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20 Jun 2022

Global Witness

Global Witness investigation finds European rubber imports are driving deforestation in West & Central Africa, yet rubber is excluded from new laws to protect forests

"Rubbed out", 16 June 2022

And a new analysis by Global Witness now suggests that rubber, even more than palm oil, is the agricultural export that poses the biggest threat to the tropical forests of central and west Africa. African forests are critical to the fight against the climate emergency, absorbing three times more carbon each year than the UK emitted in 2019 according to one study.

Our investigation used Landsat and Sentinel satellite data on established agribusiness concessions across Cameroon, Gabon, Liberia, Nigeria, Cote d’Ivoire and Ghana – countries that have been at the forefront of agribusiness expansion in Africa. Using a combination of automated detection and visual analysis of satellite images, we aimed to find how much forest had been converted to rubber cultivation over a 20-year period (2000-2020).

We found that industrial rubber cultivation across west and central Africa appears to be responsible for almost 520km2 of deforestation since 2000, an area 16 times the size of Brussels. The ecosystems impacted by rubber range from forest reserves in Nigeria and Ghana to the old growth equatorial forests of Cameroon and Gabon.  Meanwhile the value of rubber exports from this region to the EU is over 12 times that of palm oil, a commodity widely associated with deforestation in west and central Africa.

Yet astonishingly, landmark EU and UK laws aiming to curb agricultural imports that fuel deforestation may yet fail to protect Africa’s forests by excluding rubber from the legislation. Plans to omit rubber from the laws would mean the trade flow with arguably the most devastating impact on the rainforest regions of west and central Africa will remain unregulated...

As things currently stand, only palm oil, soy, beef, wood, coffee and cocoa - and some products made with them - will be covered by the EU regulation according to the proposal from the European Commission. This decision has been met with dismay from environmental activists in the forested countries of central and west Africa, who point not only to deforestation but to the impacts on communities who are losing access to land. There is still an opportunity that rubber could be added to the list before the final regulation is approved by EU decision-makers.

The UK government is due to bring forward secondary regulation specifying the commodities covered by the deforestation provision in the recently adopted Environment Act. Options published by the UK government as part of a consultation earlier this year raise the prospect that rubber might not be covered by the law in the immediate term. The UK, like other European countries, relies heavily on rubber imports and consumes an estimated 50 million tyres each year.

A closer look at how European demand for rubber drives deforestation and piles pressure on rural communities across Africa underlines the need for its inclusion in new deforestation laws...

Almost all plantations where deforestation was found to have taken place are currently owned by just three international companies: the Singapore-based firms Olam and Halcyon Agri, and the French and Belgian-owned Socfin, which is listed on the Luxembourg stock exchange. Halcyon Agri and Socfin in particular have been suppliers to European tyre giants such as Michelin and Continental.

Global Witness wrote to these companies prior to publication of this report... [further company comments in the full report]