EU: To End Deforestation, Protect Land Rights

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Brazilian Indigenous leaders protest against the destruction of the Amazon forest, outside the European Commission headquarters, in Brussels, Belgium, November 5, 2019. 
© 2019 REUTERS/Francois Lenoir

(Brussels) – The European Union’s landmark anti-deforestation law should require businesses to respect traditional communities’ rights over their territories or risk failing to deliver on its objectives, more than 191 Indigenous, environmental, and human rights organizations from 62 countries said today in an open letter to EU policymakers. These communities’ territories host many of the world’s best-preserved forests but face pressure from soy farmers, cattle ranchers, loggers, and other industries whose products are sold in European markets.

The EU’s draft regulation on deforestation-free products proposes to restrict imports of key agricultural commodities – cattle, cocoa, coffee, oil palm, soy, and wood – grown on land that was deforested after 2020, but does not place restrictions on commodities linked to rights violations as defined under international standards. Globally, industrial agriculture is the chief driver of forest loss, and environmental destruction is often entangled with rights abuses against forest-dependent communities. Many of the most influential companies driving deforestation have yet to adopt policies to root it out from their supply chains, and those that have, have not enforced them.

“The crucial flaw in the EU’s proposal is it doesn’t compel businesses to uphold international standards in regard to our land rights,” said Puyr Tembé, Executive Coordinator of the Pará State Federation of Indigenous Peoples (FEPIPA). “The world knows that the lack of protection for our rights has been a disaster for the Amazon and exposed Indigenous leaders to violence from cattle ranchers, loggers, and other invaders.”

Among the signatories of the letter are 22 Indigenous organizations from 33 countries, including key EU trading partners like Brazil, Indonesia, Malaysia, and Thailand, the main producers of EU soy, palm oil, and rubber imports. The groups represent hundreds of thousands of Indigenous Peoples.

“Across Indonesia, Indigenous Peoples are under immense pressure from companies that want to exploit our forests, including to grow crops destined for European consumers,” said Rukka Sombolinggi, secretary general of the Indigenous Peoples Alliance of the Archipelago in Indonesia. “EU action on its role in driving global deforestation is important, but EU policymakers should also be concerned about ensuring European markets are not fuelling the displacement of Indigenous Peoples from their lands.”

In the coming months, the European Parliament and EU member states will amend and vote on the regulation on deforestation-free products. The organizations urge EU member states to ensure that the regulation requires businesses to respect communities’ property and land rights. As part of this obligation, businesses should also identify and address risks that their operations or those of their suppliers may pose to forest defenders.

“Europe’s responsibility for dispossessing Indigenous Peoples and local communities of their land stretches back centuries, and post-colonial legal systems have never fully recognized their land rights,” said Julia Christian, forests campaigner at the forests and rights organization, Fern. “The EU must ensure the proposed regulation protects those rights by adhering to international standards.”

Numerous studies show that Indigenous Peoples and local communities are nature’s best protectors. Indigenous Peoples manage half of the world’s great forests, which store more carbon and have lower rates of deforestation and degradation compared to other areas. Yet around the world, Indigenous Peoples and local communities with customary tenure rights are dispossessed or denied rights to their land and attacked, threatened, and killed for defending their territories, often from business activities.

“The EU has finally accepted that only binding legislation can transform supply chains to root out deforestation, but it’s undercutting the effectiveness of its proposed law by failing to acknowledge the best protectors of forests,” said Luciana Téllez, environment researcher at Human Rights Watch. “To ensure that EU markets are no longer linked to activities that dispossess Indigenous Peoples from their land, the regulation should require businesses to uphold their rights in line with international standards.”

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