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How local rights can halt global wrongs: the legal path to sustainable farming in Brazil

by Nicole Polsterer

Agricultural expansion is devastating the world’s forests.

In Brazil the levelling of forests to grow soy to feed an insatiable export market has also led to human rights violations, including forced evictions, land grabs and violence.

As a major destination for Brazilian soy, the European Union – which imports 14 million tonnes of soy from Brazil a year, mostly for animal feed - is deeply complicit in this.

While there is no single, silver bullet solution, various remedies have gained support in recent years, from switching to more balanced diets, to companies fulfilling pledges to free their supply chains from deforestation, to increasing the production of protein crops in Europe.

The EU – which has made commitments to halt deforestation by 2020 – is also looking into developing an EU Action Plan on Deforestation.

Central to tackling the role that EU consumption plays in driving tropical deforestation is overhauling the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP), which has made shipping soybeans (and soy meal and cake) thousands of miles across the Atlantic from Brazil cheaper than producing animal feed in Europe.

The EU is looking to modernise the CAP by changing its subsidy mechanisms, and civil society voices are increasingly calling for it to support small scale or community farming – agroecology - as a way of both halting deforestation and reducing inequality.

The main aim of agroecology is to produce food for local consumption to sell at a fair price. It emphasises environmental sustainability and social welfare. Through growing several different crops on the same plot, and using organic methods of fertilisation and pest control, agroecology also produces food that is high quality and affordable, while providing rural employment and helping farmers achieve self-determination.

Since 2007 the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organisation (UN FAO) has highlighted how low-input, organic agriculture can increase yields, but these statements have gone largely unnoticed in discussions about how to feed a growing world population.

But a report for Fern by Professor Gladstone Leonel Júnior, who teaches law at Fluminense Federal University in Rio, reveals how existing national and international legal frameworks can be used to support agroecology in Brazil, which would reduce the pressure to convert forests to large soy plantations to feed the EU and other export markets.

Despite its undoubted benefits, the existing Brazilian legal framework is under-used in supporting agroecology in Brazil. National priorities remain focused on large-scale commercial agriculture: cattle ranches or plantations growing single crops such as soy, sugar cane or eucalyptus – all of which comes at a huge environmental and social cost.

On the other hand, as Professor Leonel Júnior shows, agroecology is an approach well-aligned to the Brazilian Federal Constitution, which emphasises social justice and the need to eradicate poverty. The Constitution also states that Brazil must be governed by international agreements, such as those on biodiversity and species protection, and by the supremacy of human rights. By strengthening the domestic food market, agroecology enables greater social inclusion. As domestic production increases, diversifies and involves more people, this could lead to an improved and more accessible food supply, with consequent benefits for health. This would help achieve the human rights to adequate food, work, health and the environment.

Agroecology demonstrates that human rights can be implemented through adopting a farming model not based on worker exploitation and large-scale deforestation but on sustainability – in social, environmental and economic terms. Lawyers, engaged citizens and city dwellers can work with rural people to generate real gains for all.

Despite considerable obstacles, the development of agroecology is essential for a world in which people produce food in a way that sustains life and livelihoods for themselves and their descendants.

So, what can the EU do to encourage this and support legislation to ensure responsible sourcing of soy from Brazil and other Latin American countries where deforestation and human rights violations are rife?

An immediate step would be for the EU’s deliberations on the new CAP and the EU trade agreements with Mercosur countries (Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay and Uruguay) to include consideration of how to encourage agroecology.

The future CAP must decrease deforestation and increase animal welfare by supporting low-input, organic and sustainable food production.

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The right to agroecology: Using the law to support sustainable farming in Brazil is available to download from Fern’s website.