NGO Earthsight reports charcoal from the Chaco region has been sold in Aldi, Lidl and Carrefour in Spain and Germany
No tropical forests anywhere in the world are being destroyed more rapidly than the Chaco stretching across Argentina, Bolivia and Paraguay. Not the Amazon in Brazil, nor in Indonesia, Malaysia or the Democratic Republic of Congo.
At least, that is according to a University of Maryland-led study published in 2013. And the carnage continues today. In July British NGO Earthsight released a report stating that “the latest available analysis [by Paraguayan NGO Guyra], covering January 2017, suggests that the rate of deforestation has kept pace since the Maryland paper. The Paraguayan Chaco is on course to lose more than 200,000 hectares of forest this year: an area the size of Manhattan every fortnight.”
According to Earthsight’s report, Choice Cuts: How European and US BBQs are fuelled by a hidden deforestation crisis in South America, the biggest driver is cattle-ranching for beef - the majority of which is exported. Another big driver - and focus of the report - is charcoal, with the majority exported too.
“[Charcoal] provides a further, lucrative, incentive to destroy what remains of the Chaco and helps cover the up-front costs of clearing forest for cattle,” Earthsight states. “The dense, slow-growing hardwood trees of the Chaco provide high-quality charcoal which burns hot and slowly with little smoke. The most sought-after species is quebracho blanco, among the largest tree species in the region ... [and] important for indigenous groups like the Ayoreo, who collect honey from nests in its branches.”
According to Choice Cuts, Paraguay is one of the world’s top five charcoal exporters and the EU is “by far” its largest export destination, with Germany and the UK the most important markets. The report focuses on a company called Bricapar, Paraguay’s largest exporter and the source of 40% of the EU’s Paraguayan imports in 2017. Earthsight claims that Bricapar is sourcing charcoal from an area in the Chaco where forest is being cleared unsustainably, and that some of its products have been ending up in supermarkets in the EU and US, including Carrefour in Spain and both Lidl and Aldi in Spain and Germany.
Earthsight researchers, undercover, visited one Bricapar facility in the Chaco. “The manager of the site confirmed to investigators that it is owned by Bricapar and supplies charcoal for export to Europe and the US,” Choice Cuts states. “He said that it processes only quebracho blanco, because the species is preferred by European buyers.”
Earthsight also traces charcoal from the Paraguayan Chaco to the UK specifically. The report states that the chief executive of the company handling Bricapar’s marketing in Europe, Ibecosol, told Earthsight undercover that Chaco charcoal is being sold to “the restaurant and hotel sector in the UK”, while charcoal from another top Paraguayan exporter, Dolimex, appears to end up in “thousands of independent shops and through petrol station chains across the UK.”
Choice Cuts identifies the most important impacts of the deforestation, including biodiversity loss, increasing pressure on water reserves, starvation threats to large animals such as pumas and jaguars, and extinction threats to endemic species. In addition, the report points out that “nearly all of the Paraguayan Chaco is the ancestral territory of various indigenous groups”, most notably the Ayoreo. While Choice Cuts focuses on charcoal coming from a parcel of land just to the west of historic Ayoreo territory, it suggests that Bricapar may also have recently sourced some charcoal from a “huge new area” the other side of the Trans-Chaco Highway inside Ayoreo land.
Earthsight also highlights that the deforestation across the Chaco as a whole is impacting Ayoreo living in “isolation” who have little or no contact with anyone else, including other Ayoreo. According to British NGO Survival International, one Ayoreo sub-group, the Totobiegosode, has been in “landmark talks” with the government in recent months after an almost 25 year struggle for their land rights. Some Totobiegosode continue to live in “isolation.” Following a petition by Totobiegosode organization OPIT, early last year the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights requested that Paraguay’s government protect their territory and stop the deforestation taking place there.
Earthsight’s conclusion in Choice Cuts is that Europe - given its demand for Paraguayan charcoal and beef as well as leather - is complicit in the Chaco’s “destruction.” Its recommendations are clear: the EU must close loopholes in existing legislation which do not include charcoal and must “implement broader actions covering beef and other commodities”, while major supermarkets should “investigate more thoroughly the source of relevant products ... and be more sceptical of sustainability claims made by suppliers.”
“[The supermarkets] must join the long list of other major consumer goods firms which have committed to eliminate sales of products which are connected to deforestation,” Earthsight states.
The release of Choice Cuts led quickly to the launch of a petition by German NGO Rainforest Rescue urging Aldi, Lidl and Carrefour to take “immediate action” to ensure that “no charcoal from forest destruction in Paraguay is sold by your company.” The petition, now signed by almost 128,000 people, states that “charcoal producers are clear-cutting the country’s tropical forests, doing the dirty work for the beef industry who then use the cleared land to rear cattle”, and argues that the impacts on the environment and local people are “devastating.”
So what do the supermarkets think of Earthsight’s findings and will they take any action? The NGO wrote to them before publishing Choice Cuts and quoted from their responses in the report. Carrefour said it had “launched an investigation and temporarily suspended further products” from one of Ibecosol’s product lines, while Aldi Nord confirmed it had sourced charcoal from Bricapar through a supplier, Boomex, but its last purchase was in 2016 and it wouldn’t buy from the company this year. Lidl Spain and Aldi Sud were not quoted as intending to take any action, while Lidl Germany did not respond.
Carrefour repeated to the Guardian what it told Earthsight, saying “we have launched an immediate investigation” and “decided to suspend the purchase of one product supplied by Ibecosol until further investigation is completed.” But the company also says that Ibecosol denies Earthsight’s allegations, and that they do not apply to Carrefour’s own brand products.
Aldi Nord sent a statement to the Guardian saying it takes Earthsight’s research “very seriously” and repeated what it told the NGO about not sourcing from Boomex in 2017.
“We also do not have a supplier relationship with the company Ibecosol,” says Aldi Nord’s Matthias Kräling. “We last traded residual quantities of a batch of charcoal briquettes, dating from 2015, from Boomex at the beginning of 2016. Boomex confirms that the Paraguayan timber used for Aldi North in 2015 and the beginning of 2016 comes from a state-licensed region. Boomex states that its subcontractor Bricapar complied with the valid national laws on land use and environmental management and confirms this with documents from SEAM (Environment Secretary of Paraguay) and INFONA (Forest National Institute).”
Aldi Sud sent an almost identically-worded statement to the Guardian, saying that it is taking Earthsight’s findings “very seriously” too but it is continuing to source from Boomex in 2017.
“One of our suppliers is Boomex [which] confirms that the Paraguayan timber used for Aldi South in 2017 comes from a state-licensed region,” says Aldi Sud’s Berit Kunze-Hullmann. “Boomex states that its subcontractor Bricapar complied with national laws on land use and environmental management and proves this with documents from SEAM and INFONA.”
Lidl Spain told the Guardian it insists on “strict sustainability standards” in all its business. “We are certain that our supplier Ibecosol obtains all the necessary accreditations to certify sustainable practices, including sustainable origin certifications for raw materials,” the company says. “This has been confirmed by Business Social Compliance Initiative audits from the supplier as well as Programme for the Endorsement of Forest Certification (PEFC) certification.”
But what kind of guarantee does PEFC really offer? All of Aldi Nord, Aldi Sud and Lidl Spain told the Guardian they buy PEFC timber, but Earthsight points out this is sometimes “meaningless.” In Choice Cuts it states that such certificates only apply to charcoal briquettes, not lumpwood charcoal, although it is lumpwood charcoal from Ibecosol that Lidl Spain has been sourcing. “Bricapar and Ibecosol have been falsely using their PEFC status to reassure European retailers of their lumpwood charcoal,” it alleges.
In addition, Earthsight argues that despite the fact that the charcoal briquettes are classified as “recycled”, the PEFC’s definition of that word is flawed because it fails to exclude products made from forests cleared for conversion into cattle pasture. “If they understood the production process fully, it seems unlikely that the supermarkets buying these products or their customers would be persuaded by PEFC and Bricapar’s argument that these products qualify as ‘recycled’,” the report states.
Earthsight’s Sam Lawson told the Guardian that he is “disappointed” with the supermarkets’ responses to date. “[The charcoal sold in the supermarkets] is clearly all for use in consumer barbecue cooking,” he says. “Based on what we know so far, the only one which has agreed to halt sales of the specific product in question is Carrefour, and even they have yet to make any broader public sourcing policy commitment which would ensure that they do not stock similarly controversial charcoal products in future.”
Earthsight also wrote to both Bricapar and Ibecosol before publishing Choice Cuts and included part of the companies’ responses in the report. Bricapar stated it sources “wood rolls and its residues” from “legal use of forests, and “complies with local regulations which require 25 percent of the total leased area to be reserved as forest, plus 100 metre-wide strips around each authorised plot, within which 30 per cent of standing trees are also retained.” In addition, it stated that the Ayoreo are not within the “direct or indirect influence area” of its operations, and distanced itself from the deforestation. It is “the owners of the establishments that carry out the activities of forestry,” the company wrote, “and NOT BRICAPAR.”
Ibecosol’s reply to Earthsight was made through a law firm which called the NGO’s findings “completely false”, but didn’t give “any evidence to substantiate [that] or provide any specific response regarding the sustainability claims.”