Saving the Amazon from a decade of mass destruction

If the Amazon is to survive a decade in which it lost an area the size of Latvia, Europe must suspend its plans for free trade deal with the Mercosur bloc and, instead, pursue policies that will enable the rainforest to thrive.

And this must be done before the Amazon reaches the point of no return.

When the Royal Statistical Society in the UK decided to find the one standout statistic that captured the zeitgeist of the decade just ended, the judging panel settled on 8.4 million football pitches.

Rather than being an uplifting representation of the popularity of the ‘beautiful game’, this statistic is actually a reflection of the alarming rate at which the Amazon rainforest was depleted in the 2010s alone, based on deforestation monitoring results collected by Brazil’s National Institute for Space Research.

The area of Amazon forest lost was estimated to be over 62,000 square kilometres, an area slightly smaller than Latvia or Lithuania.

“This statistic, while giving only a snapshot of the issue, provides insight into the dramatic change to this landscape over the last 10 years,” wrote Liberty Vittert, a professor of data science who was a member of the judging panel. “Since 2010, mile upon mile of rainforest has been replaced with a wide range of commercial developments, including cattle ranching, logging and the palm oil industry.”

In her piece for the Smithsonian Magazine, Vittert goes on to highlight the environmental, social and economic costs of the rapid deforestation of the Amazon. These include massive loss of habitat in one of the most biodiverse regions of the world, severe damage to the lives and livelihoods of indigenous communities, not to mention the effect on the world’s warming climate of not only the Amazon’s diminishing ability to absorb carbon-dioxide from the air but also the release of billions of tonnes of carbon from the burning of large tracts of the forest.

Zooming out further back in time, nearly 800,000 km² of Amazonian rainforest has been cleared since 1970, which is an area larger than France and about the same size as Turkey. The mindboggling scale of the destruction has led scientists to fear that we may soon reach a tipping point when tree loss starts to feed on itself without the need for further human intervention, destroying much of the remaining fragile ecosystem.

With this relentless, decades-long war against the Amazon, you would expect the threatened rainforest, given its paramount importance to humanity and to life on Earth, to receive public attention.

This was the case for a brief window during the widespread forest fires last summer which were largely caused by ranchers clearing land. Today, the news agenda has moved on but the destruction has not stopped. At the time of writing, the top 70 results delivered by a search for ‘Amazon’ on Google’s search engine for news were about the tech giant.

Where the trade winds blow

At around the same time that large swathes of the Amazon were going up in smoke, negotiators from the European Union and the Southern Common Market or Mercosur (a trading bloc of South American nations) agreed the principles of a free trade agreement with the bloc’s four founding members, Brazil, Argentina, Paraguay and Uruguay.

Two decades in the making, the EU-Mercosur accord was described as “historic” and a “win-win” by EU officials. “I measure my words carefully when I say that this is a historical moment,” hailed former European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker, who appears to have rushed to seal the deal before his term ended. “[This is] the largest trade agreement the EU has ever concluded. Thanks to the hard and patient work of our negotiators, this is matched with positive outcomes for the environment and consumers. And that’s what makes this agreement a win-win deal.”

However, environmentalists fear that, despite the new trade accord’s vaunted environmental credentials on paper, fearing it will contribute to the ongoing destruction of the Amazon rainforest and the human rights violations that underpin it.

Civil society was so alarmed by the implications of the trade deal that more than 340 organisations, including the EEB, sent out a joint letter in June 2019 in which they urged the EU to halt negotiations. “It is imperative that the EU sends an unequivocal message to President Bolsonaro that the EU will refuse to negotiate a trade deal with Brazil until there is an end to human rights violations, strict measures to end further deforestation and concrete commitments to implement the Paris Agreement,” the letter said.

Unpopular accord

The majority of citizens in many European countries wish to halt the EU-Mercosur free trade agreement. A recent YouGov poll found that nearly two-thirds (63%) of citizens in six EU countries want the deal to be scrapped, which rises to a staggering 82% amongst those who expressed a clear preference.

“This poll proves that the vast majority of Europeans feel the same way: people don’t want cheaper beef at the cost of deforestation,” said David Norton, trade campaigns coordinator at SumOfUs, the worldwide consumer organisation which commissioned the poll.

Echoing citizens’ concerns some EU countries have also voiced objections. Last August, Finland, which held the rotating EU presidency at the time, urged fellow member states to consider banning Brazilian beef from European markets.

Last September, Austrian MPs rejected the trade pact, which will force their government, ultimately, to veto the agreement in Brussels, where EU rules stipulate that, to take effect, trade deals must be accepted unanimously by all member states.

France and Ireland have also signalled their intentions to torpedo the accord. “We can’t sign a trade treaty with a country that doesn’t respect the Amazon forest, that doesn’t respect the Paris [climate] treaty. France will not sign the Mercosur deal under these conditions,” French Environment Minister Elisabeth Borne said.

Farming out unsustainability

The EU’s free trade deal with the Mercosur comes at a time that the European Union is striving to make itself more sustainable internally. For instance, under the Union’s flagship European Green Deal initiative, the European Commission has committed to pursuing a holistic ‘Farm to Fork’ strategy that will strengthen efforts to tackle climate change, protect the environment and preserve biodiversity.

However, environmental groups see a gaping contradiction between this commitment and the laisse faire approach embodied in the Mercosur free trade deal. Farmers have been out on the streets protesting what they consider to be “double standards” between trade and agricultural policies.

“It’s unfair and unsustainable to expect European farmers to adopt the highest environmental and animal welfare standards if they have to compete on the EU market with cheaper imports that don’t meet the same criteria,” explains Célia Nyssens, the EEB’s agriculture policy officer. “The EU must use its economic clout to exports its high standards and to enforce the Paris Agreement, or no deal. This doesn’t only concern beef imports, but all agricultural imports, including soya or palm oil.”

Despite the Commission’s assurances that the Mercosur agreement will adhere to the highest environmental standards, critics expect that rather than export high standards, the deal will lead to the importing of environmentally damaging produce and products.

The vast majority of the deforestation in Brazil and other Amazon states has been due to the clearing of land for cattle rearing. The EU already imports 120,000 tonnes a year of Brazilian beef, and this figure will undoubtedly balloon under the new free trade deal, spelling even more devastation for the Amazon.

More worryingly still, under the Mercosur deal, the EU is expected to import greater quantities of bioethanol and soy as feedstock for biodiesel to meet its climate commitments at home. The trouble is biofuel not only diverts arable land from food production, it is also a major cause of deforestation, including in the Amazon.

“EU governments could end up causing more climate destruction abroad in order to meet their climate targets at home,” observes GRAIN, an international NGO which promotes small-scale, sustainable farming and biodiversity-based food systems.

GRAIN also estimates that emissions from increased bilateral trade in just eight key farm products are expected to rise by a third, with beef exports from Mercosur making up the lion’s share of the new emissions (82%). In addition, the EU’s climate footprint from food exports to Mercosur is likely to rise five-fold, according to the NGO.

“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.”

Although China is currently 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 report commissioned by the EEB, on the externalities of EU policies. The areas of deforested land given over to these environmentally destructive monocultures is bound to expand in the context of the EU-Mercosur trade deal.

More than steaks at stake

The EU-Mercosur deal is fuelled by Europe’s continuing addiction to unrestrained free trade. But if the EU is serious about saving the Amazon and becoming sustainable, it must halt this destructive accord before it is too late.

“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,” insists Nick Meynen, policy officer for environmental and economic justice at the EEB.

To show that its intention is not to punish Brazil and other South American countries, the EU could use the revenues generated by these tariffs to fund rainforest restoration and stewardship initiatives.

Europe also needs 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.

Reducing our pressure on rainforests requires lowering our imports of protein crops like soya to feed farm animals. This is only possible if we reduce livestock numbers and phase out industrial livestock farming in Europe, as we do not possess enough land here to feed all our farm animals at current levels of production. This means that people need to eat fewer animal proteins and more plant proteins. To find out more about how our food system can be made healthier for humans and the planet, check out the resources produced by GoodFood4All, a campaign organised by the Make Europe Sustainable for All project.

We also need to avoid other rainforest-destroying products, such as biofuels using crops grown on cleared land, oil and gas extraction, as well as mineral mining in the Amazon basin.