Blog post written by Judith Krauss (SIID), Rob Coates and Sierra Deutsch (Wageningen University).
What is happening?
A growing chorus of people is extremely concerned about the future of Brazil’s under-threat biomes—the Amazon, Cerrado, and Atlantic Forest–and the rights of indigenous and other minority groups living there.
In the last three weeks alone, alarm bells have been sounded by:
– all eight former Brazilian Environment Ministers who are currently living condemning the current government’s policies, which they say destroy prior achievements
– an open letter by Brazil’s environmental civil servants urging condemnation of government dismantling of environmental management
– an open letter signed by 300 indigenous groups in Brazil and over 600 researchers from all 28 countries of the European Union
– a new report by Amazon Watch highlighting the many ways in which European consumers and investors exacerbate human rights violations and environmental losses in the Amazon
– a new report by Earthsight on UK and other European companies sourcing corned beef from a firm implicated in illegal deforestation and corruption in Brazil.
All calls, despite their different provenance, come to the same conclusion: escalating environmental and social destruction in Brazil needs to be stopped urgently to protect vital biomes and their inhabitants in order to halt further deforestation, extinction and global warming.
Why is this being discussed now?
- President Jair Bolsonaro’s government, now just over 100 days in office, is focused on removing obstacles to agribusiness expansion, including any form of regulation against deforestation and violence against indigenous and other groups at the forest frontier. Given Bolsonaro’s chequered history, this does not come as a surprise: in 1998, he said it was a shame that the Brazilian cavalry was not as “efficient in exterminating the Indians” as their U.S. counterparts, while he has also made repeated threats against Brazil’s hundreds of quilombolas (maroon communities). Plans are now advancing to open indigenous territories to exploitation by mining corporations, a move that would produce a spiral of road building, forest degradation, and even greater inroads by soy and cattle barons. Bolsonaro’s environment minister, Ricardo Salles, has called the renowned civil servants of the ICMBio conservation institute “hippies”, whose institute needed strengthening with “competent people”; he has already replaced many at senior level with military-trained allies. The message is strongly against biodiversity conservation, and observers now anticipate an acceleration of extinctions among Brazil 1,173 critically endangered species.
- The European Union is currently negotiating a free trade agreement with Mercosur, an alliance of South American countries which includes Brazil. The proposed trade deal encompasses a chapter on agriculture, which would reorganise the significant primary commodities being exported from Brazil and other South American countries into the European Union. There is concern from civil society, academia and politicians that the strong presence of agribusiness supporters in the new Brazilian government will push for the lifting of environmental and social standards.
Why should you care about environmental and social protection in Brazil?
The Amazon sustains life on earth: it is home to 10% of global biodiversity, stabilises the local and global climate and provides 20% of the world’s freshwater. Currently, Brazil’s deforestation specifically for livestock feed and meat in the European Union equates to a football field an hour; recent data shows that deforestation in January, Bolsonaro’s first month in office, rose by 54%. This is perfectly in keeping with the Bolsonaro government’s threat to withdraw from the Paris Agreement, which committed all signatories to the goal of limiting global warming to 2 degrees Celsius.
Indigenous populations in Brazil say they are fighting for their right to exist following comments by Bolsonaro on ‘integrating’ them into society and questioning their right to exist. An unprecedented 5,000 indigenous people protested in Brasília from 24 to 26 April 2019, a figure that hides the enormous challenges many faced to travel there to have their voices heard. Illegal invasions of indigenous territories particularly in Amazonia are reported to have increased 150% in March.
While Bolsonaro’s initial plans to combine the ministries of Agriculture (MAPA) and Environment were thwarted by strong opposition, he still shifted many responsibilities for the environment and indigenous lands to MAPA, run by a strong proponent of agribusiness. In its first 100 days the new government has approved 150 new agro-pesticides, moved to delist protections for endangered species that might limit economic activity, and proposed cutting research funding. The national conversation has changed, emboldening loggers, ranchers and mining enterprises.
What can you do?
In addition to breaking out your ‘Save the rainforest’ t-shirt, there are at least two ways to get involved:
- Voting and activism: org makes an explicit link between the EU-Mercosur trade negotiations and the elections for the European Parliament, listing MEP candidates and incumbents who support the initiative to make trade with Brazil more sustainable. Ask your MEP to support the letter, and if you’re a researcher based in the EU, sign it. The Brazilian Environment Minister’s visit to Europe this year has been put on hold: he is not immune to expected pressure from researchers, civil society groups and voters.
- Consumption: The report from Amazon Watch makes explicit how European consumers and investors are supporting illegal activities and deforestation through supply chains and brands. Examples include purchasing high-end smoothies with açai pulp; buying Brazilian leather accessories that may have been produced from deforested land; purchasing native wood; or bankrolling logging companies or soy traders. Why not remind these companies that the social and ecological circumstances of production matter for all our futures, individually or with your friends?
We can all make a difference – with our wallets and with our voices.