The EU is the world’s largest trading bloc. As some nations embrace isolationism and protectionism, the EU’s going the other way: signing and negotiating a growing number of Free Trade Agreements, including the world’s largest bilateral trade deal with Japan in 2018, and edging closer to finalising a huge agreement with the Mercosur countries [Brazil, Argentina, Paraguay and Uruguay].

Trade is arguably the EU’s raison d’être. So if we change it, we can change a lot of things for the better.

We believe that these free trade deals can be used as a lever to tackle the deforestation which is linked to imports of forest-risk commodities into the EU market, and we’re challenging a number of aspects of the way we do trade. 

Builders in action taking down forest

The first is the process: there’s a lack of transparency around negotiations, and a lack of participation from key groups, particularly local NGOs in timber-trading partners countries.

The second is addressing the EU’s trade objectives. Rather than being driven solely by economic growth, gaining market access, and securing investors’ rights -  these deals should help achieve sustainable development. This isn’t just desirable, but absolutely necessary in a world facing climate change and ecological collapse.

Trade boat sailing out to sea

One reason for launching our trade campaign was we saw an opening when the European Commission released the “trade for all”  strategy, which made a commitment to cleaning the EU’s supply chains from environmental harm and human rights abuses. We also felt that Fern could share a lot from our experience of working on FLEGT - because it uses trade as an incentive to tackle those problems. As with the VPA process, we’re working to open space for civil society in the producer countries who the EU’s negotiating trade agreements with.

The campaign has only been going about a year.

I think we've come to be seen as a thought leader because we’re the first NGO to approach forests from this free trade angle.

Report cover

We produced a trade report laying out the evidence of links between trade and deforestation, showing how the free trade deals the EU’s currently negotiating risk undermining its environmental and human rights commitments – and proposing ways to stop this.

In October 2018 France published its new national strategy to end deforestation caused by its imports of palm oil, soy, beef, cocoa and wood – which is the first EU member state document that has wording on trade and forests, and which reflects our views. So it’s clear to say that there are policymakers who want to change how their countries do trade in relation to the environment and forests in particular.

Now people know we are working on this and they come to us, which was not the case two years ago. For instance, following the election of Bolsonaro in Brazil, lots of NGOs and journalists reached out to us to try to use the EU-Mercosur deal as a lever to put pressure on the EU and Brazil to protect forests and indigenous people there. 

The European Commission Directorate General for Trade has also acknowledged that the current provisions to tackle these issues are too weak, especially regarding the Indonesia and Mercosur deals: that there aren’t enough environmental safeguards, and that they are not inclusive enough of civil society. While companies and investors who can defend their rights, there’s no way for victims of trade related human rights abuses and environmental disasters to have recourse to justice.

Shipping container stack

So this campaign is transformative; it's a long process and it’s also ambitious but you have the feeling that you are working to change our economic model for the better, whereby trade would become a means – rather than an goal - to achieve social and environmental justice.”

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