EU anti-deforestation bill leaves out critical ecosystems, study finds

  • The new regulations proposed by the European Commission aim to reduce the import of raw materials that cause deforestation and forest degradation abroad.
  • But according to a report commissioned by members of Parliament from the EU Greens, the narrow definition of forest and deforestation in the revised legislation would not protect ecosystems in South America where the EU’s demand for products such as soybeans and beef creates a high risk of deforestation.
  • Soybean production not only destroys native vegetation, but also threatens the livelihoods of hundreds of indigenous peoples and traditional communities in the Cerrado and Chaco biomes, made up of grasslands, savannahs and dry forests that stretch in central South America.
  • Expanding the definition of forest to include other types of woodland, or adopting a definition based on native vegetation rather than forest, would protect the Cerrado and Chaco much more, and be much more effective in combating deforestation. , says the report.

On May 11 this year, dozens of Greenpeace Netherlands activists blocked a ship carrying 60,000 tonnes of soybeans from Brazil to the Netherlands. Among the protesters was Alberto Terena, a leader of the People’s Indigenous Council of Terena in the state of Mato Grosso do Sul. The Terena live on the border between Brazil and Paraguay, where the Gran Chaco, the second largest forest in South America, meets the Cerrado, the most species-rich savannah in the world.

“Europe shares responsibility for the destruction of our homes,” Alberto Terena said in a statement. “We call on ministers to seize this opportunity, not only to ensure the rights of indigenous peoples, but also for the future of the planet. The production of food for your industrial animals and imported beef should no longer mean our suffering.

What’s in a nutshell

As the world’s third-largest importer of agricultural products linked to tropical deforestation and climate change, such as soy, beef and palm oil, the EU has acknowledged its disproportionate environmental footprint abroad. The bloc has taken steps to address this, in line with its commitments under the Paris Agreement and the European Green Deal, including last November when it proposed new legislation to restrict imports of products. related to deforestation. Greenpeace’s protest centered on the idea that the current draft EU regulation is far too weak and will not protect some of the biomes most affected by the rapid expansion of soybean farming and cattle farming. , such as the Cerrado and the Chaco.

Soy Forest and Chaco in Bolivia. Photo by Rhett A. Butler

Now a newscast has assessed how much land could be left unprotected if the EU plan goes into effect as is. The project uses the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) definition of a forest, which is an area larger than 0.5 hectares (1.2 acres) with trees larger than 5 meters (16 feet) and a canopy cover greater than 10%.

But this definition leaves out large swaths of land where soybean and livestock expansion is actually occurring, particularly the Cerrado and Chaco biomes, which are made up of a mosaic of forest, grassland, savanna and other types of ecosystems. The report, commissioned by the Greens/EFA bloc in the European Parliament, found that in its current form the settlement would leave unprotected three-quarters of the Cerrado (79 million hectares, or 195 million acres) and a third of the Grand Chaco. (32 million hectares, or 79 million acres). This represents an area larger than France and Spain combined, in the biomes where the EU’s environmental footprint in South America is the largest.

“If savannahs, wetlands and grasslands remain outside the scope of legislation, new EU legislation could actually increase already high pressures on natural ecosystems, undermining the global goals of the EU on biodiversity,” said Marie Toussaint, Greens/EFA MEP for France. said Mongabay. “Faced with the biodiversity emergency, the EU must protect all ecosystems threatened by our consumption patterns, which are ravaging the planet.”

Regulate conversion, not just deforestation

The Cerrado and the Gran Chaco have come under increasing threat in recent decades, mainly due to soybean cultivation. The Cerrado has seen about half of its native vegetation cleared for agriculture, a higher rate than the Amazon. According to the report, the majority of the deforestation risk from soy in the EU, and more than a third of its deforestation risk from beef, is concentrated in the Cerrado alone, a biodiversity hotspot that is particularly vulnerable. to expansion due to land area. suitable for agricultural expansion, and the little biome is protected. The Gran Chaco saw about 20% of its cleared native vegetationwhile recording one of the highest rates of deforestation in the world.

“The EU knows that its main deforestation risk comes mainly from the Cerrado and Chaco and if this policy is to address that risk it needs to expand that definition,” said Helen Bellfield, deputy director of Trase. Ultimately, if the EU fails to recognize where its supply chain has the most impact, she added, it will fundamentally undermine its policy objectives.

The Cerrado and Chaco are also home to thousands of indigenous and traditional peoples and communities, many of whom live on lands not officially recognized or still in the process of obtaining official title. The rapid destruction of the Cerrado’s native vegetation for soy and grazing has also sparked land disputes with traditional communities, many of whom do not exist on official government maps and do not officially own the collective lands they use. . More than 40% of rural land disputes in Brazil between 2003 and 2018 took place in the Cerrado, although the region represents only a fifth of Brazil’s total area.

The Cerrado is home to hundreds of traditional peoples and communities, such as the 400,000 coconut breakers who live off the babassu coconut palm that grows in the Cerrado. Image by Sarah Sax.

By using a narrow definition of forests, the EU regulation is likely to shift even more pressure onto the already threatened Cerrado and Chaco biomes, according to Tobias Kuemmerle, director of the Conservation Biogeography Lab at Humboldt University of Berlin.

“We know much less about dry forests and savannas than about tropical forests, because they remain understudied,” Kuemmerle told Mongabay. “That means we lose a lot [of information] before we fully understand it – and we often mistakenly consider savannahs and dry forests to be “less valuable” simply because they are less studied.

For example, researchers recently found that all global maps measuring carbon have massively underestimated the carbon stored in the vegetation of the Chaco, which now has one of the highest rates of deforestation in the world.

According to the new report, revising the EU regulation to include “other wooded land” as defined by the FAO would significantly strengthen the protection of both biomes. This would reduce the total unprotected area from 74% to 18% for the Cerrado and from 33% to 24% for the Gran Chaco. However, this would still leave large areas of both biomes vulnerable to ecosystem destruction by the EU.

Ultimately, the report argues that the proposed regulations would be more effective if they focused not just on clearing forests, but on all native ecosystems.

“Recognizing that other ecosystems than forests are very valuable in terms of biodiversity and carbon, and that we should not destroy them on a large scale, is important,” said Kuemmerle, who was not involved in the Trase report. /Global Canopy. “In my opinion, we should adopt a strict policy of ‘no conversion of natural areas’.”

Matthew Spencer, global director of landscapes at IDH – The Sustainable Trade Initiative, praised the report for “highlighting the importance of extending sustainable supply chain efforts to all ecosystems,” but noted in an e- mail to Mongabay that he “assumes that EU traceability requirements will have a leverage effect on soy and beef farming in South America. According to Spencer, traceability requirements will be much more effective if they focus on reducing and stopping deforestation and cleaning up all native ecosystems, not just the EU supply chain.

While the proposal could be put to a vote by the European Parliament as early as September, the discussions on the amendments go beyond the definition of forests. Other areas needing improvement include traceability and legality requirements, the rights of indigenous peoples and traditional communities, and timelines for stopping deforestation.


Pötzschner, F., Baumann, M., Gasparri, NI, Conti, G., Loto, D., Piquer-Rodríguez, M., & Kuemmerle, T. (2022). Ecoregion-scale multi-sensor biomass mapping highlights a major underestimation of dry forest carbon stocks. Environmental remote sensing, 269112849. doi:10.1016/j.rse.2021.112849

Banner image: As much of the Cerrado landscape does not fall under the FAO definition of a forest, it would not be protected by new EU legislation on deforestation. Image by Sarah Sax.