Biden urged to work with business, China to protect Southeast Asia rainforest

US president-elect could follow Britain and the EU in moving to ensure supply chains of imported goods do not harm tropical forests, as well as working with other consumer nations like China.

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Palm oil workers in a plantation in Kalimantan Barat, Indonesia. Image: CIFOR, CC BY-SA 2.0

US President-elect Joe Biden should ban imports and financing of commodities linked to deforestation in Asia-Pacific and engage with the region - including China - to reward nations tackling illegal forest clearing, environmentalists said.

Biden’s election as the next US leader, replacing climate-change sceptic Donald Trump, has raised expectations that protecting Southeast Asia’s rainforests, seen as a vital buffer against global warming, will get more attention in Washington.

“In Southeast Asia, much of the rubber, sugar, rice and palm oil that is now responsible for deforestation is ending up in the export market,” said Kerstin Canby, a senior director at US-based nonprofit group Forest Trends.

“While we do not want to limit Southeast Asian countries from being able to responsibly allocate their land for economic development, the fact is that much of this forested land is being cleared illegally,” she added.

In 2019, tropical rainforests - whose preservation is considered crucial to limiting planetary heating - disappeared at a rate of one football pitch every six seconds, according to data from online monitoring service Global Forest Watch.

Green groups blame the production of palm oil, the world’s most widely used edible oil, and other agricultural commodities for much of the destruction, as carbon-storing forests are cleared for plantations, ranches and farms.

To tackle the problem, Britain and the European Union are moving to tighten oversight of supply chains.

Canby urged Biden to follow suit once he takes power, by working with Congress to pass regulations addressing US imports of commodities sourced from illegally cleared land.

If that fails, Biden should explore measures that could be taken through executive action, she said.

David Ganz, executive director of Bangkok-based forestry nonprofit RECOFTC, said that if Biden moved to make business greener by shifting supplier and consumer behaviour, it could pressure Asian governments to set more ambitious climate goals.

“If the US does indeed take on climate change in the way Biden is talking about… that will have massive trickle-down effects to a region that follows a lot of what the US or China does,” he said.

Transparency in trade 

Biden - who has pledged to rejoin the Paris Agreement on climate change and invest $2 trillion to wean his country off planet-warming fossil fuels - has yet to lay out a detailed China strategy.

All the indications are that he will continue a tough approach towards Beijing, with whom Trump has become increasingly confrontational in his last year in office.

Frances Seymour, distinguished senior fellow at the US-based World Resources Institute, said that as well as providing incentives to Southeast Asian commodity-producing nations to remove deforestation from global supply chains, Biden should engage with China and other major consumer countries.

That would send clear negative market signals on imported products linked to illegal forest-clearing and provide positive incentives for those that are sustainably produced, she added.

“If the US, Europe and Australia put in regulations but other countries don’t, you will see a bifurcation of the market: good stuff goes to US and Europe, bad stuff to China and India, etc,” said Canby of Forest Trends.

Biden’s strategy to tackle climate change and biodiversity loss should take a global approach to tropical rainforests that identifies the drivers of deforestation across geographies, said Diana Ruiz, a forest campaigner at Greenpeace USA.

“The US needs to make complete transparency and the monitoring of supply chains a condition of trade and finance,” she said.

“This starts by enacting stricter due-diligence regulations that require financiers and importers to provide proof that products entering the US are not linked to deforestation or human rights abuses.”

This story was published with permission from Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, climate change, resilience, women’s rights, trafficking and property rights. Visit

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