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Pressure mounts on EU to curb Brazilian deforestation, human rights abuses

  • Concern is rising among Brazilian socioenvironmental NGOs and internationally over the new threats to indigenous people and rising deforestation seen under President Jair Bolsonaro — his administration completed its first 100 days in office in April.
  • The EU is Brazil’s second largest trading partner, but currently lacks any binding trade regulations on agricultural goods linked to eliminating deforestation, reducing environmental degradation, and protecting against human rights violations.
  • A new report by more than 20 NGOs — including FERN, Forest Peoples Programme, the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy, and Amazon Watch — is calling on the EU to include provisions in trade agreements now under negotiation, such as the EU/MERCOSUR agreement, that would fully protect forests and indigenous rights.
Deforestation due to agricultural expansion is rife in Brazil and around the globe, threatening biodiversity and adding greenhouse gas emissions to the atmosphere. Photo credit: Gidsicki on VisualHunt / CC BY

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+ organizations, and coinciding with the 100-day benchmark, has called on the European Union (EU) 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 publically 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 22. “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.

Indigenous protestors opposed to Bolsonaro administration policies march at night toward Brasilia’s Three Powers Square, the site of the nation’s Supreme Court, Presidential Palace and National Congress on April 24, 2019. Image by Karla Mendes/Mongabay

The new report, 100 Days of Bolsonaro – Ending the EU’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 EU 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 European Union 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 EU needs is policy coherence so that companies and producers have a framework to work with.”

An oil palm plantation in Brazil. Agribusiness commodity crops destined for export to the EU and elsewhere, including soy, palm oil, cotton, corn, eucalyptus and beef are all produced in the Brazilian Amazon and Cerrado, contributing to deforestation. Photo credit: USAID Biodiversity & Forestry on Visualhunt / CC BY-NC

The EU’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 EU can also be directly linked to deforestation in tropical countries.

The EU’s own feasibility study, published last year, concluded that direct EU 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 EU 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 EU and Brazil, the report calls for:

The Cargill soy terminal in Santarem, in the Brazilian Amazon. Port facilities like this one are part of a vast network of roads, railways and industrial waterways that moves soy and other commodities from Brazil’s interior to the coast for export to the European Union, China and other nations. Photo credit: sara y tzunky on / CC BY-NC

Blueprints for EU regulation

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

Norway’s Government Pension Fund Global (GPFG), 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 EU 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 EU 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.

Soy oil for sale. Socioenvironmental NGOs are attempting to build consumer awareness of the connection between Brazilian soy and other commodities to Amazon and Cerrado biome deforestation. Photo credit: Male Gringo on Visual hunt / CC BY-NC

The EU Roadmap and beyond

The most important currently proposed EU deforestation regulation is the Initiative on Stepping up EU 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 EU 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 EU 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 EU 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 (FTA) between the EU 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 EU/MERCOSUR agreement require a binding, enforceable provision to end deforestation, to respect customary tenure rights and to implement the Paris Climate Agreement.

In President Jair Bolsonaro’s first 100 days, his administration weakened environmental protections and institutions, while the Amazon saw an uptick in violence against indigenous groups and traditional communities. Photo credit: jeso.carneiro on / CC BY-NC

“The MERCOSUR agreement currently under negotiation will include a trade and sustainable development chapter,” an EU Commission spokesperson said in a statement to Mongabay. ”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 EU to act more quickly and effectively.

“The main message is that the EU speaks in two different tongues,” says Polsterer. “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.”

BANNER IMAGE: Logging truck. Photo credit: caco.carvalho on Visual Hunt / CC BY-NC-SA

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