EU member states divided on impact of rainforest fires in Amazon on free trade deal with Brazil

EU member states divided on impact of rainforest fires in Amazon on free trade deal with Brazil

The ongoing fires in the Amazon rainforest have overshadowed the G7 summit organised by France in Biarritz and sparked a diplomatic row between the presidents of Brazil and France.

The issue might also jeopardize the planned ratification of the EU – Mercusor free trade agreement.

The Brazilian government rejected first a G7 offer of €18 million in aid for fighting the fires in the rain forest but has reportedly changed its mind.

The fires are the largest in decades and - as appears from satellite images – are not caused by the dry season but in most cases intentionally set by farmers, ranchers and loggers to clear land for agriculture and pasture for beef production for export.

Roberto Mangabeira Unger, a former Brazilian minister for strategic affairs, admitted in The New York Times (28 August) that, “In Brazil, which holds 60 % of the Amazonian rain forests, wildcat land grabbers and ranchers, who set fires to clear land in implicit partnership with a lenient government, are the main culprits”.

While in recent years, Brazil seemed to have improved its record as regards limiting deforestation and preserving the rainforest, it has become lax in enforcing its own environmental legislation under its new president Jair Bolsonaro. When other countries expressed concern for the rainforest, he accused them of a colonial attitude and interference in Brazil’s internal affairs.

He forgot to mention that Brazil itself is a former European colony which seized the Amazon from its indigenous population. He also ignored the fact that the Amazon rainforest is a global natural resource which needs to be protected for its immense biodiversity and its function as carbon sinks in fighting climate change.

Instead Brazil is prioritizing short-term economic interests at the expense of a sustainable development of the Amazon that would benefit both its indigenous population and the whole world.

It is telling that the head of Brazil´s institute of space research was fired for releasing data showing a huge increase in deforestation in July compared to the same month last year. So far this year, 80,000 fires have been detected by the institute.

Asked by The Brussels Times and other media about the possible impact of the fires on the EU-Mercusor free trade agreement, the chief spokesperson of the European Commission replied this week by quoting European Council President Donald Tusk:

"It is hard to imagine a harmonious process of ratification by the European countries as long as the Brazilian government allows for the destruction of the green lungs of planet earth."

According to the spokesperson the free trade agreement is expected to reinforce Brazil’s commitment to reduce greenhouse gas emissions according to the Paris Agreement on climate change.

However, judging from Brazil’s lack of political will to enforce its current environmental protection and its lack of concern for the fires that are ravaging the rainforest, the free trade agreement would not make any difference for the protection of the forest. Representatives of the Brazilian Agriculture Federation blame the fires on the dry season and consider them as a normal phenomenon.

For the time being, EU stands by the EU-Mercosur agreement, a free trade agreement between the EU and Argentine, Brazil, Paraguay and Uruguay, that has been negotiated for years and currently is subject to a final legal review of the parties.

According to a Commission spokesperson at today’s press briefing in Brussels, the review will soon result in a final text that will be translated to all EU languages and submitted to the European Parliament and the Member States for ratification.

The Commission spokespersons declined to speculate on the impact of the fires on the ratification process but opinions appear to be divided among the Member States, influenced as they are by their own trade interests.

Germany wants to go forward with the trade deal, so also Spain with its close ties to South-America. United Kingdom on the verge of crushing out of EU without any Brexit-deal is unsurprisingly also in favour of free trade at any price.

French President Macron who first raised the alarm about the forest fires in Amazon – calling it an international crisis and emergency that should be discussed at the G7 summit - has the support of other Member States, such as Ireland, Finland and Sweden.

Finland holds the EU presidency and has called on EU to consider the banning of beef imports from Brazil. The Swedish financial markets minister said that Sweden will review investments in Brazil by its pension funds so that they won’t affect negatively the rainforest in Amazon.

Climate change experts are warning that we are dangerously close to a tipping point in the Amazon rain forest. Beatrice Crona, assistant research director of the Resilience Center at Stockholm University, said that the rainforest is continuously shrinking by fires as the Amazon becomes drier (Dagens Nyheter, 26 August):

“Amazon is approaching the point where it will tip over to a totally different ecosystem with would affect our climate enormously. In the past, calculations showed that Amazon would pass the tipping point and become savanna if about 40 % of the rain forest disappeared. Now scientists suspect that the tipping point might be closer to 20 – 25 % deforestation. Currently 17 – 18 % has been deforested.”

Suspending the ratification of the free trade deal or stop importing palm oil, soya beans and beef from Brazil might bring the Brazilian government to its senses. But it might not be enough. The intentional damage to the rainforest in Amazon goes far beyond Brazil and affects the whole planet. It runs against EU’s global forest strategy and should be classified as an international crime against humanity.

M. Apelblat

The Brussels Times

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