News  |  13.01.2023

Consuming "zero deforestation" in Europe: the threat of counterproductive effects in Central Africa

The future European regulation on imported deforestation will be restrictive in several ways for producers in the South who export. In the tropics, its implementation is likely to be difficult due to a lack of consultation and the timeframe imposed. In Central Africa, it will face competition from Asian markets and national strategies for high growth in the agricultural sector. The original version of this article was published on The Conversation on December 12, 2022 and was reposted on the CIRAD website on December 15, 2022.

Consuming "zero deforestation" in Europe: the threat of counterproductive effects in Central Africa

European consumers are now responsible for 10% of global deforestation through their imports of agricultural and forestry products.

The main products involved are soy, beef, cocoa, palm oil, rubber and timber. If the European Union tries to curb this phenomenon, it will not be without consequences in the countries of the South, such as those bordering the Congo basin.

A (too?) ambitious regulation

A European regulation is being drafted to prevent the marketing of products associated with deforestation and forest degradation in the EU. The future regulation has been the subject of three proposals by the European Commission, the Council of the EU and the European Parliament between November 2021 and September 2022.

On December 6, 2022, a preliminary agreement was reached between these three bodies. It stipulates that the various products concerned (soy, beef, cocoa, palm oil, rubber and timber) will no longer be able to be imported into the EU if they come from deforested plots, although the technical details are still to be discussed in the coming weeks. The regulation will come into force in 2023.

The main mechanism envisaged by the regulation is "due diligence", which will be imposed on all importers of agricultural and forestry products suspected of contributing to deforestation or forest degradation.

In this framework, operators will have to show that they have put in place adequate procedures to mitigate the risk of deforestation associated with the products they want to bring to the European market.

In simple terms, this means demonstrating that the product comes from a geographically defined area that has not been subject to deforestation after December 31, 2020. This evidence of "non-deforestation" will be even more numerous to provide if the product comes from a country considered at risk of deforestation, according to six criteria indicated in the regulation. This will obviously be the case for most of the countries in Central Africa.

This future European regulation also imposes new constraints on producers in the South: for example, by imposing its desire to stop all forms of deforestation, by unilaterally providing its definitions of the key concepts of "forest", "forest degradation" ... or by requiring traceability of products to their production plots.

The lack of consultation with producer countries on the content and timing of the implementation of this regulation raises fears that it will be difficult to apply in the tropics. In Central Africa, more specifically, two phenomena threaten the successful implementation of the European regulation: competition with Asian markets and national agricultural development strategies.

Exports away from European markets: the case of timber

Even if the EU's role in global deforestation remains significant, its market is not by far the main outlet for agricultural and forestry products that have generated deforestation. On the export side, Asian markets are the dominant (for timber and palm oil) or growing (for cocoa and rubber) market for these cash crops from Central Africa.

The best example of the gradual substitution of European markets by Asian markets is provided by the timber sector.

For the past 15 years, exports of logs and sawnwood from Central Africa (Cameroon, Congo, Gabon, CAR, DRC) have varied annually between 1.6 and 2.9 million cubic meters. Since 2011, Asian countries have become the main destination for timber harvested in Central Africa, to the detriment of European markets, which have been in sharp decline over the past decade.

The new requirements of the European regulation, which go far beyond the mere respect of legality as the EU's FLEGT (Forest law enforcement, governance and trade) action plan has been trying to do with difficulty for the past ten years, risk reinforcing this trend of "flight" of Central African products to less demanding and almost equally remunerative markets.

National development strategies based on strong growth in the agricultural sector: the case of cocoa

The countries of Central Africa are all engaged in a race towards "emergence" by 2035-2040. This vision is supported by strategic development documents that emphasize the primary sector, both to ensure food security for a rapidly growing population and to increase tax revenues from exports.

Cocoa is indicative of this trend: all Central African states have committed to a massive revival of cocoa production, with the objective of at least doubling exports by 2030.

The stakes are high for these governments, since the sale of cocoa represents a major source of income for hundreds of thousands of small rural producers. In Cameroon, for example, more than 400,000 cocoa farmers receive 150 million euros in wages and profits every year.

While some of this production growth may be based on the regeneration of old plantations planted in the 1950s and 1960s, it is unlikely that such measures will be sufficient to achieve the stated goals. Such an increase in cocoa production, if it is achieved in Central Africa, will obviously be partly at the expense of forest areas.

An identical threat is posed by the palm oil and rubber industries, which have announced very ambitious development objectives for the next decade.

The imposition by the European regulation of a short-term halt to deforestation (even legal deforestation) risks clashing with such objectives of growth in the primary sector, which are nevertheless considered by the States to be the best way to fight against poverty in rural areas.

Is the European regulation an effective tool in the fight against deforestation in the Congo Basin?

A very limited number of consultations with the countries bordering the Congo Basin were organized by the European authorities during the drafting phase of the regulation, despite the importance of these forests for the global environment.

This near-absence of dialogue can only accentuate the risks of a weak application of the regulation since it is disconnected from the legitimate economic development strategies of these countries. It could even reinforce the possibility of a counterproductive result by encouraging Central Africa to redirect its agricultural exports towards less demanding markets.

Finally, the question arises as to the real scope of this regulation: is it to guarantee "zero deforestation" labelled consumption to European citizens, thus freeing them from a guilty conscience of contributing to the degradation of the global environment, or is it aimed at a significant slowdown in deforestation on a global scale?

In the latter case, a wider involvement of Southern producing countries is necessary in the development and future application of the regulation in order to optimize its compatibility with the sustainable development objectives chosen in these countries.

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