Conservation news

European public roundly rejects Brazil trade deal unless Amazon protected

  • The gigantic trade agreement between the European Union and the Mercosur South American bloc (Brazil, Argentina, Paraguay and Uruguay), if ratified, would be the biggest trade deal in history, totaling US $19 trillion.
  • However, an extremely poor environmental record by the Mercosur nations, especially Brazil, has become a stumbling block to clinching the agreement. In new polling 75% of respondents in 12 European nations say the EU-Mercosur trade pact should not be ratified if Jair Bolsonaro’s Brazil doesn’t end Amazon deforestation.
  • France, the Parliaments of the Netherlands, Austria and Belgium’s Walloon region, have announced they will not endorse the trade pact. The ratification also finds resistance by Ireland and Luxembourg. Portugal’s government appears ready to move forward with ratification without environmental safeguards put in place.
The Netherlands is one of the EU countries that stands strongly for an end to Amazon deforestation before ratifying the free trade agreement with Mercosur. This sign in front of Amsterdam’s Rijksmuseum Museum was created by Greenpeace Netherlands and reflects the position of the nation’s populace and Parliament. Image © Olivier Truyman / Greenpeace.

A new poll shows that the grand majority of Europe’s people favors implementing effective protections of the Brazilian Amazon, ending deforestation there, before the EU agrees to ratify the free trade agreement with Mercosur (composed of Brazil, Argentina, Paraguay and Uruguay).

The EU-Mercusor pact, when or if signed, would be the biggest trade deal in history, worth US$19 trillion, and would greatly benefit Brazilian agricultural commodities producers and the nation’s struggling economy. However, the South American country’s horrific environmental record under President Jair Bolsonaro could now doom the agreement, as the EU’s conservation-sensitive public rejects Mercosur.

The new poll, conducted by YouGov, a London-based public opinion and market research company, interviewed 12,703 people via the Internet. An average of 75% of respondents aged 18+ across 12 European countries — France, Spain, Belgium, the Netherlands, Portugal, Germany, the UK, Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Finland, and Austria — believe that their governments should halt ratification of the free trade deal at least until the deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon is halted. They agree that trade deal approval should be paused, even if a delay would reduce European exports to the South American countries.

Only 12% of respondents wish for EU-Mercosur agreement ratification, despite escalating Amazon deforestation.

Conducted between 12 and 21 January 2021 at the request of the NGO Rainforest Foundation Norway, the survey revealed that the Portuguese people are most opposed to the agreement, with 85% against ratification. The public in other nations showed similar strong support for an end to Amazon deforestation before EU-Mercosur accord approval: United Kingdom (79%), France (78%), the Netherlands and Spain (77%), Belgium (76%), Germany and Austria (75%), Denmark (73%), Finland, Norway and Sweden (69%).

“The Mercosur deal is important for the Brazilian government,” said Marcio Astrini at Observatório do Clima, a network of Brazilian environmental NGOs, who commented on the poll results. “Our message to European leaders is that any [trade] deal involving Brazil must be conditional on concrete measures and verifiable results to stop the destruction of the Amazon rainforest. We are happy to note that the European public agrees. We hope European politicians will listen too.”

Divided by age group, respondents aged 55 and over were most opposed to ratifying the trade agreement without Amazon protections (79%), followed by people between 35 and 54 years of age (74.7%), and between 18 and 34 years of age (70.4%).

Last week, a document signed by 65 Euro-deputies (MEPs), the majority from green parties, was delivered to the EU presidency; they support reopening negotiations on the EU-Mercosur deal due to rising deforestation rates in the Amazon. Image © European Union 2020.

The survey also asked respondents to prioritize climate change and biodiversity financing, measures. The top environmental priority among respondents was rainforest protection (57%), followed by renewable energy (46%), and climate adaptation (29%).

“Both [European] governments and populations have an interest in mitigating the damage from deforestation in the Amazon, and [have] a commitment to financing mechanisms [that] can help the trade deal move forward — but [this] will not guarantee its approval. Public opinion will be focused on deforestation and burning data, mainly during the dry season. Those are the variables that will influence [Europe’s] future position,” Filipe Gruppelli Carvalho, an analyst at Eurasia Group, a US political risk analysis consultancy, told Mongabay. Both 2019 and 2020 saw record fires in the Brazilian Amazon — largely driven by illegal deforestation and land grabbing.

A Brazilian firefighter confronts an Amazon wildfire in Acre state, Brazil during August 2020. Most fires in the Brazilian Amazon are the result of arson, used as a tool to convert forests into pasture or crop lands. Image by Serio Vale / Acre state.

A trade deal incompatible with deforestation

The governments of many European nations are also weighing the question of Brazilian deforestation and EU-Mercusor trade agreement approval — with ratification opposition steadily growing stronger.

France, along with other European countries and the European Commission (an institution that represents the interests of the EU) have expressed their concern. Emmanuel Macron’s government recently sent a document — called a side paper — to the EU Trade Policy Committee asking that new deforestation and global warming commitments be made by Mercosur members before the trade agreement can be ratified.

“The current deforestation in the Mercosur countries, which may be a consequence of adopted policies,… does not meet the goals set out in the Paris Agreement and the United Nations Convention on climate change,” says the document.

The Brazilian Amazon isn’t the only Mercosur region under intense environmental pressure. The Gran Chaco biome located in Brazil, Paraguay and Argentina has been devastated by encroaching agribusiness and cattle ranching. In Argentina, nearly 8 million hectares (19.7 million acres) of forest have been cleared. Jan 30, 2020 Image © Martin Katz / Greenpeace.

“The environmental agenda is important for the French people, and the country will have a presidential election next year, as will Brazil,” said Carvalho, of the Eurasia Group. “Furthermore, there is an protectionist lobby [in EU nations] against the agreement, and when that opposition joins that of environmentalists, the conditions for discussing ratification are impaired, which could lead to the agreement being shelved by the European Union until a better time for negotiation.”

The French side paper was leaked and its content reached the Mercosur countries, according to O Globo newspaper. While the Brazilian government maintains there is nothing in the current agreement that creates environmental problems, the president of Uruguay, Luis Lacalle Pou, met with President Bolsonaro earlier this month and reinforced his request for trade flexibility so each Mercosur country can do business with other markets. Both discussed a possible meeting of the four presidents in the Mercosur bloc in late March.

Besides France, the Parliaments of the Netherlands, Austria and Belgium’s Walloon region, have already announced they will not endorse the trade pact. The ratification also finds resistance by Ireland and Luxembourg.

But the Portuguese government continues to support timely EU-Mercosur pact ratification, regardless of environmental concerns. Portugal, which currently holds the rotating presidency of the European Union, declared through its Foreign Minister, Augusto Santos Silva, that “France and Ireland should not use the environmental issue to deflect concerns about… future meat imports into the EU countries [because Europe] would benefit by export[ing] more to Latin America.”

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, recently announced the EU will soon put new legislation in place not allowing EU businesses to “drive deforestation on the other side of the world.” Image by Jennifer Jacquemart © European Union, 2021.

Pressure on Brazil to end Amazon deforestation grew even more intense with the confirmation of the president of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen in December 2019. She asserts that the EU will soon demand proof from European companies demonstrating that their foreign product supply chains do not contribute to deforestation.

“The first ever European Climate Law will hopefully soon come into force… We will put forward legislation to ensure that the EU market does not drive deforestation on the other side of the world,” declared von der Leyen. “We know how important this is for investors, who are looking for truly sustainable projects. Our European Union green bond standard, for example, and taxonomy will lead the way. It will bring clarity on what accounts for sustainable, eco-friendly activities. We all benefit from nature and we all benefit from the protection it gives us. So I think we all have to play our role in this game.”

Banner image: Aerial view of a 2019 Amazon wildfire in Candeiras do Jamari municipality in Rondônia state, Brazil. Image by Victor Moriyama / Greenpeace.