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The European Parliament’s Committee on the Environment, Public Health and Food Safety (ENVI Committee) organised a Public Hearing on March 17, 2016, on ‘Palm oil and rainforests: What can the EU do to stop deforestation?’. The tone was overwhelmingly anti-palm oil and highlighted the potential for future regulation on palm oil.

Any committee within the European Parliament is permitted to organise a hearing with experts, where this is considered essential to its work on a particular subject. Hearings can also be held jointly by two or more committees. Most committees organise regular hearings, as these allow them to hear from experts and hold discussions on key issues.

Giovanni La Via, Chair of the ENVI Committee and MEP from Italy, announced that the aim of the meeting was to exchange views on the environmental impact of the palm oil industry. Nonetheless, the ‘exchange’ was unbalanced, at best.

Speakers variously advocated legislation to target deforestation linked to EU biofuels, food supply and cosmetics; the restoration of degraded forests; and the action by the EU.

Sabine Nafziger, Secretary-General of Chocolate, Biscuits & Confectionery of Europe, focused on the use of sustainable palm oil, and noted the important economic contribution that palm oil makes in producer-countries.

Action Plan in the making

Emmanuelle Maire, Head of the Unit on Global Sustainability, Trade and Multilateral Agreements in the European Commission’s (EC) Directorate-General for Environment, reviewed the ‘Current and planned EU actions on deforestation and forest degradation’.

No immediate consequences are expected as a result of the Public Hearing, but numerous references were made to the EC’s development of an Action Plan on Deforestation and Forest Degradation by 2020. Maire said the EC will prepare a feasibility study for the Action Plan this year; the tender contract was awarded in December 2015.

The EC also expects to provide three deliverables this year – a mapping of existing EU policy to address drivers of deforestation; the identification of policy options; and the initiation and completion of an online stakeholder survey.

The Public Hearing also recalled a notable study. As part of the strategy to address climate change and global biodiversity loss, and in response to a request by the European Parliament, the EC had launched a comprehensive study in 2011 to assess the impact of EU consumption on forest loss at a global scale.

The study was carried out over two years by a consortium of institutes, but the EC has stated that the findings do not represent its position. One finding that was repeated throughout the Public Hearing was that the EU imported and consumed 36% of crops and livestock products traded internationally that are associated with deforestation in the countries of origin.

Also raised was a reference to the ‘International conference on the EU and sustainability in global value chains’, organised by the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs and held on Dec 7, 2015.

At the conference, Denmark, France, Germany, the Netherlands and the UK had signed two Declarations – ‘In Support of a Fully Sustainable Palm Oil Supply Chain by 2020’; and ‘Towards Eliminating Deforestation from Agricultural Commodity Chains with European Countries’.

Essential actors in debate

Formally at least, the EC appears to be focused on the issue of deforestation and forest degradation in general, without specific regard to palm oil. As the Public Hearing showed, it is a number of MEPs who are trying to link deforestation and forest degradation only (or primarily) to palm oil.

The MPOC is doing a lot to ‘educate’ European constituencies (consumers, environmental NGOs, the media, etc) on the realities of palm oil production and the sustainability of Malaysian practices, by highlighting the industry’s important environmental efforts.

Yet, more must be done to involve governmental institutions in the EU and its member-states. They are increasingly active with respect to environmental initiatives that stand to affect palm oil. Malaysian interests must be systematically addressed, promoted and defended when regulatory or legislative initiatives are taken.

Prior to the Public Hearing, the MPOC had made several attempts, through the Embassy of Malaysia to the EU in Brussels, to obtain a speaking slot, so as to achieve a more balanced representation of stakeholders and to address the expected accusations against palm oil. However, this request was not entertained by the European Parliament, which can exercise absolute discretion in the choice of speakers.

The result was a Public Hearing that had very little public, open and balanced discussions – hardly what one would expect in the ‘temple’ of EU democracy!

The EU must see producer-countries and the palm oil industry as critical and essential parts of the debate. This will only occur if the producer-countries invest considerable energy and resources in ‘playing the game’ according to the EU rules of engagement.

Once the key stakeholders have been identified, an organic strategy of outreach and engagement must be deployed. This should not be mere ‘lobbying’, but constant engagement based on substantive inputs, awareness creation and timely reaction to all statements, initiatives and publications that stand to affect palm oil.

The debate on environmental sustainability, deforestation and forest degradation must not focus only on palm oil. However, when it does, it must be based on facts and on the idea that producer-countries must also be at the table.

Anything less will lead to partial views and to the high likelihood that the adopted policies and measures will be primarily dictated by palm oil’s competitors and detractors.

European Lawyers


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