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UK sets out law to curb illegal deforestation and protect rainforests

Updated: Apr 27, 2021

Critics say government’s proposals for prohibitions and fines are seriously flawed

A Greenpeace image of an illegal mine in a deforested area of Roraima state, Brazil, taken in May 2020. Photograph: Chico Batata/Greenpeace/AFP/Getty

The government has announced plans to introduce a new law to clamp down on illegal deforestation and protect rainforests by cleaning up the UK’s supply chains.

The proposals, published on Tuesday, suggest the introduction of legislation to prohibit larger businesses operating in the UK from using products grown on land that was deforested illegally.

The businesses would also face fines if they fail to carry out due diligence on their supply chains by publishing information to show where key commodities – including rubber, soil and palm oil – come from and that they are produced in line with local laws protecting forests.

The government said the size of the fines would be set later.

Deforestation accounts for about 11% of global greenhouse gas emissions. The proposed legislation says illegally produced commodities have no place in the UK market, but Greenpeace has called the government’s plans “seriously flawed”.

A consultation on the proposed legislation will run for six weeks and seek views from UK and international stakeholders. It will consider potential impacts on businesses and other interests, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs said.

The announcement follows the establishment of an independent taskforce, the Global Resource Initiative, which the government set up last year to consider how the UK could “green” international supply chains.

The UN’s COP26 climate change conference was supposed to have been held in Glasgow in November, but has been postponed until next year.

The international environment minister, Zac Goldsmith, said: “The UK has a duty to lead the way in combating the biodiversity and nature crisis. We have all seen the devastating pictures of the world’s most precious forests being cleared, often illegally, and we can’t afford not to act as a country.

“There is a hugely important connection between the products we buy and their wider environmental footprint, which is why the government is consulting today on new measures that would make it illegal for businesses in the UK to use commodities that are not grown in accordance with local laws.”

Elena Polisano, a forests campaigner at Greenpeace UK, said: “Defra’s proposal to make it ‘illegal for larger businesses to use products unless they comply with local laws to protect natural areas’ is seriously flawed. We’ve all seen the way president [Jair] Bolsonaro has championed the expansion of agriculture in Brazil at the expense of the Amazon rainforest.

“There is also nothing to address the fact that some commodity producers may have one ‘sustainable’ line but continue to destroy forests elsewhere, which just shifts the problem into someone else’s backyard.

“We will never solve this problem without tackling demand. Companies like Tesco, who sell more meat and dairy and so use more soya for animal feed than any other UK retailer, know what they need to do to reduce the impact they are having on deforestation in the Amazon and other crucial forests

“They must reduce the amount of meat and dairy they sell and drop forest destroyers from their supply chain immediately.”

Mike Barrett, executive director of science and conservation at WWF-UK said: “It’s clear businesses and consumers don’t want imports that wreck the planet, drive deforestation in areas like the Amazon and lead to devastating fires. The government must now fast-track strong, effective laws that clean up our supply chains and show the UK can take the lead in tackling the global nature and climate crisis.”

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