5 July 2022
We spoke to forest defenders in Indonesia and Liberia to hear first-hand how their communities are being impacted by deforestation - and why it’s vital that EU law ensures them a route to protect the forests in court.
Every year, deforestation flattens an area the size of Greece. Many of the products in European supermarkets are fueling this destruction, far from the shelves. As consumers, we know of the tragedy but feel powerless to act.
The food we eat – from dairy and meat to eggs and chocolate – is causing forests to disappear at a devastating rate. The expansion of agriculture into forest areas, especially in the form of large-scale soy, oil palm or cattle operations, causes about 90% of this deforestation.
To tackle the EU’s contribution to global deforestation, a new law has been proposed to ensure the products made from cocoa, coffee, soy, palm, beef or other products that end up on our plates or in our homes are “deforestation-free”.
This is great news. But for the new law to actually be effective at stopping deforestation, the right people need to be able to use it. The people on the front lines need to have access to the legal routes to bring the necessary challenges.
The legal mechanisms proposed by the Commission in its draft law would allow local communities, and people that depend on forests, to legally challenge European authorities if they fail to enforce the new legal requirements.
This ‘access to justice clause’ is key for the proper implementation of the new law. It would give Indigenous Peoples and local communities in forest areas – who are often their best guardians but also often the biggest victims of deforestation and the violence that can accompany it – a crucial mechanism to access justice and fight for their rights.
“For Indigenous Peoples and local communities, forests are like supermarkets,” said Uli Arta Siagian, forest defender at WAHLI Friends of the Earth Indonesia. “They provide food, they provide sources of water, and Indigenous peoples and local communities can use all these resources freely.
“As companies come to clear the forests for mining, or growing palm oil or soy, the resources are being depleted. People lose their traditional knowledge and experience along with their natural environment, like foraging for medicinal plants.”
In Liberia, sustainable forest management is defined by law as a fair division between companies, forest communities and conservation areas so that everyone can benefit from the resource in a sustainable way. But commercial use of forests is far outstripping community or conservation. Where communities seek to set aside areas of forest for farming or conservation, companies do not always respect these boundaries.
“Companies operate with complete impunity,” says Isaac Korvah Saylay, co-Facilitator of the National Union of Community Forest Management Bodies (NUCFMB) in Liberia. “Community forestry is all about communities receiving benefit to develop their communities. If they don't receive this benefit, it is kind of a setback.”
In Indonesia and Liberia, as well as many other parts the world, it’s very difficult for local communities and Indigenous Peoples to fight companies cutting down the forests in court. Worse, forest defenders and the people who support them are often criminalised, sometimes risking their lives.
“People struggle to access their rights and fight to gain access to and control of their forests and their rivers. And in this struggle, they are criminalised and threatened. They are imprisoned, even losing their lives,” explains Uli, recalling that some communities have been in conflict “for hundreds of years” to obtain their rights, in vain.
On the other hand, in Liberia “companies are untouchable and nothing can happen to them,” according to Isaac.
Indeed, the legal system in countries where deforestation is a problem, like Indonesia, Brazil and Liberia, is often stacked against local communities and Indigenous Peoples, with little, if any, recognition of their rights.
Where local communities are able to make a legal claim, there are structural barriers in both how the law is applied and to bringing a claim.
As a result, there is simply no justice and the forests cannot be efficiently protected by the people who care for them.
The draft law on deforestation-free products clearly states that companies cannot import products produced on land that was deforested after a certain cut-off date. EU Member States would then be required to check whether companies are following this obligation and sanction wrongdoings.
But if Member States fail to do so or don’t have the evidence to conclude there has been a breach, local communities and forest defenders need a mechanism to present their evidence. They must be able to access courts in EU Member States – either in person or via another organisation – to challenge law-breaking.
That is why the access to justice mechanisms – which are currently in the draft law – are crucial to really protect the forests and the people who rely on them.
ClientEarth forest lawyer Michael Rice said:
“As long as the EU offers a market for products linked to deforestation, forest communities will continue to suffer the consequences. Forest defenders must be given a voice in the EU. They know exactly what is happening on the ground. The evidence they could provide would really help in enforcing the new law, but only if they are granted access to courts in Europe.
“Access to justice in environmental matters is a fundamental right in the EU but is also key to ensure the EU deforestation law succeeds in protecting the world's forests from destruction at the hands of big agribusiness.”
The recent reform of the EU access to justice rules (i.e. the Aarhus Regulation) allows access to the Court of Justice of the EU to challenge environmental decisions taken by EU institutions. Thanks to these new rules, people and NGOs can now ask the EU institutions to review EU decisions that breach environmental laws, such as the labelling of plastic as sustainable investment in the EU taxonomy, or the Council decision to set fishing limits above scientific advice for example.
Legal mechanisms in the EU deforestation-free products law are designed to guarantee the same rights to access courts in France, Ireland or any other EU member state to protect the forests. This is crucial to ensure the law is enforced across Europe.