The Oil Palm The Oil Palm

COWI: Noting the Political Sensitivities

In our series of blogs on the COWI report assessing proposals to reduce deforestation, a clear underlying theme has been how the report ignores the political sensitivities that drive European policymaking. These politics are inextricably linked with how commodities are treated in Europe. In short, commodities from the developing world suffer and those from the rich world prosper under EU regulation. This has uncomfortable echoes of past colonial policies, designed to enrich Europeans whilst keeping the poor out.

The COWI report has a particular approach towards these political sensitivities. It simply avoids discussing them. The lengths to which the authors go to skirt around the topic is almost laughable.

A perfect example is to be found in omission: how certain commodities and certain countries are simply not mentioned.

The largest exporter of soybean is the United States. Yet when mentioning ‘main exporters’, the COWI report jumps straight to Brazil and Paraguay.

The largest exporter of bovine meat, i.e. beef, is the United States. Canada is not far behind. But, again, it is not mentioned. The focus – and the finger-pointing – is directed at the poor countries, not the rich.

This indicates two things. First, the European Commission is clearly reluctant to consider the United States as the source of a ‘forest risk commodity’, which is undoubtedly the result of political sensitivities. The Europeans have no such reticence when it comes to pinning negative labels on Brazil, Malaysia or other developing countries.

Second, this means by implication that the European Commission is not seeking to identify ‘forest risk commodities’ per se – beef is beef, wherever it comes from. No, the EC is seeking to identify forest risk countries.

This creates a big problem for the EC and the EU. Labelling a country as a ‘deforester’ has significantly more political sensitivity than blaming the deforestation on a product, no matter how misguided this might actually be. As a result, COWI’s report comes across as confused.

For example, all EU policy to date has focused on tropical forests, overlooking temperate forests as sources of deforestation. But COWI’s list of ‘forest risk countries’ based on their exports of forest risk commodities (such as beef), the countries that appear include Chile, Argentina and Australia, simply because they export beef and pulpwood. Chile and Argentina are completely devoid of tropical forests. Australia has a relatively small tropical forest area, most of which has been governed by particularly strict rules on land-clearing – even on existing farms – and forests aren’t cleared for beef grazing. But Australia becomes a forest risk country just because it exports beef.

Similarly, the way in which the report considers some ‘commodities’ to be risks – by virtue of their export – is simply wrong.

Take, for example, the way in which the report refers to ‘pulpwood’. Pulpwood is used to make pulp and paper. According to the COWI document, the major exporters of pulpwood are Vietnam, Chile and Australia. They are therefore the risk countries for deforestation and pulpwood. But anyone who has paid any attention to NGOs over the past decade will be well aware that it’s not pulpwood that causes controversy, it’s the pulp and paper that is made from the pulpwood at large integrated plantation-mill complexes. By this logic, the pulp and paper sectors in Brazil, Indonesia, Russia and Canada can’t be considered ‘forest risk countries’ because the ‘forest risk commodity’ they produce isn’t exported – it’s turned into something else and then exported.

The EU may attempt to skirt this problem, but their work around defining forest risk is contradictory. They want to make it about the commodity, but really it’s about the country. This is why ‘Brazilian beef’ is a problem for Europe, but US beef isn’t.

Palm oil, however, is an exception. There are only two major producers and exporters of palm oil, Malaysia and Indonesia. Neither figures highly on the list of the EU’s political sensitivities, so placing the blame on palm oil for everything from child labour to climate change is a no-brainer for European politicians. There is no political down-side to criticising palm oil; therefore, fewer international sensitivities.

Consider the storm that would ensue if the EU took the same aggressive approach towards American soybeans, or towards Canadian timber, that it has taken towards Malaysian Palm Oil. The political response from those countries would be overwhelming – as a result, the EU does not dare.

Perhaps the answer lies in the palm oil-producing countries making themselves more politically-powerful in Brussels, and elsewhere in Europe. The more pressure they can exert (like the Americans and Canadians), the less likely their commodities will be targeted. There is no shortage of leverage points – from defence sales to free trade agreements to the EU’s role in the world.

The ‘forest risk country’ approach is revealing, and reflects poorly on the EU. It is, obviously, intellectually incoherent to use geography rather than science to define the risks of deforestation. It is morally dubious to exclude some countries whose activities are similar to countries that are included. It is misleading to dress up politically-motivated calculations as environmental or scientific concerns. And it is the height of hypocrisy to define a previously-deforested area in a developed country as sustainable, but a recently-deforested area in a developing country as unsustainable. If that thought process was extrapolated to the economy as a whole it would simply embed existing monopolies and power structures (in favour of the rich, or the West) and consign everyone else to lower-class economic conditions. It is hard not to wonder if that is actually the goal of many inside the EU power structures. This is a case of the EU using environmental regulations as a tool for protecting industries in the rich world, by restricting development in Asia and Africa.

It is no wonder that the ‘forest risk’ concept is contradictory: it is contradictory because it is political bunk.

This, sadly, reeks of a paternalist neo-colonialism. As good as the COWI report is in certain parts, it simply cannot avoid suffering this unfortunate European disease.