European Union’s companies result in deforestation, forest degradation or human rights abuses. Up to now, European financial institutions, banks and businesses have been major financiers in agribusiness expansion in tropical forest countries. The European Commission Action Plan should be creative in strengthen governmental and corporate commitments for zero deforestation. To do so, it is necessary to put at the core a human rights approach, including the rights of indigenous peoples, and remembering the need for free, prior and informed consent for investments in the area.
The UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples should be at the forefront] and, if they really want to be coherent, they should engage simultaneously in endorsing the binding treaty on Business and Human Rights. This would be the straightforward way to establish systems to assess risks and firmly act on any environmental and human rights abuses within the supply chains, including subcontractors and suppliers.
It must be acknowledged that the EU has several mechanisms in process for trying to reduce deforestation and land degradation in third countries. Policies such as the FLEGT Action Plan to tackle illegal logging in the world’s forests, the EU Timber Regulation and EU Wildlife Trade Regulation attempt to fight illegal logging and prevent the unsustainable exploitation of timber species carried out through international trade. These mechanisms must be enforced and applied rapidly and make companies accountable for the damage they cause.
The EU REDD Facility supports countries in improving land-use governance as part of their efforts to slow, halt and reverse deforestation. However, these mechanisms have led to only small and slow achievements, so they must be intensified and sped up. Moreover, they have important gaps and weaknesses exploited by unethical companies. New strategies need to be formulated, adopted and swiftly implemented to complement them.
The EU could provide Central African countries with more financial and technical assistance to protect, maintain and restore forests as well as to manage and extend wildlife sanctuaries. This would be helpful in combatting tax avoidance and evasion resulting from illegal logging as well as in monitoring and limiting the conversion of forested land to agriculture. Promoting community forestry would also be a good contribution to eradicating poverty and halting deforestation. And there is much room to act on the demand side, including measures to reduce waste, overconsumption and thus the pressure on tropical land.
Obviously, EU action is insufficient to address the global problem of deforestation. That is why the EU ought to drive change and become a strong global actor fulfilling human rights and environmental expectations. The EU could take the lead in promoting broader international dialogue and cooperation through working in partnership with producer- and other major consumer countries. Africa and Europe could explore ways to cooperate over forestry and to extend their achievements to other parties such as China, acting as a leverage to reverse the plunder.
Currently, the European Commission is failing in delivering this action plan while relentlessly fostering European investment in profitable sources of energy, agro-industry and timber that supply agricultural products to European countries. It is time to turn around this situation and to fight deforestation and extreme poverty. The subsequent reduction in climate change will benefit the whole of humanity and will advance the human rights and food security of the people living in the African rainforest.
Trade Policy Officer of AEFJN