Since taking office in January 2019, President Jair Bolsonaro has waged a relentless campaign against Brazil’s environmental laws and the rights of its Indigenous Peoples.
This assault helped paved the way for the fires that tore through the Amazon last summer; the highest year on year increase in deforestation in the Amazon for a quarter of a century; a surge in violent land conflicts of almost a quarter, and a record number of murders of Indigenous Peoples. More than half of the conflicts are concentrated in the Amazon region, according to the Pastoral Land Commission, and more than 100,000 people have been affected.
Deeper trade ties
This destruction is largely driven by agricultural expansion - particularly for soy and beef production. So those countries who import these commodities from Brazil bear a responsibility for the deepening disaster.
Chief among them, are Member States of the European Union (EU). The EU is Brazil’s second biggest trading partner, the second biggest market for Brazilian soy, and a major importer of Brazilian beef.
These economic ties are set to deepen, following the conclusion last June of the Mercosur Free Trade Agreement (FTA) between the EU and Brazil and other South American countries. The deal – which will allow the import of 90,000 tonnes beef without tariffs into the EU each year – will fuel further agricultural expansion, and wreak greater havoc in Brazil. Brazil is also seeking a similar deal with the United Kingdom in the wake of Brexit.
As evidence of the Bolsonaro government’s environmental and social crimes has mounted, so has opposition in Europe to the Mercosur deal, with the Austrian, Walloon and Netherlands parliaments all rejecting it in its current form.
Comprehensive evidence of the EU’s role
Calls for the deal to be halted are likely to grow stronger this week, with the publication of the most comprehensive research so far detailing EU complicity in illegal deforestation in the Amazon and the Cerrado, (the latter is the richest savannah in the world in terms of species biodiversity).
Disentangling the opaque supply chains carrying agricultural commodities from their sources to our supermarkets, has been a recurring challenge for those campaigning to ensure that the goods we consume aren’t tainted by deforestation and human rights abuses.
A 2018 study found that only 14% of all soy companies could trace their goods back to the farm of origin (for palm oil the figures were even lower).
Now 12 researchers from Brazil, Germany, Sweden and the USA, have published a study in the journal Science explicitly linking illegal deforestation for soy and cattle farming on individual rural properties in Brazil, to exports of those goods to EU countries.
Using high-powered software they analysed 815,000 individual properties in the Amazon and Cerrado, to assess where potentially illegal deforestation for these goods was occurring, and then used local municipality export data to estimate how many of them were exported to the EU.
They found that roughly 20% of soy exports and at least 17% of beef exports to the EU originating in the Amazon and the Cerrado may be contaminated with illegal deforestation.
Perhaps just as striking is the finding that just 2% of the properties they analysed are responsible for 62% of all potentially illegal deforestation.
The implication of this could be far-reaching, as it shows that ending the illegal destruction of the Amazon and Cerrado doesn’t mean destroying Brazil’s agricultural sector, but rather, constraining the minority responsible for most of the damage. The Bolsonaro government, however, appears hell-bent on giving them a greater license for destruction. Enacting the EU-Mercosur trade deal now would give it an incentive to do so.
This was confirmed by the publication on July 10, of the long overdue Sustainability Impact Assessment (SIA) of the EU-Mercosur deal, and its finding that the agreement will lead to increased deforestation unless Brazil corrects its current path of deregulation.
This fresh evidence, coupled with the deepening environmental and social crises in Brazil, should compel the EU to go back to the drawing board, and propose new provisions in the Mercosur deal which ends its complicity in the country’s present tragedy, rather than wading ever deeper into it.