Sacrificing forests and rights for trade 

Calling the world’s fourth largest democracy a ‘pariah state’ might seem extreme, but - in the midst of Brazil’s deepening economic, political and health crises - the actions of the country’s President, Jair Bolsonaro, increasingly justify saddling the nation with that description. 

In his first 100 days in office, as we documented at the time, Bolsonaro set the path for what’s followed: immediately launching an assault on the country’s environmental protections, and stripping away the rights of its Indigenous Peoples. 

Now, after 18 months in power, the question that Fern and other NGOs asked back then is even more pressing: when will the European Union (EU) end its complicity in the unfolding catastrophe? 

The economies of Brazil and the EU are deeply entwined. The EU is the world’s largest single market, and Brazil’s second largest trading partner. 

A huge part of this trade centres around the agricultural goods which are driving the destruction of the Amazon and the Cerrado. 

The EU is the second biggest market for Brazilian soy and a significant importer of Brazilian beef. Evidence linking these industries to social conflict, land grabs and deforestation is overwhelming. Yet it seems that the EU is willing to ignore this and expand its role in these harmful sectors with increased trade. 

In June 2019, after 20 years of negotiations, the EU finalised a Free Trade Agreement (FTA) with the Mercosur bloc of nations, of which Brazil is the largest member. If unopposed, this deal will allow the import of 99,000 tonnes of beef tariff-free - sacrificing forests and rights on the altar of trade

But it’s not too late to act, and the momentum to stop the deal is gathering pace. 

The Austrian, Walloon and Netherlands parliaments have all rejected the Mercosur deal in its current form, and highest political representatives of France and Ireland have expressly criticised it. It seems they also have the support of some powerful financial players. 

This month European investors managing trillions of dollars of assets wrote an open letter warning that they could withdraw their investments in Brazil because increasing deforestation and the “dismantling” of policies to protect the environment and Indigenous Peoples are “creating widespread uncertainty”. 

With Germany assuming the EU Council Presidency this week, now is the time for those calling for the EU to discard the Mercosur agreement, to raise their voices -  and for the EU to underline its commitment to protecting human rights and the environment. 

This briefing on Brazil’s unfolding disaster offers an unassailable case for EU action. 

At its core is the testimony of our Brazilian partners – those at the vanguard of resisting the Bolsonaro government’s destructive agenda. 

“This is a government that wants to hand over our territories to large-scale agriculture. Not only do they have a policy of not granting us rights to our land, it is worse - they are trying to take away land we already have the rights to,” says Sônia Guajajara, the Coordinator of Articulation of the Indigenous Peoples of Brazil (APIB) which represents 300 Brazilian Indigenous Peoples groups. 

Incursions into Indigenous lands have risen, along with violence against Indigenous Peoples. 

“Whereas before there were violent land conflicts, now it is incited by the hate speech coming from the federal government. Every day they incite violence. People think they have the right to kill with impunity,” says Guajajara. 

She and other Brazilians are asking the world – and the EU, whose consumption and investment directly affects events in Brazil – to take heed. 


Paulo Barreto, Imazon 

‘Brazil is already becoming a Pariah state. Going forward will be chaotic and tense’ 

“Deforestation was already bad, the trend was upwards, then government reduced law enforcement last year. 

They have a very aggressive discourse against environmental protection. Land grabbers and gold miners feel confident that they can operate illegally and with impunity. 

In December 2019 the government issued a provisional measure (MP 910) for a land-grabbing bill, with increased area size and subsidy. It would be profitable to invade public land. 

There is now draft legislation going through Congress (PL 2633). They use a false argument that they need to identify who the bandit is to fine them, and only by giving them the land title can they identify them. It’s a ridiculous, twisted idea. 

The intention is clear but there is enough pressure to block it. There was a backlash against this, even from private CEOs. 

Bringing high profile private sector people to speak out has been really important, like Candido Bracher, CEO of Itaú Unibanco, the largest private bank in Brazil. 

The government likes to portray that it is agribusiness versus environmentalists but here are private CEOs saying - in private and in public - that this is bad for Brazil, bad for the economy. Changing this narrative is critical. 

The most effective methods are related to the financial sector. They [the government] are not going to listen to civil society. Pressure on the markets is critical. 

If the EU-Mercosur trade agreement is not ratified it will affect not just the agribusiness sector but other sectors in Brazil. 

Brazil projected that the agreement would bring in R$500 billion (85 billion euro) over a decade in added Gross Domestic Product. 

With the pandemic, Brazil is even more vulnerable. The economy is in recession. The Brazilian currency, the Real, is the most devalued currency in the world in 2020. Brazil needs more investment so it is prone to pressure. 

In terms of solutions, I think it is very important to target the Amazon state governors. If investment is blocked it will be the Amazon states that will suffer. 

I think Brazil is already becoming a Pariah state

Going forward it will be chaotic and tense. The intentions of the government are clear. The issue is how much damage Bolsonaro can do in the remainder of his Presidency [until Oct 2022] and how much the market can act responsibly. The pressure is on. 

Transparency is clear. We need to connect this with the institutions who are willing to demand better policies against deforestation and in favour of sustainable development. International support is key.” 

Paulo Barreto is Senior Researcher at Imazon an independent non-profit organisation based in Belém, Brazil, which promotes conservation and sustainable development in the Amazon. Paulo has published 117 articles, a book, book chapters and reports

A nation in turmoil 

Eighteen months into his four-year term, President Jair Bolsonaro of Brazil is mired in domestic political scandals, and his approval rating is plummeting. 

Brazil’s economy is in freefall, with capital fleeing at levels not seen since the 1990s. 

The currency, the Real, is now the most devalued in the world. 

The country is also the second worst-hit by COVID-19 on the planet, with no end to the spread of the virus in sight. 

All this is creating a febrile political and social atmosphere, and the sound of protestors banging pots and pans can be heard ringing out nightly from balconies across the country. 

But along with his reckless handling of the coronavirus crisis, Bolsonaro’s policies on the environment and human rights are also ringing international alarm bells. 

The catalogue of environmental and human damage since he took office on January 1, 2019, continues to mount. 

From August 2018 to July 2019, over 10,000 square kilometres of the Amazon rainforest was cut down, a rise of 34 per cent. This represents the worst year on year increase for a quarter of a century. (The Brazilian government’s attempt to challenge these figures in a letter to the members of the European Parliament in the second week of June, was thoroughly debunked.) 

Yet while international attention has focussed on the Amazon – especially during the fires which ripped through it in August 2019 - other important Brazilian biomes are also suffering. 

The Cerrado, considered the richest savannah in the world in terms of species biodiversity, has had 55 per cent of its area transformed into agricultural land in the last half century, much of it to meet international demand for beef and soy, including the EU’s. 

And the destruction of the Atlantic rainforest - which 200 years ago covered Brazil’s entire Atlantic coastline in a green mass, and penetrated as far as 300 kilometres into the interior but which has diminished by a staggering 93 per cent in the last 100 years - has also accelerated under Bolsonaro. 

Between 2018 and 2019, deforestation there rose by around 27 per cent compared to the previous period. If this continues, the biodiversity loss will be unfathomable: half the species in the Atlantic forest are not found anywhere else in the world, and the vast majority of the more than 200 mammals that risk being made extinct in Brazil, live in the Atlantic rainforest. 

The Amazon in peril: a snapshot


The human cost  

Accompanying this grim environmental toll, is the spiralling human cost. 

Since Bolsonaro came to power, violent land conflicts have surged by almost a quarter and a record number of Indigenous People have been murdered. 

More than half of the conflicts are concentrated in the Amazon region, according to the Pastoral Land Commission. These conflicts have affected more than 100,000 families and represent the biggest total since records began 34 years ago. 

Furthermore, an analysis by the Federal Prosecutor's Office (Ministério Público Federal) found that almost 10,000 properties in Brazil's Rural Environmental Registry (a mandatory electronic registration of rural property) overlap with Indigenous lands that are in different stages of regularization, and areas with restricted use. 

Murder with impunity 

Nine Indigenous People - including seven leaders - were among 32 people murdered during land conflicts over the last year. 

  • Paulo Paulino Guajajara, 26, a leader of the Guajajara Indigenous group, was shot dead in November 2019 in an ambush by loggers on his own land. 
  • The body of Zezico Guajajara was found near his village in the state of Maranhão in March 2020. He had been shot. 

He was a supporter of Guardians of the Forest, a group formed to combat logging gangs in the area. 

Ari Uru-Eu-Wau-Wau, 33, bled to death after being attacked with a blunt object in April 2020 in the state of Rondonia. 

He was part of group whose job was to denounce illegal logging within the territory. 

According to the APIB, that month a group 40 men had invaded the land and cut down 100 hectares, saying they would live there because it had been authorised by the federal government. 

His uncle, Awapu, is the leader of Indigenous Uru-Eu-Wau-Wau peoples, and has suffered constant death threats himself. 

 These atrocities are happening against the backdrop of eroding environmental and human rights safeguards, which began immediately after Bolsonaro took power. 

On his first day in office, Bolsonaro issued a provisional measure removing the responsibility for Indigenous land demarcation from the government’s Indigenous affairs agency, FUNAI, and passing it to the agriculture ministry. 

Since then, the legislative assault on environmental and human rights protections has continued unabated. 

In February 2020, Bolsonaro proposed a law to allow commercial mining in Indigenous territories. From an estimated population of up to five million prior to colonisation, Brazil has around 850,000 Indigenous Peoples for whom 12 per cent of the country’s land is set aside. 

Applications to mine on Indigenous lands in the Amazon have increased by 91 per cent under Bolsonaro. These are mostly for gold, copper and diamond exploitation threatening the Kayapó and Munduruku peoples, among many others. 

The Brazilian subsidiary of Anglo American, based in London, submitted six requests for mineral exploration on Indigenous lands in 2019 and 46 since 2010. 

When mining activities encroach on Indigenous lands they are often suspended but the requests not rejected. “We call them Snow White processes,” says Márcio Santilli of the Brazilian NGO, Instituto Socioambiental. “They are laying in wait for the prince charming’s kiss - from the National Mining Agency”. 

Meanwhile, an alliance of NGOs and Brazilian political parties filed a lawsuit in June 2020 demanding the annulment of an order issued by the President of the environmental agency Ibama, Eduardo Bim, which allows the export of native wood without inspection, at the express request of loggers. 

The latest salvo against environmental protections, is the so-called land-grabbing bill, that Bolsonaro is attempting to push through, and which would clear the way for illegal loggers and ranchers to legalise land seizures in protected rainforest. 

This proposal, known as PL 2633, could move up to 65,000 square kilometres of public land into private hands. 

Opposition to the proposal is not just coming from the usual quarters. 

“It rewards land grabbing and illegal deforestation. It is an attack on the Amazon, Brazil and Brazilians,” says Candido Bracher, CEO of Itaú Unibanco, the largest private bank in Brazil. 

In May 2020, in an open letter to the Brazilian Congress, leading UK supermarkets Sainsbury’s, Tesco, Morrisons and Marks and Spencer and more than 30 others, threatened to boycott Brazilian goods if the land-grabbing bill is passed. Two major German chains also signed the letter. The NGO Campact has collected 350,000 signatures calling on Germany’s three other major supermarkets to follow suit. 

Sônia Guajajara, 

Articulation of the Indigenous Peoples of Brazil (APIB) 

 ‘It’s more like the meeting of an organised crime syndicate than a Presidential cabinet session’ 

“Threats have intensified and have moved from discourse to reality. 

This is a government that wants to hand over our territories to large-scale agriculture. Not only do they have a policy of not granting us rights to our land, it is worse - they are trying to take away land we already have the rights to. 

There has been a weakening of public organs. The environmental agencies Ibama and ICMBio and the Indigenous agency Funai have been totally dismantled to serve the interests of the government. 

This government has a pact with loggers, agribusiness and mining companies. They are legitimising invasions, giving amnesty against [those] fined for them and promising to legalise the practice. 

There are 20,000 gold miners inside Yanomami lands. They say clearly that they are waiting for authorisation from the federal government. 

Whereas before there were violent land conflicts, now it is incited by the hate speech coming from the federal government. Every day they incite violence. People think they have the right to kill with impunity.  

The ministerial meeting that was made public was more like the meeting of an organised crime syndicate than a Presidential cabinet session. 

I felt totally threatened because this a real attack on our identity. They want to deny our history and origins, to delete history, to kill our culture

It’s frightening to see, planning the destruction of the country, taking away rights. 

It’s been 500 years of resistance. Joênia Wapichana was elected as a federal deputy in 2019 and is the first Indigenous woman in the history of Brazil’s Congress. She has become an important voice for us.” 

* Sônia Guajajara is the Coordinator of APIB which represents 300 Indigenous Peoples’ groups. 

Amazon Fund 

Both the Amazon Fund and the Climate Fund - two of Brazil’s biggest environmental financial levers - have been frozen since Bolsonaro took office, severely hampering compliance with the domestic national policy on climate change, and the Paris Accord. 

Amazon Council 

As a direct response to criticism at Davos over the Brazilian government’s response to the Amazon fires of 2019, the Amazon Council was formed by the Vice-President, Hamilton Mourão. But it is comprised of 19 military personnel and without the participation of two key organs in the protection of the Amazon, the environmental agency Ibama and the indigenous agency, Funai. 

Covid-19: A disaster

"It's just a little flu" Jair Bolsonaro, President 

Pandemics are the result of destruction of nature, say the World Health Organisation and the United Nations, in a report released in June 2020. 

Ironically it is the state of the Amazon which has been the hardest hit by the coronavirus in Brazil - and it has one of the most underfunded health systems in the country. 

The world has recoiled in horror over President Jair Bolsonaro’s recklessness during the crisis, dismissing it as “a little flu”, renouncing social distancing measures and shrugging his shoulders at the catastrophic and climbing mortality rate in the country with the words: ‘So what?’. 

He has sacked one health minister, a second resigned within a month, and the current minister is an interim military man. 

In June he even enticed his supporters to find a way to get into COVID-19 wards and film them on their mobile phones to ‘prove’ that emergency beds were empty. They did - and they weren’t. 

Sônia Guajajara says that ethnic groups in the Amazon have been left particularly defenceless. 

“The pandemic was already serious but with this government it became even more dangerous. The blame is not just with the virus but with our own President. 

There has been no action, the government has ignored the contamination. There are no tests to bring to the villages and people don’t have the means to guarantee isolation. 

The mortality rate - 9.6 per cent - is almost double that of the general population. 

Invasions of Indigenous lands continues to increase - illegal logging, mining, land grabbers, and evangelical missionaries. 

They are not only devastating the environment, they are spreading infection.” 

APIB has logged at least 332 COVID-19 deaths, and 7,208 coronavirus cases across 110 Indigenous communities, and has published an Indigenous emergency response plan to save lives and prevent the pandemic spreading further among the country’s Indigenous Peoples.

Adriana Ramos,

Instituto Socioambiental, ISA 

‘The government has promoted deforestation, there is no doubt about that’ 

“Preventing Bolsonaro moving the Indigenous agency FUNAI from the ministry of justice was a success but they tried to criminalise civil society organisations, accusing many NGOs of starting fires in the Amazon. 

We have managed to stand up against many unacceptable policies and mobilise society and celebrities against the government. 

We’ve engaged sectors of society through social media, neutralising the government’s criminalisation message [against civil society] and have the potential to change the [government’s] discourse. And each time the popularity of the government falls and less people believe in their message. 

And now there is the investigation into the Bolsonaro political clan’s role in disseminating fake news. And the organisation Sleeping Giants in Brazil is targeting the firms that profit from it. 

Any doubt has been removed now about the intentions of the government. But they are incompetent, and they are not leading the country. 

There must be concrete demands by international corporations on both bilateral and general trade agreements. 

Social participation in these trade agreements must be guaranteed, and there need to be better standards on human rights, Indigenous Peoples rights and minorities. There must be social and environmental safeguards. 

The increase in deforestation is a direct cause of the government’s policies. They have rendered the Amazon Fund in effective, reduced the structure and support for inspections, and removed fines. The government promoted deforestation, there is no doubt about that. 

The Amazon Council doesn’t have any role. If you have no policy, there is no policy to be coordinated.” 

* Adriana Ramos, coordinates the Policy and Law Program of the Instituto Socioambiental, ISA. 

Ministers unmasked 

In May 2020 a video of a private ministers’ meeting held on April 22 surfaced in an investigation of whether President Jair Bolsonaro interfered in appointing leaders of the federal police for personal gain. 

“We need to make an effort while they are only talking about COVID-19 to push through and change all the rules” 

Ricardo Salles, Minister of the Environment, suggesting that the pandemic was a good opportunity – with the press looking the other way – to simplify regulations in the Amazon.  

“I hate the term Indigenous Peoples. I hate that term, I hate it.” 

Abraham Weintraub, Minister of Education* 


*Weintraub was sacked on June 17, 2020. 

Concrete steps the EU could take 

  • The EU needs new laws guaranteeing that neither products sold in the EU, nor the financial markets underpinning them, are destroying forests, natural ecosystems and driving land grabs and other human rights abuses. 
  • All parties must stop work to finalize the Mercosur-EU Trade Agreement until Brazil’s government abandons its path of enabling indiscriminate deforestation, land-grabbing and inciting murderous attacks on Indigenous Peoples. If and when negotiations are reopened, the deal must include binding, enforceable provisions to end deforestation, respect customary tenure rights, and implement the Paris Climate Agreement. 
  • The European Commission should specify how it plans to respond to the challenges presented by the Bolsonaro administration, including ensuring human rights are respected. The European External Action Service (EEAS) should use the political dialogue with Brazil more effectively, include more proactive consultation with Brazilian civil society organisations and provide updates to European citizens who are increasingly concerned about what is happening in Brazil.
  • The EU should also monitor and respond to human rights violations and strengthen human rights defenders’ protection mechanisms. For those most at risk, including Indigenous Peoples and environmental defenders, the EU should provide direct, urgent support where required. 
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