Workers loading palm oil fruit into trucks in Aceh, Indonesia, on February 29, 2020. Photo: AFP/Zick Maulana/NurPhoto

In a year in which the coronavirus that causes Covid-19 has taught the world the link between tropical deforestation and the spread of deadly zoonotic illnesses, new international free-trade agreements automatically include strict environmental protection provisions, right?

Think again. 

The world’s largest multilateral free-trade pact was signed on November 15, linking the economies of the 10 member states of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), China, Japan, South Korea, Australia and New Zealand into the new Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership.

However, while the RCEP’s text renders forensic detail on investment rules, intellectual-property protection and electronic-commerce regulations, there is not a single provision or mention of environmental or labor-rights protections linked to trade in the entire 20-chapter document. 

Not a word about ensuring that commodity exports, including palm oil and natural rubber from Southeast Asia, don’t fuel deforestation. Not a whisper about the necessity of protecting the rights of the workers whose labor is essential to the economic windfall that the RCEP is predicted to deliver. 

How did the environmental impacts of international trade get sidelined in the RCEP in a year in which the intensifying impact of the climate crisis has prompted United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres to warn that humanity is waging “a suicidal war on nature” that is pushing the planet toward “climate catastrophe”?

The RCEP’s omission of any import and export standards designed to prevent or mitigate environmental harm raises questions about what its drafters were doing during the eight years and 31 rounds of negotiations that produced the treaty. 

The result is unquestionable: a new free-trade market with a population of 2.27 billion people and a combined gross domestic product of US$26.2 trillion utterly unhinged to any concept of trade-related environmental protection standards 

Blame it on a reflexive government response to the economic impact of the pandemic that blindly trades environmental and labor-rights protections for the promise of short-term economic growth.

The new trade grouping has been touted as a vital accelerant for “the post-Covid-pandemic economic recovery” by removing tariffs on industrial and agricultural products among the grouping’s 15 member states.

Analysis of the trade grouping’s implications has been breathless and focused squarely on its projected economic implications, with the Washington-based Brookings Institution estimating that RCEP “could add $209 billion annually to world incomes, and $500 billion to world trade by 2030.” 

The RCEP’s drafters can’t plead that there were no existing models of multilateral trade deals that integrate substantive environmental protections. Another Asia-Pacific free-trade deal, the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP), went into effect in 2018 and includes extensive environmental provisions designed to ensure sustainable commodity imports and protection of biodiversity.

The CPTPP links 11 Pacific states including Canada, Australia, Singapore and Peru under terms that include an Environmental Chapter that specifically recognizes that “trade and environmental policy, including international trade and environmental agreements, should be mutually supportive.”

The treaty commits its member states to respect the specific protections for fishing stocks, biodiversity, “conservation of wild flora and fauna” and curtailment of the illegal wildlife trade. 

The RCEP drafters could also have easily looked to recent governmental initiatives for inspiration on how to ensure that the international commodity trade doesn’t come at the expense of deforestation of tropical rainforests.

In August, the United Kingdom’s international environment minister, Lord Goldsmith, unveiled a draft law that will require corporate supply chains to prove that their products are not linked to illegal deforestation.

In October, the European Parliament called for the imposition of mandatory due diligence regulations requiring companies to prove that products they sell in the European Union do not fuel global deforestation or human rights violations. 

The RCEP drafters’ failure to include labor-rights protections is particularly troublesome given the long history of abusive exploitation of workers in Southeast Asia’s commodity production chains, particularly palm oil and rubber. Palm-oil and rubber exports from Southeast Asia are essential to the industrial manufacturing economies of China, Japan and South Korea.

Labor-rights concerns have been heightened by the publication since September of a series of investigative features by the Associated Press detailing widespread abuses on Southeast Asian oil-palm plantations, including forced labor and sexual violence against women and girls.

Separately, in September the US Customs and Border Protection agency imposed a ban on imports by the Malaysian palm-oil company FGV Holdings due to evidence of “abuse of the vulnerable, deception, physical and sexual violence, intimidation and threats, and retention of identity documents” by company officials. 

The Brookings Institute takes a sanguine view of the absence of environmental and labor rights protections in the RCEP, opining that “ASEAN-centered trade agreements tend to improve over time.” Let’s hope. Because the stakes are high, and time is short.

“Nature feeds us, clothes us, quenches our thirst, generates our oxygen, shapes our culture and our faiths and forges our very identity; 2020 was to have been a ‘super year’ for nature. The pandemic has had other plans for us,” Guterres warned this month. “Now we must use 2021 to address our planetary emergency.”

RCEP member states should take that into mind and reconsider ratification. 

Phelim Kine is the senior director for Asia at the environmental campaign organization Mighty Earth and a former deputy director in Human Rights Watch’s Asia Division. He is also an adjunct professor in the Roosevelt House Public Policy Institute at Hunter College in New York.