Delegates from across the world are gathering in Brasilia this week for the Annual General Assembly of the Tropical Forest Alliance 2020, a global coalition of governments, NGOs and companies, who aim to tackle the destruction of the world’s tropical forests, which is being driven by a voracious hunger for commodities including palm oil, soy and beef.
The task couldn’t be more urgent - for the climate, for alleviating poverty among millions of smallholder farmers and forest communities, and for protecting the natural habitats and ecosystems on which we all rely.
A major cause of deforestation in the host country Brazil in the last 20 years has been the clearing of lands for soya bean plantations.
Brazil supplies a quarter of the world’s soya beans – and the EU is a key market, importing 14 million tonnes from the country, mostly for animal feed.
The exponential growth of the EU as a market for Brazil’s soy can be traced back to the 2001 foot-and-mouth epidemic in the UK, which was widely attributed to a farmer feeding pigs uncooked food waste, known as swill.
The result was that in 2002 the EU introduced a pigswill ban, ending a practice that’s endured for millennia.
Farmers turned to a soybean-based pig feed, mostly imported from Latin America by major agribusinesses - with Brazil supplying 44 per cent of the total.
This market was also boosted by the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) and international trade agreements, which mean that shipping soybeans (and soy meal and cake) thousands of miles across the ocean is cheaper than producing animal feed in Europe.
But whatever the financial benefits in the EU, the real cost has been extortionate – with the soy often grown on land illegally stripped of forests and savannah, known as the Cerrado), and in violation of the rights of its inhabitants.
In the Brazilian state of Mato Grosso, the soy ‘capital’, more than 95 percent of deforestation is estimated to be illegal.
So what should the Tropical Forest Alliance, and more specifically the Brazilian government and the EU, do about this?
From the Brazilian side, a powerful signal must be sent to President Michel Temer’s government and the private sector urging them to reverse the relentless dismantling of environmental protections that’s occurred in recent years.
The story of Brazil’s efforts to tackle deforestation is one of progress marred by major setbacks.
From 2004 policy developments – the creation of conservation units, the acknowledgement of indigenous rights, better enforcement of environmental rules and the forest code – had a breath-taking impact in protecting threatened areas.
Deforestation decreased from 27,000 square kilometres to about 5,000 square kilometres between 2004 and 2012 in the Amazon.
Since then however, this remarkable success story has soured, with a backlash led by the agricultural sector to weaken environmental rules, starting with the forest code, which was reversed to give an amnesty to some of the past illegal deforestation.
The government has also reduced the area and the degree of protection of Conservation Units and reduced the staff and budget of institutions responsible for enforcement of environmental laws and biodiversity protection.
The result has been devastating: Brazil’s deforestation rate has risen by a staggering 75 per cent since 2012 in the Amazon and continues in the Cerrado.
From the EU side, the Memorandum of Understanding signed by the US and Brazil’s Presidents in 2016, in which Brazil committed to restoring up to 12 million hectares of forest in order to reduce carbon emissions, offers a framework for a potential deal.
The technology now exists to ensure full traceability of the soy supply chain. So for the major agribusinesses involved in importing soy to the EU, public transparency regarding precisely where they are sourcing their soy from, and the conditions under which it’s been produced are a must.
A Soy Moratorium was initiated in the Amazon in 2006. Since then the proportion of soy expansion in newly deforested area decreased from 30 per cent (in the two years prior to the moratorium) to 1 per cent in 2014.
In this period, farmers increased plantations of soya to 1.3 million hectares of formerly deforested areas in the Amazon; whereas in the Matopiba region of Cerrado, where significant soya expansion is taking place, from 2007 to 2013 about 40 per cent of expansion occurred in newly deforested areas.
Private companies should expand the Soy Moratorium from the Brazilian Amazon to the Cerrado.
There are also several specific measures that the EU can take to end its role in the razing of Brazil’s forests and Cerrado, and its accompanying human cost. These include: only offering financial support to farmers whose animal feedstock is proven to be legally and sustainably produced; providing incentives for producing protein crops in the EU; and reducing the import of feedstocks from countries where there is a high-risk of deforestation.