Towards a decolonial EU response to global deforestation

by Elke Verhaeghe

This contribution is part of a blog series seeking to explore how postdevelopment approaches can inform, infuse and potentially transform the study of EU (development) policies and relationships with the Global South.

Under the impetus of the Green New Deal for Europe and intensive NGO advocacy, the EU is currently developing several new policies to counter ‘EU-driven deforestation’ resulting from the production and consumption of products like cocoa, soy or beef. In doing so, the EU is recognising its position as one of the of the world’s largest consumers of natural resources and land-consuming agricultural products. In this blog I argue that these policies have to consider colonial dynamics of resource extraction and land use and offer venues for addressing environmental harm. To do so, they should not just consider the impact of Europe’s consumption on forest cover, but also the background of domination against which production, consumption and land conversion take place.

Colonialism, or the “exploitation of colonised peoples, their territories and resources”, is not a thing of the past. The commodification of nature and land for, amongst others, natural resource extraction, agricultural production, infrastructure development and tourism continue to fuel land and resource dispossession. At the same time, ‘fortress conservation‘ efforts in the Global South are driven by modernist distinctions between ‘culture’ and ‘nature’. By separating people from nature, they alter permanently human-nature relations, deprive peoples of nature-based livelihoods, and fuel physical violence against ‘perpetrators’ in conservation areas.

As a putative postcolonial power, the EU is now facing the difficult challenge of recognising its own responsibility in further fuelling dispossession and forest destruction without falling into the pitfall of imposing colonial conservation practices on forest-rich countries. This conundrum seems to have led Brussels-based NGOs – and, following them, EU-policy makers – to a political economy inspired value chain approach.

The Directorate-General for the Environment (DG ENV) is currently working on  a new due diligence regulation intended to force EU companies to map and reduce the risk of deforestation in their value chains. Depending on the shape and strength of the final regulation, requirements may range from procedural self-reporting, over sustainability certificates linked to individual products, to satellite imaging of supplier lands and nearby forest reserves. This approach is not entirely new: it builds on the now 10 years old Forest Law Enforcement, Governance and Trade (FLEGT) European Union Timber Regulation (EUTR), which aims to rid the EU market from illegal timber products. It differs from its predecessor in its move away from the emphasis on legality documents. Instead, it will refocus on sustainability – understood in particular as the avoidance of deforestation.

This due diligence regulation is likely to be complemented by supporting ‘forest partnerships’ to help supplier countries help with the requirements. The accompanying partnerships will likely be somewhat similar to the FLEGT Partnership Agreements (VPAs), which offer technical expertise and development aid for sectoral reforms to countries who ask for it, in return for ‘good governance’ commitments with regards to, e.g., transparency and anti-corruption measures, the negotiation of clear legality benchmarks, and the development of technical systems for domestic verification and product tracing (the so-called Timber Legality Assurance Systems). The newest partnerships would likely continue the VPAs’ governance and support agenda but discontinue the VPAs’ costly product verification and licensing systems.

The newest ‘deforestation’ policies share with their FLEGT predecessors a focus on the management of trade and consumption through increased corporate transparency and accountability. While they can hardly be seen as the magic bullet for ‘fixing’ colonial dynamics underlying extractivist and agricultural industries – they do not address the sheer volume of consumption, and therefore do not alleviate economic pressure on land and natural resources – I am hopeful that they could help unveil imperial modes of living and, if designed and executed well, contribute to addressing  the inequalities underlying global production and consumption. Whether or not they will manage to do so will to a large extent depend on the ambition regarding corporate accountability, and on their ability to recentre the place-based experiences of production and extraction which underly global commodity flows.

Most fundamentally, the new due diligence regulation should go beyond procedural requirements like reporting or even product-traceability to offer tangible and accessible paths to justice and compensation for the victims of dispossession or other colonial abuses. Evidence from the EUTR shows that the procedural quest for transparency and legibility of value chains, however reassuring to European consumers, does not guarantee that operations in-place by European companies or their suppliers are free of colonial and environmental injustices – as recent cases illustrate. Moreover, due to the spatial and temporal divide between the point of extraction or production of goods and their entrance on the EU market, the penalisation of due diligence violations in Europe ultimately does little to alter their social and material consequences on the ground.

How access to justice and compensation will be made available through the new deforestation due diligence is still unclear. For now, the issue of territorial and environmental rights seems to have disappeared from the books, making place for a more measurable ‘deforestation’ criterium, to be documented through, e.g., satellite imaging. While such a measurable focus on forest land conversion would avoid ‘greenwashing’ through legalisation or false documentation, the lack of attention to territorial rights could have important implications. Depending on the baseline and criteria that will be set, deforestation in particular areas may be (de)legitimised, and historical processes of dispossession that have led to current realities can be obscured from the books.

Questions in this regard arise about the split between the regulation developed by DG ENV and the parallel corporate environmental and human rights due diligence regulation developed by the Directorate-General for Justice and Consumers (DG JUST). While the latter would likely entail some sort of grievance mechanism to increase access to justice for victims of corporate human rights abuses, its focus on ‘human rights’ may well prove too narrow to identify and address historic dispossessions. It is therefore still unclear what access to justice will be provided for individuals and communities whose environmental or territorial rights have been harmed, either under the due diligence by DG JUST or under the deforestation regulation developed by DG ENV.

In theory, participatory partnerships like the VPAs could help overcome this shortfall by infusing victims’ voices into the debate and recentre experiences from the frontier. For these reasons, NGOs within and beyond Europe have plead for the continuation of the VPAs, which are perceived as strengthening the position of marginalised actors under the ‘carrot’ of EU market access. At the same time, scholars researching VPA implementation have nuanced these gains, stressing the VPAs’ continuation of the (economic) status quo and their favouring of international trade over local access. In the midst of these debates, questions now rise about the nature of the new supporting ‘forest partnerships’ between the EU and producer countries: will the disposal of the legality verification and licensing objective open space for bottom-up justice struggles to emerge? Or will the EU’s partnerships continue their market-orientation and end up as yet another empty ‘sustainability’ multi-stakeholder platform, void of any rights-based agenda?

The proposals to counter EU-driven deforestation certainly have potential for working towards the decolonisation of European trade and consumption by bridging the geographies of production and consumption and providing access to justice for victims of corporate abuse and exploitation. But they could also easily strand as technocratic value chain management policies that merely legitimate growth-driven environmental destruction and colonial dispossession. The final shape of these new policies and their interaction with related policies in the fields of, for instance, trade, agriculture and circular economy will tell if a decolonial shift is really achieved – or if we are facing yet another ‘forestry fad’ that ends up depoliticising fundamental global inequalities.

Elke Verhaeghe is a doctoral researcher at Ghent University and the United Nations University on Comparative Regional Integration Studies (UNU-CRIS) She researches the European Union’s actions against global deforestation with a specific focus on the Forest Law Enforcement, Governance and Trade (FLEGT) Voluntary Partnership Agreements (VPAs) in Vietnam and Honduras. Her research interests include participation in environmental policies, processes of discursive contestation, political ecology, and environmental justice

The aim of this blog series is to stimulate thinking about different imaginaries of ‘another Europe’ and alternative role(s) the EU could/should play, inspired by insights from postdevelopment thinkers. The series results from various exchanges and discussions between the contributors since early 2019.