The EU must face its responsibility for the Amazon fires

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

Indigenous leaders from Brazil talk about human rights violations they face and the forest fires that ravage the Amazon and other regions, at a hearing with MPs from D66, GroenLinks and the Party for the Animals, in The Hague, The Netherlands, 30 October 2019. [EPA-EFE/PHIL NIJHUIS]

Only with a strong law can European consumers be confident that the production of the food they eat does not fuel the horrendous fires we witness every year in the Amazon, writes Ester Asin.

Ester Asin is director of the WWF’s EU office in Brussels.

The world’s attention is diverted, but the Amazon is burning with a fury not seen for decades. In July, Brazil’s space institute INPE registered 6,803 fire hotspots in the Amazon – 1,500 more than 2019 – most of which were started deliberately, betting on long-term demand for key commodities like soy.

Europe is thousands of kilometers away from Brazil, but millions of its farm animals – which provide meat and dairy for our daily diet – are fed on imported soy.

This cheap source of protein is often grown on land that was once Amazon rainforest. The EU single market, with its huge demand for soy and beef, is causing long-term destruction
to the Amazon and other natural ecosystems. It doesn’t directly strike the match to start the fires, but Europe does hold sway over how many matches are in the box.

Now, under the European Green Deal, there is an opportunity to remove forest destruction from the EU’s supply chains.

Rainforests are not meant to burn; fire is not part of their natural process. Once the rage is over, they do not recover, but need to grow back from scratch over centuries. The WWF team in Brazil has seen how forest vegetation is cut down across a huge area, left to dry then set alight intentionally during the dry season when winds fan the flames, spreading permanent annihilation.

These acts of arson have far-reaching consequences for our planet’s irreplaceable biodiversity, the people who lose their homes and sometimes their lives, the water supply in the region and the entire world as the fires fuel climate change. With so much at stake, the EU has to take responsibility for its role in the destruction of the Amazon.

To understand the EU’s role we need to view it over a period of 5-10 years. Those who set the Amazon alight today are betting on huge profits in the years to come. First they clear then burn the forest, often with an incredibly high human cost. Amnesty International recently reported that land seizures in the Amazon are forcing indigneous peoples and traditional communities from their lands, while afro-descendant local communities “fear being hurt or killed”.

After burning, cattle are often moved in. This eventually gives the land user the right to claim tenure, usually some five years later. Then they can legally sell the land, potentially opening the doors to big agribusinesses who can convert land to soy production – one of Brazil’s most profitable exports.

Global appetite for beef, soy fuels Amazon fires

Two of the industries involved in the infernos consuming the Amazon rainforest and drawing the attention of global powers gathered at the G7 meeting in France are familiar to diners worldwide: soy and beef.

Today, there is an Amazon ‘soy moratorium’ in place, which means that soy grown on these new farms cannot legally access markets. However, the Brazilian government openly favours the end of the moratorium and the renewed expansion of Amazon soy farms, fuelled in part by EU market demand. This is a major concern: before 2006 (when the moratorium began) the Amazon burnt and the soy producers moved in within the space of months.

Burning natural habitats for future profit is a problem that extends to other vital ecosystems like Brazil’s Cerrado, a woody, grassland savannah which covers 20% of Brazil and is home to many unique plant and animal species. Yet, the Cerrado is one of the most threatened natural areas in the world, and under huge pressure from agricultural expansion. Here, no soy moratorium is in place and it continues to be cleared both directly for soy that is currently exported in vast quantities to the EU, and for future speculation.

The EU must take its responsibility for the destruction of both the Amazon and Cerrado
seriously. Indeed, according to recent research it is the second-largest export market for forest- risk commodities after China, and as much of one fifth of the soy imports from these regions may be ‘contaminated’ with illegal deforestation, says a recent study.

With the lure of its market, the EU has the power to stop land evictions, human rights abuses, biodiversity destruction and the massive release of CO2 caused by forest fires, deforestation and ecosystem conversion across the world. It can do this by passing a new law that would exclude commodities and products linked to the destruction of nature from the EU market.

Under the European Green Deal, the EU has made clear intentions to draw up a new law on removing deforestation from its supply chains, with a public consultation expected this
September. However, to ensure EU lawmakers are not barking up the wrong tree it must protect forests and other ecosystems (such as savannahs, grasslands and wetlands around the world), from which the EU imports commodities including soy, palm oil, cocoa, beef, coffee and rubber, while also guaranteeing human rights.

Only with a strong law can European consumers be confident that the production of the food they eat does not fuel the horrendous fires we witness every year, destroying some of our planet’s most precious natural areas irrevocably, with disastrous consequences for the wildlife and people they are home to, and our climate. Europe can and must stop being part of this problem.

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