EU countries are responsible for promoting deforestation and greenhouse gas emissions in the Brazilian Amazon by importing and consuming agricultural products contaminated with illegal deforestation, new research has found.
Published in research journal Science, the study points out that “as much as 22% of the soy and upwards of 60% of the beef exported annually to the EU may be contaminated with illegal deforestation.”
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In a classic example of doublespeak, the EU has also been vocal about boycotting products from Brazil over spiking deforestation, and even threatened to withhold ratification of the 2019 trade agreement between the EU and Mercosur, the South American trade bloc. Among the concerns the EU has raised is that “increasing greenhouse gas emissions resulting from deforestation and forest fires in Brazil could cancel out EU climate change mitigation efforts.”
The revelation comes as a major embarrassment for the European Union leaders who have criticized Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro’s far-right government for turning a blind eye to unprecedented levels of illegal mass deforestation.
Environmental nonprofits and Amazon watchdogs have vigorously reported that the Bolsonaro government’s move to dismantle and defund environmental protection agencies is encouraging illegal loggers and miners to move deep into the Amazon forest, where the Indigenous tribes are sheltering in isolation as a safeguard against the COVID-19 pandemic.
But despite its criticism of Bolsonaro’s environmental policies, the EU is still Brazil’s largest trading partner. Because of the ongoing consumption of Brazil’s deforestation-contaminated agri-products, researchers say the EU should share the blame for promoting deforestation and greenhouse gas emissions.
Talking to The Real News from Belo Horizonte in Brazil, lead researcher Raoni Rajao said the study responds to whether Brazil’s agricultural exports are linked to deforestation, illegal or not, and to what extent. “Because on the one hand, Brazil has one of the highest levels of tropical deforestation in the world. But on the other, the agribusiness claims that it’s mostly clean and it’s not involved in deforestation in any legal activities. So, there was a missing research that shed better light on that,” Raoni explained.
The research found about 2% of medium-sized and big farmers are responsible for 62% of all illegal deforestation taking place in the Amazon and the Sahara, and around 20% of Brazil’s beef and soy exports to the EU are linked to illegal deforestation.
Explaining the reasons behind illegal deforestation, Raoni said there’s a big economic incentive to convert timberland to farmland because it is much more profitable, in addition to its use for agricultural purposes. “And since there has not been a proper and stronger law enforcement, especially in the last five years or so, the incentive for engaging in criminal activities has become higher and higher.”
The researcher criticized the EU’s threat to boycott Brazil’s products as ineffective. “First of all, because if you do boycotts because of around 20% of the exports that are contaminated, you end up punishing 100% of the farmers and even those who are not doing anything wrong. Secondly, if the EU stops buying from Brazil, the result is that Brazil is going to be selling more to China and the United States, [which in turn] is going to sell more to the EU. And so that just shuffles part of the trade. But that does not solve the problem.”
Raoni says the proposals put forward by various reports and policy papers call for Brazilian companies to provide private certifications showing their products are sustainably and legally produced. But it will not solve the problem, he says, because the companies exporting deforestation-contaminated products will either sell those products within Brazil or export to China. “So basically, you move the problem, but you don’t solve the problem. So I think what you could do now is to support Brazil and to demand transparency and institute transparent and universal solutions for tracking supply chains.”
Responding to the question of how best to tackle the problem of deforestation-contaminated products, the researcher said some international companies have been trying to get rid of deforestation from their supply chain for many years. But some of their big clients such as supermarkets and restaurants don’t want to get involved, and that becomes the key hurdle, Raoni explained. “I don’t think capitalism has a green heart. Quite the contrary. But what has happened is that since consumers are becoming increasingly concerned about this, that has become also one of the concerns of the markets.”
In June, under pressure from international multinational companies and governments, Brazil’s far-right president Jair Bolsonaro announced a 120-day ban on fires set to intentionally clear Amazon rainforest for agriculture. According to nonprofit Amazon Watch, the massive fires that raged across the Brazilian Amazon in 2019 were a direct result of the illegal deforestation and arson used to clear land for agribusiness.
During June this year, the number of fires in the Brazilian Amazon have increased 20 percent compared to last year, representing a 13-year high. Deforestation spiked for the 14th consecutive month in June, government data shows, leading to further pressure on Bolsonaro, who is widely seen as responsible for the worsening destruction of the rainforest on his watch.
What makes the effort to rein in illegal deforestation and mining ever more difficult is the nexus of the land-owning elite, local and national political constituencies, and others—including the police and military—who hold the levers of power in the country. “That makes things very difficult, especially in situations where some of the people which are supposed to be in office to defend the public good, they’re also there to pursue their own interest,” Raoni added.
It is the first time that research has provided hard data highlighting the extent of Brazilian exports that are linked to deforestation, illegal or not. The study has also exposed the doublespeak of the European Union countries who are some of the biggest consumers of the deforestation-contaminated products they criticize Brazil for producing.