Europe must not be complicit in Bolsonaro’s attacks on forests


New civil society briefing calls on the EU and its member states to guarantee they will not be complicit in Bolsonaro’s dismantling of environmental protections in Brazil.

A protest against Brazil president Jair Bolsonaro in Sao Paulo, 2019. Photo: Shutterstock

On 10 April, marking 100 days since far-right President Jair Bolsonaro came to power, Fern published a briefing – endorsed by 25 international organisations – calling on the EU and its member states to guarantee they will not be complicit in Bolsonaro’s dismantling of environmental protections in Brazil.

Fern’s briefing, endorsed by over two dozen civil society organisations from Europe and Brazil, detailed how Brazil and the EU are economically intertwined and how Europe bears responsibility for the fate of Brazil’s forests and savannas. 

Fern and its partners are calling on the EU to “use its trade, investment and diplomatic leverages to ensure it is not complicit in Bolsonaro’s threatening policies for forests and Indigenous Peoples”.

Bolsonaro’s presidency has been marred by a surge in incursions by armed invaders on indigenous lands, growing deforestation rates, assaults on environmental protections and an increasing political influence of the powerful agribusiness lobby. 

Land grabbers have been emboldened by Bolsonaro’s hostile rhetoric against indigenous peoples and other traditional communities.

While Brazil’s forests and savannas had been under increasing attack before Bolsonaro came to power, the far-right president’s promised policies could result in almost unprecedented forest loss.

His first measure after coming to power in early January was to put indigenous lands under the jurisdiction of the agriculture ministry, paving the way for “powerful cattle ranching and soy interests to accelerate their sweep through the world’s largest tropical forest,” Fern said. 

Other measures adopted by the government have weakened environmental enforcement agencies and curtailed civil society participation in environmental policy making. Bolsonaro and his ministers have advocated for indigenous reservations to be opened up for large-scale farming, which is currently illegal.

The EU bears responsibility for the impacts of agricultural expansion in the country. An irrefutable body of evidence shows the harm caused by the EU’s imports of agricultural goods from Brazil and elsewhere, the briefing says. Soy expansion has been linked to nearly half of deforestation embedded in products imported into the EU. 

Brazil is South America’s largest soy producer and the EU its second largest market. Similarly, Brazil supplies nearly half of the beef imported by the EU, a commodity linked to most of the deforestation registered in the Amazon.

Commercial ties between Brazil and Europe could be strengthened with the signing of a free trade agreement that the EU and Mercosur – a trade bloc of several South American countries, of which Brazil is the largest member – have been negotiating for years.

Fern argues that a EU-Mercosur free trade deal could embolden “an unrestrained Bolsonaro to continue along his current path.” The organisation is calling for the deal to have binding, enforceable provisions to end deforestation.

More broadly, Fern and its partners are calling on the European Commission to specify how it plans to respond to the challenges presented by the Bolsonaro administration, including ensuring human rights are respected.

According to Fern, the EU should have enough leverage to act. It is Brazil’s second largest trading partner, the main source of foreign direct investment in the country, and a significant source of loans.

Fern is clear about what has to be done: “[T]he EU needs laws to guarantee that neither products sold in the EU, nor the financial markets underpinning them, are destroying the planet’s forests and driving land grabs and other human rights abuses.” 

The organisation has called on the EU to make it mandatory for companies to trace the agro-commodities they import to the land where they were produced.

This lends support to the recent criticism by NGOs of the EU’s focus on voluntary private sector action in its upcoming action plan on deforestation. 

NGOs – including Earthsight – have argued that this approach is misguided and would fail, and are calling for legally binding regulations to be placed at the heart of the EU’s plan instead.

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