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A New Report Urges the E.U. to Take Economic Action to Curb Amazon Deforestation

Environmental groups argue that Europe should use trade leverage to prevent the Brazilian government from furthering the destruction of the rainforest.
Amazon soil sits in the foreground at the Bom Futuro open air tin mine.

Amazon soil sits in the foreground at the Bom Futuro open air tin mine.

In the 100 days since Jair Bolsonaro became president of the world's fourth largest democracy, Brazil has weakened indigenous rights and environmental protections, with no sign of slowing down. Now, a report co-signed by 20-plus organizations, and coinciding with the 100-day benchmark, has called on the European Union to use its trade, investment, and diplomatic leverage to ensure it is not complicit in policies that threaten indigenous rights or cause deforestation and environmental degradation in the Latin American nation.

"Today we have in Brazil a president that has publicly declared indigenous people as the enemy; it is pitting society against indigenous people," said Sonia Guajajara, general coordinator of the Articulação dos Povos Indígenas do Brasil, Brazil's biggest indigenous organization, during a side event at the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues in New York on April 22nd. "Nobody can live in peace if you are not considered a citizen in your own land."

One of Bolsonaro's first moves in January was to transfer temporary jurisdiction for indigenous lands to the Ministry of Agriculture, seen as a major conflict of interest by critics because agribusiness interests have long eyed indigenous reserves for exploitation. The jurisdiction transfer is also thought to have triggered increased reserve invasions and violence against indigenous people, according to reports. Also in in January, deforestation in the Amazon reportedly rose by 54 percent compared to the same period in 2018.

"There has not been one new measure to fight deforestation in the Amazon, but, instead, the president of Brazil has taken actions that put the rainforest at greater risk and increasing violence in the region," said Greenpeace Brazil public policy coordinator Marcio Astrini in reaction to the first 100 days of Bolsonaro's government.

The new report, 100 Days of Bolsonaro—Ending the E.U.'s Role in the Assault on the Amazon, was published by FERN, a Dutch socioenvironmental group, in cooperation with other organizations including the Forest Peoples Programme, PowerShift, Brazil's Indigenous People Articulation, and Ecologistas en Accion. The report urges the E.U. to wield its influence as Brazil's second largest trading partner to curb the Bolsonaro administration's policy assaults on indigenous groups and the environment.

The E.U. accounts for 18.3 percent of Brazil's trade, and is a significant market for Brazilian agricultural exports that have been linked to deforestation, such as soy and beef. And although many transnational companies have made voluntary commitments to zero-deforestation, questions remain over how effective such pledges are without binding regulations to back them up.

"The momentum for trade regulation on agriculture that causes deforestation has really been growing in the past few years," says Nicole Polsterer, the sustainable consumption and production campaigner for FERN, who helped produce the report. "What the E.U. needs is policy coherence so that companies and producers have a framework to work with."

The E.U.'s Role in Brazilian Deforestation

International trade, mainly in beef and oilseeds (such as those derived from soy and oil palm), drives up to 39 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions due to deforestation, according to a study published in May—around one-sixth of the carbon footprint of the average diet in the E.U. can also be directly linked to deforestation in tropical countries.

The E.U.'s own feasibility study, published last year, concluded that direct E.U. regulatory action would be by far the most impactful policy approach that European nations could employ to combat deforestation and forest degradation in Latin America and elsewhere. A letter signed by more than 600 scientists published in the journal Science last month urges the E.U. to seize the opportunity of ongoing trade negotiations with Brazil to ensure the country protects human rights and the environment.

Based on the deep economic ties between the E.U. and Brazil, the report calls for:

  • New laws to guarantee that products sold in the E.U. and the financial systems underpinning them are not destroying forests and driving land grabs and other human rights abuses.
  • Suspending the MERCOSUR/E.U. negotiations for a Free Trade Agreement until Brazil publicly renews its commitment to the Paris Climate Agreement specifications by the European Commission on how it plans to respond to challenges presented by the Bolsonaro administration, such as respecting human rights.
  • The European Commission to specify how it plans to respond to the challenges presented by the Bolsonaro administration, including ensuring human rights are respected.

Blueprints for E.U. Regulation

Many individual European countries (some which are E.U. members and some not) already have regulations on the books that restrict trade in products linked to deforestation—policies that could be models for E.U.-wide regulation.

Norway's Government Pension Fund Global, the world's largest sovereign wealth fund, has divested in companies linked to deforestation, such as palm oil and cacao. France recently stated its commitment to stopping "deforestation imports" by 2030, concluding "measures to reduce the impact on deforestation of consumption in the European Union and within France must be adopted rapidly, as import-related actions must be part of the single European market."

While the E.U. has already regulated illegal timber, illegal fishing, and conflict minerals, it still has no legislation for agricultural trade linked to deforestation.

"Deforestation [in Brazil] isn't just due to illegal deforestation for agriculture, it also happens because laws are weakened and governance is poor," says FERN’s Nicole. "That's why we need to have international pressure too."

The E.U. has made strides in declassifying palm oil as a renewable energy source, although the phase-out date has recently been extended from 2021 to 2030, and weakened, angering many environmentalists.

The E.U. Roadmap and Beyond

The most important currently proposed E.U. deforestation regulation is the Initiative on Stepping up E.U. Action Against Deforestation and Forest Degradation, known unofficially as the Roadmap, and drafted in response to "the persistence of the issue of global deforestation and the increasing awareness of the link between deforestation and agricultural expansion, as well as repeated calls from the European Parliament and the Council to take action." The E.U. Commission will likely approve this initiative in coming months.

"The Commission has just agreed to a Roadmap that outlines the planned main elements of an upcoming Commission Communication on deforestation," according to a written response from the E.U. Commission to Mongabay. "One of the objectives of the Communication is to promote sustainable and transparent supply chains for sustainably produced commodities and sustainable provision of related services."

But some say these new regulations won't be enough.

"The E.U. Roadmap in December makes reference to what needs to happen for deforestation policies to be introduced," says FERN's Polsterer. "But agriculture is the biggest driver, and there is still no specific policy suggested for that."

A major free trade agreement between the E.U. and MERCOSUR countries—Brazil, Argentina, Paraguay, and Uruguay—has been in the pipeline for almost two decades, and if made properly inclusive, could deal with Latin American socioenvironmental issues. One of the demands in the FERN report is that the E.U./MERCOSUR agreement require a binding, enforceable provision to end deforestation, to respect customary tenure rights and to implement the Paris Climate Agreement.

"The MERCOSUR agreement currently under negotiation will include a trade and sustainable development chapter," an E.U. Commission spokesperson said in a statement. "It will cover issues such as sustainable management and conservation of forests, wildlife trade, and respect for labor rights; provide a new forum in which to discuss how to make our trade flows more sustainable; [and] address, as part of the political dialogue, part of the association agreement, the rights of indigenous communities."

Whether the Roadmap and MERCOSUR trade agreements will fully address the concerns highlighted in the FERN report remains to be seen, however, socioenvironmental advocacy groups assert that there are already national frameworks and agreements in place that could be utilized to force the E.U. to act more quickly and effectively.

"The main message is that the E.U. speaks in two different tongues," Polsterer says. "We have a [largely deregulated] trade-oriented economy on the one hand, and a commitment to the SDG's [sustainable development goals] and Paris Climate accord on the other. But they are not being connected. It seems like the realpolitik overrides any concern about climate and human rights."

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