Europe can help save the Amazon by changing itself

Europe did not light the fires ravaging the Amazon, but it did provide some of the matches. There is plenty the EU can do to save and protect the rainforest, and much of that begins at home.

The infernos still gobbling their way through large swathes of the Amazon are transforming the most fertile and biologically diverse land in the world into a charred, desolate landscape.

In the first eight months of this year, the total number of fires increased by 82% compared with last year. In August, following reports that a group of farmers in Para state had, in a show of solidarity with Brazil’s President Jair Bolsonaro, declared a “day of fire”, a total of 26,000 fires were reported that month.

The blame for the fires has been squarely placed on the shoulders of Brazil’s new far-right president, who is a conspiracy theorist and climate change denier, notoriously pro-agribusiness and ranchers, and rabidly opposed to the indigenous peoples of the rainforest.

However, the rest of the world cannot absolve itself of responsibility that easily. While Bolsonaro is responsible for the accelerated devastation of the Amazon, the rainforest has been under attack for decades.

Since 1970, nearly 800,000 km² of Amazonian rainforest has been cleared, which is an area larger than France and about the same size as Turkey. Although forest loss to date has been due to human activity, scientists fear we may soon reach a tipping point when tree loss starts to feed on itself, destroying much of the ecosystem.

Meaty matters

The vast majority of the deforestation in Brazil and other Amazon states has been due to the clearing of land for cattle rearing to feed the world’s voracious appetite for beef and leather. For its part, the EU imports 120,000 tonnes a year of Brazilian beef, and this figure would balloon under a free trade deal recently agreed with the Mercosur bloc (Brazil, Argentina, Paraguay and Uruguay).

Another major cause of deforestation in the Amazon is soy production, which is intensifying in light of the current US-Sino trade war. Although China is the world’s largest importer of soybeans, the EU is the world’s premier importer of soymeal and the second largest importer of soybeans, according to ‘Who is paying the bill?’, a major new report commissioned by the EEB, on the externalities of EU policies.

“These vast flows of animal feedstocks (soybeans and soymeal) being imported into the EU have significant implications for land use in exporting countries, principally in South America, as vast tracts of land are given over to soy monocultures,” the report explains. “The area planted with soybeans in South America is continuously growing with the combined soybean area of Brazil, Argentina, Paraguay and Bolivia expanding two-and-half times between 1988 and 2008, from 17 million hectares to 42 million hectares.”

“Ironically, despite Europe’s significant contribution to deforestation in the Amazon and other forested areas, this is not counted when the EU is measuring its sustainability,” notes Patrizia Heidegger, director for global policies and sustainability at the EEB. “This enables us to ignore our footprint in the outside world, look at the growing forest cover in Europe and believe we are becoming more sustainable.”

Unless something dramatic changes, this spells devastation for the Amazon and other rainforests around the world, including the unique flora and fauna they host, not to mention the indigenous peoples who live there and act as custodians of these forests.

Stop exporting deforestation

The European Union can save the Amazon, and other rainforests, by halting the import of goods produced on land that was formerly forest. An alliance of 26 leading NGOs has urged the EU to pass legislation that will guarantee that all products sold in Europe are free from deforestation and human rights abuses.

Environmental groups have demanded new laws and halt to the Mercosur trade deal.

“The EU is in a rare position to act for the Amazon by using its unique market leverage,” said Hannah Mowat, campaigns coordinator at Fern, a Brussels-based organisation dedicated to protecting forests and the rights of people depending on them, which is a member of the EEB network.

“Forget the unaccepted €20 million offer from the G7, let’s talk about the €6 billion euro leverage we have, which is what the EU spends on importing rainforest-destroying products like soy or beef,” insists Nick Meynen, policy officer for environmental and economic justice at the EEB. “Rather than ratifying the EU-Mercosur trade deal that would fan the flames only further, erect new trade tariffs based on the carbon emissions associated with the import of products such as soy, leather or beef.”

Another option would be to divert the equivalent of some or all of these funds to finance the restoration and preservation of the rainforest.

“Beyond Mercosur, all trade deals between EU and the outside world must include safeguards to protect biodiversity and contribute to our climate targets,” says Célia Nyssens, agriculture policy officer at the EEB.

When less is more

Renegotiating harmful trade deals is not enough. We also need to tackle damaging lifestyles. “As long as our dietary patterns continue to evolve towards more meat products, the pressure to gain land to rainforests worldwide will increase,” observes Margarita Mediavilla, professor of system dynamics and senior scientist with LOCOMOTION, an EU-backed project which is modelling scenarios for the transition towards a carbon-neutral and sustainable future.

“There is no way around the fact that we have to reduce our consumption of animal products,” insist Nyssens. “We need to transform the way we produce and consume meat and dairy.”

The only way to reduce our pressure on rainforests is to phase out industrial livestock farming, which relies on imported protein crops like soya to feed animals. This will inevitably lead to lower livestock numbers in Europe. In order to reduce the pressure on land resources so as to protect forests and natural ecosystems, people need to eat fewer animal proteins and more plant proteins.

“The LOCOMOTION model will include the global picture of land competition among uses: energy, food, urban, natural spaces and forests,” explains Mediavilla. “This module will enable us to explore how dietary changes would influence climate change mitigation.”

Many will regard such lifestyle changes as sacrifices, but reducing meat consumption will actually improve our health and wellbeing. In addition, well-managed pastures can help us achieve our climate and biodiversity objectives, explains Nyssens. “The key is to help our farmers transition to this new system through government support and consumer choices,” she adds.


This article was updated to include comments from Margarita Mediavilla.