Deforestation Is a Crime

A new bipartisan bill would treat it that way.

Burned trees amid a smoking landscaoe
Ron Haviv / VII / Redux

The world doesn’t agree on many things, but one of them is that global deforestation is a problem. If deforestation were a country, it would be the world’s third-largest source of climate-warming pollution, after the United States and China. (It would also be a terrible place to live—bulldozers everywhere and no shade to speak of.) Parts of the Amazon now emit more carbon pollution than they capture because of deforestation, a recent study found.

Knowing about a problem is, of course, different from knowing what to do about it. Two years ago, the world watched some 40,000 fires burn across the Amazon rainforest, more than twice the usual rate, producing so much smoke that they darkened the sky of São Paulo, Brazil, hundreds of miles away. The fires risked damaging the roughly 3 million species that live in the Amazon—or, worse still, triggering a feedback loop of dieback in the forest. These fires were mostly man-made: Farmers and ranchers were setting them illegally so that they could expand their cattle operations. World leaders pressured Brazil to end the fires and offered their support, but Jair Bolsonaro, the country’s president, declined any help.

Public attention moved on, but the ranching problem did not. The United States now imports nearly 60,000 tons of Brazilian beef a year. A cow raised on that deforested land may now be in your cheeseburger, Rick Jacobsen, a commodities expert at the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA), told me. Brazil simply has no way to track individual cattle through its maze of ranches, some of which are on illegally deforested land.

This is how many stories about the destruction of the natural world seem to go: The world’s attention homes in on a crisis, nothing changes, attention goes elsewhere. These problems seem so big that we’re implicated in them somehow—someone ordered that burger—and yet we can’t really do anything about them on the necessary scale. Shrug (guiltily, perhaps), move on.

But this is why we have laws, through which we can try to attack such problems at the scale necessary to shift reality, at least by a few million acres. Most illegal deforestation is driven by farmers hoping to produce a few key commodities, which global consumers keep demanding more of. Now, as part of a global effort to take on the root causes of deforestation, Congress may amend the century-old law that prevents companies from importing illegally trafficked animals and plants into the United States for the first time in more than a decade. A bipartisan group of lawmakers has proposed expanding that law, called the Lacey Act, to cover six commodities—palm oil, soybeans, cattle, rubber, pulp, and cocoa—that are among the largest drivers of illegal deforestation.

“This is a real problem, and there has not been major federal legislation yet in this space, and we wanted to announce to the world that we’re serious,” Senator Brian Schatz, a Democrat of Hawaii and a co-sponsor of the bill, told me. The new bill would require companies to generate a paper trail for certain commodities to make sure that they were not derived from illegal deforestation, which customs officers could then check at the border. The idea is to create a way to sort through commodities so ubiquitous—palm oil is, to first approximation, in everything—that right now it’s essentially impossible to distinguish a “good” product from a “bad” one.

Representative Brian Fitzpatrick, a Republican of Pennsylvania, is also sponsoring the bill, as is Representative Earl Blumenauer, an Oregon Democrat. The proposal would classify illegal deforestation as a financial crime, allowing prosecutors to target companies that use proceeds from it to fund criminal activity.

The bill is part of a new, transatlantic push to address the economic causes of illegal deforestation. The U.K. Parliament is considering its own bill that would limit the importing of certain deforestation-linked commodities ahead of the 26th Conference of the Parties, the annual United Nations climate conference that will be held in Glasgow in a few weeks. The European Union is working on a similar regulation, a leaked draft revealed this week.

The three proposals would address only deforestation that is illegal in the country where it occurs. That would encompass a significant amount of destruction: more than 94 percent of the deforestation happening in the Amazon rainforest in Brazil, and more than 80 percent of Indonesian tropics cleared for palm oil. But it would not give regulators the freedom to block commodities from much of the Brazilian Cerrado, a grassland ecosystem that is, remarkably, even more endangered than the Amazon. Just 3 percent of the Cerrado is protected by Brazilian law, according to the World Wildlife Fund.

“We’re going to need a cooperative global effort to reduce and eventually eliminate illegal deforestation,” Schatz said. “It is very important that coming into COP26 in Glasgow, that we reassert American leadership, not just on electricity generation and climate—which obviously I’m working on—but on supporting conservation projects.”

Jacobsen, the EIA researcher, said that one of the bill’s most important provisions is establishing a traceability requirement. “Whenever you’re trying to protect your supply chain from deforestation, you have to know the supply chain” first, he told me. Many companies do not know their suppliers’ suppliers, he said: A recent EIA investigation identified that the U.S. had been importing illegally harvested Russian timber because it first passed through a flooring factory in China.

Congress has expanded the Lacey Act on a bipartisan basis before. In 2008, it altered the law to cover rainforest-timber products as part of that year’s must-pass Farm Bill. The next Farm Bill is up in 2023, but as of yet there is no plan to attach this bill to it. “I don’t know what the path to passage is, partly because I just do one thing at a time,” Schatz told me. What is most important, he said, is showing that the U.S. is serious about fighting deforestation before the UN climate negotiations begin next month.