Europe’s demand for rubber to make tires and other products is destroying tropical forests across Africa and proposals from Brussels to limit environmental damage currently do little to address the problem.
A new satellite data study by non-profit Global Witness links European Union rubber imports to the deforestation of 520 square kilometers in Cameroon, Gabon, Ghana, Ivory Coast Liberia and Nigeria since the start of the millennium. Rubber poses a bigger threat to Africa than the bloc’s imports of palm oil, yet it is not included in a law designed to stop trees being cut down outside of the EU.
The findings underscore the damage that demand for commodities has on ecosystems crucial to combating climate change. Forests in West and Central Africa absorb about three times as much carbon dioxide per year as France emits, according to World Bank data.
“The EU’s voracious appetite for rubber is devastating indigenous communities and eroding a vital carbon sink,” said Giulia Bondi, senior EU forests campaigner at Global Witness. “Yet astonishingly a draft law to prevent deforestation-linked products from being sold in Europe doesn’t include rubber.”
The EU currently imports about 30% of the rubber shipped abroad by Africa’s top producers, more than 12 times the value of the palm oil it buys, according to the study. Global demand for the commodity rebounded last year, rising by 9% from 2020, according to the Association of Natural Rubber Producing Countries.
Global Witness found that most of the rubber plantations where deforestation has taken place were owned by three companies: Singapore-based producers Olam Group and Halcyon Agri Corp., and Luxembourg-registered Socfin. They in turn supply tire firms such as Michelin and Continental AG. Europe’s banks are also major players in funding the industry, it said.
Socfin told Global Witness that it’s had a zero-deforestation policy since the end of 2016, adding that some plantations in Cameroon, Nigeria and Ghana were developed before that date by clearing degraded natural forest. The company didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment from Bloomberg News.
Halcyon said it has had a “no deforestation policy” in Cameroon since December 2018 and has developed a plan to help provide education and healthcare for local communities, according to a statement forwarded by Global Witness. A spokesman for Halcyon told Bloomberg News that the company was “steadfast” in its commitment to zero-deforestation.
Olam told the non-profit group that its operations in Gabon were developed on old logging concessions, secondary forests and degraded areas, and that the company also invested in education and health for neighboring communities. Protecting forests is a priority for the company, Olam said in a response to Bloomberg.
While a pledge to end deforestation was one of the big breakthroughs at the COP26 climate summit last year, some agri industries are trying to weaken the proposed regulations, according to Greenpeace. That pressure may increase as food and commodities prices soar.
The European Commission’s proposal — covering beef, wood, soya, coffee and cocoa, in addition to palm oil — is designed to bring the greatest benefits in terms of prevented deforestation at the lowest cost for the operators involved, according to an EU official. The scope of the initiative could later be expanded, he said.
Christophe Hansen, lead negotiator for the EU’s deforestation law in Parliament, is pushing for rubber to be included in the list of sectors covered by the proposal. He says the European Commission was wrong in taking a cost-benefit approach on which sectors to include, and should have instead looked at the environmental footprint of the products.
The commission’s approach to include certain commodities, but not others, was not the right one, said Hansen, a lawmaker for the European People’s Party, said in an emailed response to questions. “The report clearly confirms my move to include rubber in the scope of the regulation,” he said.
(Updates with plantation companies in sixth paragraph)