Politico’s Europe Arm Takes the Greenpeace Bait Hook, Line, and Sinker

Politico’s EU office appears to have fallen for the NGO line on the EU’s new deforestation regulation. In an article from late December by Leonie Kijewski, Politico EU effectively ran Greenpeace talking points on the EU regulation with zero criticism or analysis.

The article states that ‘Indonesian activists’ argue that the EU rules are flawed. The Indonesian activists being referred to are, however, Greenpeace.

It’s worth noting that Greenpeace’s actual support on the ground in Indonesia is minimal at best. Around two-thirds of Greenpeace Southeast Asia’s budget actually comes from European government donations, not from on-ground supporters. Not exactly a groundswell of local support.

Those with a familiarity of Greenpeace and Western green groups in Indonesia would know two things. First, Greenpeace (contrary to some of its claims) is more interested in stopping palm oil than stopping deforestation. Second, the NGOs in Indonesia that are genuinely interested in stopping deforestation are already working closely with smallholder farmers, certification schemes, companies and government agencies – and Greenpeace is not one of them.

Flaws Debunked

There are a number of flaws in the piece, starting from the headline. We run through them below.

“[Indonesia’s] population, and in particular indigenous peoples, rely on forests for their livelihoods.”

It is true that many people in Indonesia rely on forests for their livelihoods. But it’s also the case that millions of Indonesian smallholder farmers rely on access to land and international markets such as the European Union.  Estimates include around 2.7 million palm oil smallholders, 1.4 million cocoa smallholders and 1.5 million coffee smallholders – around 5.5 million farmers and their families.  This would be somewhere in excess of 20 million people, whose livelihoods are potentially put at risk by EU regulations that will act as a trade barrier.

“And in their fight against deforestation, some activists are being killed.”

Well, this is lazy reporting, probably as a result of the reporter not quite understanding the context, nuances and history of land disputes in Indonesia. The Reuters story linked describes ‘activists’ being killed for actions against deforestation. However, that tragic story is much more complex, as local journalists in Indonesia – rather than Western correspondents indicate. The deaths appear to concern a land dispute and historical disagreements over land dating back to 2005, rather than environmental activism per se. Such disputes are common, and sadly they often have unpleasant outcomes. The judge’s findings – when the killers were brought to justice – are available here. A statement from Indonesia’s Independent Journalist’s Alliance is also available here.

“The main hurdle, Greenpeace activist Syahrul Fitra explained, is traceability. Products linked to deforestation could be sent for processing to other countries, where companies might try to evade the rules.”

There are two problems here. First, traceability of palm oil to the plantation for European markets has already been well established, with a large number of companies establishing segregated supply chains. Second, the idea that European companies would process palm oil into other products offshore and then export to Europe for European markets is, frankly, absurd. Particularly when considering that the EU already has extremely onerous regulations on the import of chemicals and food.

“Most of Indonesia’s palm oil — one of the main drivers for deforestation in the country — gets exported to China and India, followed by Pakistan, Bangladesh and Malaysia. Exports to Europe only present a fraction of the palm oil that’s shipped from Indonesia.”

This is wrong in its description of vegetable oil markets and the impact of trade bans.

The EU is currently the third-largest importer of palm oil from Indonesia; in recent years it has been the second-largest. This is a basic point that a trade reporter should be getting right.

But Greenpeace and Politico are oblivious to a clear flaw in using trade bans as a means to fixing extraterritorial environmental problems. Banning trade doesn’t impact the deforestation itself; if the EU’s trade barriers become too onerous, Indonesian palm oil gets diverted to other markets (e.g. China, India, Pakistan) and palm oil – or even other vegetable oils — from other countries with lower deforestation rates will have a greater place in the EU market. It’s not as though the overall demand for vegetable oils will drop globally, or this demand can be magically met by other oils.

This begs the question: what is Greenpeace actually arguing for? The solution that has been proven to work – engagement in certification and sustainability – is being ignored by Politico here in favour of the hardline trade ban rhetoric of Greenpeace (even most other NGOs consider this approach beyond the pale).

“As evidence of how little rules cooked up in Brussels change things on the ground, he pointed to the EU’s timber regulation, which attempted to curb the flow of illegally logged wood products. In some of Indonesia’s crucial forest regions, there was next to no improvement, with businesses being able to easily circumvent the ban.”

False. Despite what Greenpeace says, many of Indonesia’s genuine environmental NGOs have thrown their weight behind the EU Timber Regulation and its associated agreement between the EU and Indonesia – and it’s important to distinguish between the EU-Indonesia VPA and the broader FLEGT program.

Here’s what CIFOR – the world’s most credible forest research organisation – said about the Indonesia agreement in a report it published for the FAO.

“There has been a decrease in illegal logging rates notably in production forests mandated to have management plans, where those are now better implemented than in the past, and the VPA has contributed positively towards such evolution.”

“The voices and opinions of many local communities and indigenous people are not only better listened to, but also receive more consideration when decisions are adopted and implemented on the forests where they live, with the VPA process contributing positively to these trends.”

“More consideration is given to the status of women, youth and marginalised groups when decisions are taken in the forest sector, but the VPA process has had a marginal contribution to this change. If this area remains a target impact for the VPA process – based on the premise that women, youth and marginalized groups contribute much to better management of the forests – then renewed strategies and efforts of intervention are warranted.”

Given the choice between Greenpeace’s activist opinions and the research of a credible intergovernmental research body, we’d take the latter. Politico appears to prefer the former. Has Politico ‘had enough of experts’ such as CIFOR … and now only wants clickbait-friendly activist voices?

The entire Politico story is, sadly, emblematic of the Berlaymont bubble approach to reporting on developing countries: rather than doing the hard work of discovering truths on the other side of the world, those in Brussels would appear to prefer to be fed opinions that match pre-existing biases. This approach turns everything into a one-sided, black-and-white story and ignores the complexities of context, history and local circumstances.

Yes, everyone can have an opinion on events in countries they’re not familiar with; but gathering facts from the ground before forming those opinions is better. Isn’t this what basic journalism training should cover?

One can’t help but wonder if Axios is planning a Brussels operation anytime soon. It may be sorely needed.