December 11, 2023

United States: Bipartisan FOREST Act a Crucial First Step

Landmark bill would restrict U.S. imports of certain deforestation-linked products

Congress should enact the bipartisan FOREST (Fostering Overseas Rule of Law and Environmentally Sound Trade) Act as soon as possible, Climate Rights International said today. The bill, introduced on December 6, is an essential first step toward fulfilling U.S. commitments to end forest loss by 2030 and address commodity-driven deforestation in U.S. supply chains.

The FOREST Act would prohibit the importation of five listed commodities – palm oil, soybeans, cocoa, cattle, and rubber – and specified products made from those commodities if grown on land illegally deforested after the date the law comes into effect. The act would also require the United States to develop and monitor “action plans” with regard to countries viewed as at risk of deforestation.  In addition, the bill would amend U.S. laws against money laundering to make it illegal to conduct financial transactions involving proceeds from illegal deforestation abroad. 

“Protecting the world’s forests and biggest carbon sinks is essential in the fight against climate change,” said Brad Adams, Executive Director of Climate Rights International. “Barring access to U.S. markets for products grown on deforested land will have a major impact on the financial incentives to cut down trees to profit from those products.”

Action on deforestation for agricultural commodities is critical not only to address climate change but also to protect the lives and rights of the millions of people who depend on forests for their drinking water, food, and livelihoods. When forests are cut down, the impact on local communities can be devastating. Yet deforestation is rampant, driven in large part by agricultural production, much of it for export to the United States.

While the U.S. government has repeatedly committed to eliminating deforestation from the production of agricultural commodities, it has failed to take sufficient action. The first draft of the FOREST Act, introduced in October 2021, languished in Congress for more than two years. The revised bill, co-sponsored by U.S. Senators Brian Schatz (D-Hawai‘i) and Mike Braun (R-Indiana) and U.S. Representatives Earl Blumenauer (D-Oregon) and Brian Fitzpatrick (R-Pennsylvania), retains many of the positive elements of the original bill.

The proposed law would provide financial and technical assistance to support countries’ efforts to reduce illegal deforestation. Unlike the 2021 bill, the new proposal would not include funding for Indigenous Peoples and local civil society—a change that should be reversed given the crucial role they play in forest conservation efforts, Climate Rights International said.

The proposed law should also be expanded to cover other commodities linked to deforestation, such as avocados.  A recent Climate Rights International report documented how the U.S. market for avocados is driving widespread deforestation in avocado-growing areas of Mexico, with a devastating toll on local communities.

The proposed law should also be expanded to cover additional forest-risk commodities and key ecosystems like savannahs and wetlands that are also hugely important carbon sinks. It should be further strengthened by barring market access for producers linked to deforestation—not just specific products. This would ensure that producers can’t merely segment their production and sell the “clean” products to the U.S., while selling “dirty” products linked to deforestation elsewhere. 

“If passed, this bill would be an historic step toward ensuring that the huge U.S. market does not continue to contribute to large-scale deforestation and accompanying human rights harms,” said Adams. “Congress should also restrict market access for producers responsible for deforestation—not just specific products—and provide support to Indigenous Peoples and local communities facing threats and violence as they try to protect forests.”

Photo Credit: Palm oil trees. Photo by: Nazarizal Mohammad via Unsplash (CCO).

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