Short-sighted UK Environment Bill will leave Brazil deforesters unchecked

11.06.2021

Cattle ranching in Brazil is a major driver of deforestation, much of which is illegal. Credit: Shutterstock

  • Gutting of conservation laws in Brazil – an important supplier of soy, beef and other commodities to the British market – could mean suspect commodity imports waved through in UK thanks to glaring weakness in proposed regulation.
  • Here, Earthsight’s Rubens Carvalho documents the latest news from Brazil on how its government has aggressively rolled back environmental protections and hollowed out its own law enforcement agencies in efforts to legalise unsustainable practices by agribusiness and extractive industries

The Environment Bill under debate in the House of Lords is an important step towards halting deforestation embedded in British imports of forest risk commodities (FRCs), such as beef, soy, palm oil, cocoa, rubber and leather.

Significant concerns about the proposal remain, however, such as those related to the exclusion of the financial sector and a lack of provisions on human rights.

One glaring weakness is the bill’s narrow focus on legality. As it stands, businesses placing FRCs on the British market would only need to make sure these comply with the laws of producing countries and are not linked to illegal deforestation.

While eliminating illegal deforestation from international supply chains is a long overdue necessity, restricting regulation to compliance with local laws will not be enough to tackle the global climate and biodiversity crises.

Such laws may allow unsustainable levels of deforestation. Under pressure from powerful agribusiness lobbies, politicians beholden to those interests (often corruptly) in producing countries may also legalise what should be illegal.

Brazil provides an excellent case in point.

The current administration of President Jair Bolsonaro and his Environment Minister Ricardo Salles is unapologetically against identifying and punishing environmental criminals. Salles has been targeted by federal prosecutors, the Supreme Court and Federal Police for openly abetting environmental harm.

Trade data show the UK is one of Europe’s five largest importers of Brazilian soy and beef. In 2019 alone Britain consumed nearly 1.7 million tonnes of Brazilian soy, almost half of which was found to be linked to deforestation risk.

A spate of recent measures, scandals and congressional votes in Brazil illustrates the perils of relying on the laws and institutions of a country where the boundaries of what is legal – and enforceable – are as transient as the priorities of the government of the day.

All this at a time when Congress has swung in the government’s favour following the election of Bolsonaro allies to the presidency of the lower chamber and Senate in February. Activists fear a flurry of new legislation that will further undermine environmental protections.

This process is already under way. In April Congress picked up a bill – first proposed by then congressman Bolsonaro in 2014 – that militarises environmental law enforcementin the Amazon, side-lining Ibama in favour of military officers answerable to Salles and Bolsonaro.

Last month Brazil’s lower chamber approved a new environmental licensing law, effectively getting rid of licensing requirements for several impactful economic activities – including large-scale cattle ranching. Experts believe it is a major threat to protected areas.

Environment Minister Ricardo Salles and President Jair Bolsonaro have sought to roll back environmental protections in Brazil. Credit: Creative Commons

Meanwhile, the aptly dubbed ‘land-grabbing bill’ making its way through the Senate would essentially legalise past land theft and grant (yet another) amnesty to thieves and illegal deforesters. The legalisation of mining and large-scale agriculture on indigenous lands looms in the horizon.

Bolsonaro has promised land grabbers they would “no longer wake up worried that ‘I lost my land because of a legal ruling to demarcate [indigenous lands]’.”

Last year, well-placed loyalists at Ibama scrapped timber export licenses and retroactively authorised allegedly illegal timber shipments seized in the US and EU, which has led to police investigations into Salles’ involvement in timber smuggling.

In a separate scandal, the Supreme Court has accepted a request by the Attorney General to investigate allegations that Salles has obstructed investigations into illegal Amazon timber.

While shocking, none of this should come as a surprise. The Bolsonaro government has rendered environmental laws virtually worthless by paralysing Ibama and making it almost impossible for criminals to be caught or penalties enforced.

Crowning this pristine record, Bolsonaro’s Amazon Plan locks in unsustainably high levels of deforestation for years to come.

Illegal logging on indigenous Pirititi land in the Amazon state of Roraima. Credit: Felipe Werneck/Ibama

The UK government has promoted the Environment Bill as a flagship initiative ahead of COP26. But by narrowing FRC import rules to a focus on legality, it is missing the opportunity to stamp out unsustainable deforestation from British supply chains.

Some of the world’s largest food corporations have recognised this and told the government the focus on illegality alone will not only be ineffective but is also likely to be harder for importers to comply with.

It is hard to see how companies doing business with Brazil could stay on top of what’s legal amid the ongoing battle between Brazil’s Executive and Judiciary powers. With the EU debating FRC legislation that looks likely to cover all forms of deforestation, businesses would have to navigate different rules to serve the British and European markets.

When referring to Brazil, it may be tempting to dismiss this debate as moot. Deforestation in the country is, after all, almost entirely illegal. This misses the point. It is precisely the eagerness to legalise the unrelenting advance of agriculture over forests and other biomes that prompts political forces in Brazil to make a mockery of the country’s constitution, laws and international commitments.

The answer to Brazil’s rampant illegal deforestation is to combat it head on, not legalise it. While the UK government is not responsible for Bolsonaro’s destructive agenda, it should not tolerate its businesses being associated with it.

To end the UK’s role in forest loss, the House of Lords must propose and approve amendments to the bill that include ambitious deforestation-free rules. Some peers have already highlighted the problematic focus on illegality during the bill’s second reading at the House this week.

MPs – some of whom have equally recognised this flaw in the bill – should accept these amendments and make sure the new law also has strict penalties and can be properly enforced. Anything less and they will be doing forests and their peoples a grave disservice at a time of unprecedented environmental crises.

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