Site icon Conservation news

EU holds the key to stop the ‘Notre Dame of forests’ from burning (commentary)

  • Brazil’s President vowed to rip up the rainforest to make way for farming and mining, threatening the lives of Indigenous people.
  • European scientists and Brazilian Indigenous groups say that the EU can halt the devastation. In ongoing trade talks, the EU must demand higher standards for Brazilian goods.
  • EU citizens care about our planetary life support systems. Their leaders should reflect this on the global stage.
  • This post is a commentary. The views expressed are those of the author, not necessarily Mongabay.

Last week, a tearful Greta Thunberg begged the EU to act on the climate and ecological crises we are facing. “It’s OK if you refuse to listen to me,” she said, “I am, after all, just a 16 year old schoolgirl from Sweden. But you cannot ignore the scientists or the science… I beg you, please, do not fail on this.” The EU officials present gave her a standing ovation.

Today, the EU has a chance to act on her message. Scientists are asking the EU to demand tougher environmental standards from Brazil in ongoing trade talks. They explained their concerns in an open letter in Science signed by 600 EU scientists and 300 Brazilian Indigenous groups. They hope that they will not be ignored.

The letter warns that Brazil’s President Jair Bolsonaro wants to open the country’s vast forests to agribusiness and mining. It says that losing the Amazon would be devastating for Indigenous peoples, wildlife, and the global climate.

Bolsonaro — dubbed ‘Tropical Trump’ — has repeatedly stated his desire to destroy the country’s iconic Amazon forest. He is keen to expand agribusiness and mining in the region, and sees the forest as wasted land. Indigenous people, many of whom live in the Amazon forest and want to protect it, are also threatened by the new regime. Bolsonaro has said, “It’s a shame that the Brazilian cavalry hasn’t been as efficient as the Americans, who exterminated the Indians.”

Land cleared for cropland at the border of indigenous land (Xerente people) in the Brazilian Cerrado. Photo by Larissa Rodrigues.

Since he came to power in January, Bolsonaro has wasted no time in rolling back environmental and human rights laws. He has cut environmental jobs in the government and announced major building projects in the Amazon. He has put Indigenous reserves in the hands of the agriculture ministry, widely seen as controlled by the agribusiness lobby. On top of this, he has frozen money for environmental and Indigenous NGOs.

His rhetoric is already having impacts. Deforestation jumped even before he took office, as he signaled his intent to slash regulations; as a result, Brazil is experiencing the highest levels of deforestation in a decade. It’s not just the Amazon that is under threat: incredible savannas such as the Cerrado, and wetlands such as the Pantanal, could be annihilated as well.

The one thing that might stop the pro-business president is money. Billions of Euros flow to Brazil every year from EU trade; as Brazil’s second largest trading partner, the EU has massive influence in the country. If the EU demands high environmental and human rights standards for the beef, livestock feed, and iron that it buys, Bolsonaro would have to listen.

The EU’s appetite for meat and metal has impacts that Europeans rarely see. However, if forest clearance continues, eventually Europeans would feel those impacts too. If the Amazon rainforest is destroyed, it would be hard to stay within 2 degrees of global warming. Many Europeans see climate breakdown as the biggest threat to their security; their leaders must recognize the role that EU imports play in destabilizing our climate.

Fire in Brazil’s Cerrado. Photo by Thiago Foresti.

In the Science letter, the scientists say that chainsawing forests is not only dangerous, it’s unnecessary. In Brazil, improving yields on already-cleared land could meet agricultural demand without further destruction. In fact, laying waste to the Amazon risks Brazil’s agricultural profits and food security. Rainfall in the region is largely caused by the vast forests; if they are cleared, it will be too dry to farm. Unfortunately, Bolsonaro has remained impervious to such reasoning.

The EU must also demand that the goods they buy are conflict-free, and are not linked to violence. In Brazil, Indigenous peoples and local communities who defend their land have faced brutal repercussions. Brazil is the deadliest place on earth to be an environmentalist, with 145 people killed in just over four years. Most deaths are linked to standing up against agribusiness and mining companies, many of whom export goods to Europe. Murders of environmental defenders reached a record high this month. Indigenous people fear a full-scale genocide.

If the EU wants to meet its international commitments on climate change and human rights, it must stop outsourcing disaster. An area equivalent to more than 300 football fields of Brazilian forest are cut down every day to grow beef and soy for the EU. Indeed, the EU has the dubious distinction of being a world leader in importing goods associated with deforestation.

Comparison between two deforestation alert systems, INPE’s DETER and IMAZON’s SAD. Last updated: Oct 30, 2018. Source: Mongabay.

This directly contradicts the values of most EU citizens. Europeans don’t think that either their country or the EU are doing enough to protect the natural world. In recent weeks, protests have surged in the EU over climate breakdown and ecological collapse. Deforestation is the second-biggest source of carbon emissions in the world, and climate change will be a key issue in the upcoming European elections. Greta Thunberg told Europeans that in May they will vote for “the future living conditions of humankind.” EU leaders must take this chance to reflect these values in their trade negotiations; if not, future generations may find it hard to forgive them.

Greta Thunberg spoke in a European Parliament saddened by the destruction of the iconic Notre Dame. The young activist also implored leaders to move boldly to protect the Earth’s life support systems, saying that we need “cathedral thinking” to build a better world. I see the Amazon as the Notre Dame of forests, ancient, spectacular, and divine. She is irreplaceable, and we cannot let her burn.

Visit for more information, including a list of European Parliamentary Members that support this initiative. If you are an EU citizen, register to vote in the EU elections here.

Rainforest gives way to pastures in the Brazilian Amazon in Mato Grosso state. Photo by Thiago Foresti.


• Kehoe, L. et al. (2019). Make EU trade with Brazil sustainable. Science 364(6438), 341. doi:10.1126/science.aaw8276

• Lawrence, D., & Vandecar, K. (2015). Effects of tropical deforestation on climate and agriculture. Nature Climate Change, 5(1), 27. doi:10.1038/nclimate2430

• Strassburg, B. B., Latawiec, A. E., Barioni, L. G., Nobre, C. A., Da Silva, V. P., Valentim, J. F., … & Assad, E. D. (2014). When enough should be enough: Improving the use of current agricultural lands could meet production demands and spare natural habitats in Brazil. Global Environmental Change, 28, 84-97. doi:10.1016/j.gloenvcha.2014.06.001

• Zeng, N., Dickinson, R. E., & Zeng, X. (1996). Climatic impact of Amazon deforestation—A mechanistic model study. Journal of Climate, 9(4), 859-883. doi:10.1175/1520-0442(1996)0092.0.CO;2

Dr. Claire Wordley is a researcher with the Conservation Evidence group at the University of Cambridge. Her background includes working on the responses of tropical bats to forest fragmentation and agricultural activity. This led to an interest in researching how to make conservation change happen, and she now works at Conservation Evidence working with NGOs and government agencies to see how they can best use and produce scientific evidence.

FEEDBACK: Use this form to send a message to the author of this post. If you want to post a public comment, you can do that at the bottom of the page.