Deforestation and Human Rights

Deforestation and Human Rights

Paul Attenborough
General Secretay - ImpACT


The recent submission by the supermarkets, food retailers and restaurant chains of a letter to the Government on the Environment Bill (currently in the House of Lords, 3rd Reading) offers an opportunity to look at the content of the letter and its impact on actual practice in the field.  The letter encompasses all countries – not just supplier counties – and is designed to ensure a uniform approach to the issue of environmental protection – in particular deforestation.  The main import of the letter – repeating a sentiment made in a submission of 2020 – is that the countries where deforestation occurs define the activity as illegal or not by their own local laws and legal processes, and where they might be considered adequate in law there is little, if any enforcement.  Additionally, they note land title and can be unreliable or absent.

However, this seems disingenuous for two reasons, as firstly they do not offer a solution as to the legislative – supranational structure that would determine overall ‘legality’ of deforestation – I am assuming here that there would be provision for legal logging – also, or secondly there is no mention of the carbon footprint of the imported products – ranging from food and product ingredients (palm oil, soy, for example) to leather.  With food supply chains for example, when reading the source, must would be surprised at the distribution: garlic from China, chillies, Morocco, Egypt; sugar snap peas, Senegal, Guatemala, Zimbabwe; avocados, South Africa, spring onions from Senegal!  So, we encompass North, East and West and South Africa; South and Central America as well as the usual sources from Europe.  This is without concerning the food intermediaries, for example palm oil (Malaysia, possibly) Soya meal (Brazil); so if we look at human rights, or environmental concerns in different contexts, of course; we have to remember the palm oil plantations driven deforestation of Sumatra – and the smoke trails observable from space as the island blazed; but even where we have forest certification (FSC, PAFC) for example in Gabon, which not only espouses its green credentials and wants to promote green ecotourism[1], we still have companies (Olam of Singapore) creating new palm oil plantations,  so responsible sourcing becomes a matter of almost personal judgement, which no amount of ‘supranational’ legislation will resolve.

The deforestation of the Amazon basin is well known, and well reported[2], and in itself raises a number of issues that need broadly discussing; there is the deforestation itself, per se, for the purposes of creating savannah or grasslands, for grazing cattle, or for soy, which in turn flows in large quantities to China for feeding the vast pig population.  This raises the question of the reliance on meat protein in the human diet; cattle emissions – methane, for example, and that the rain forest itself now releases more carbon dioxide than it stores.

For consideration and enforcement, is of course deforestation for the purposes of harvesting, in Africa for hardwoods, in Scandinavia for softwoods.  Albeit in some countries, Kenya, they have banned the cutting and export of such hardwoods as African blackwood, teak etc., there is a well-travelled route for trafficking these woods from the Democratic Republic of Congo, through the countries of the Great Lakes to Nairobi, where such wood is turned into products on sale in your local hardware and furniture stores.

Further questions arise on the human rights front – who benefits from the mass deforestation?  Obviously there are the ranchers, the land-owners – whose land-rights often stem from cronyism or simple cash for benefits, and of course the traders, and those of us who eat cheaply available meat.  But human rights at large?  As reported in the Guardian and other sources the indigenous tribes of the Amazon basin are targeted directly, but also suffer from the loss of their habitat and lands; frequently ending in murder of those activists that try to protect them.  A recent piece by Dan Saladino[3] also highlights the loss of plant variety and the ability of indigenous peoples to live off the land – he cites the Hadza of East Africa and the the Australian peoples. 

Much of the recent deforestation of the Amazon has been laid at the feet of President Bolsanoro, and this week the Austrian group AllRise of climate lawyers has laid a case at the International Criminal Court in the Hague accusing him of crimes against humanity.

In this brief article the impact on the climate, the animal populations, water resources, to the denudation of the land itself, and many other aspects have hardly been touched; and the other issues briefly exposed, all need further exploration in depth.

Useful addresses:  Tropical Timber Market Report; Timber Trade Federation; PEFC; FSC https://fsc.orgGlobal Forest Watch’ 

[1] Africa’s Green Superpower FT 21 July 2021

[2] Guardian 7 October 2021, for example

[3] Dan Saladino, A Growing Crisis – Guardian Review 18 September 2021 in an edited extract from ‘Eating to Extinction’


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