Without Pressure, Brazil won’t Stop Snowballing Deforestation
Right as deforestation in Brazil’s Cerrado region, the world’s largest savanna, reaches a six-year-high, the Brazilian government has decided to stop monitoring the loss of vegetation in the wide-ranging region next to the Amazon. Brasilia’s nonchalant reaction to the alarming reports that one of its biodiversity hotspots is suffering large-scale destruction of its plant life is unsurprising, given the continual erosion of environmental standards under strongman leader Jair Bolsonaro.
Indeed, data released in December showed that deforestation in protected areas has increased some 79% since Bolsonaro took office, with much of the blame falling on the lucrative, yet highly environmentally destructive beef industry.
While there has been some reaction in Europe, with major supermarkets dropping Brazilian beef from supermarket shelves and prominent policymakers calling for tougher screening on imports to ensure that they meet environmental standards, there’s far from an international consensus. China, for example, has seen an explosion in demand for cheap Brazilian beef. Without stronger actions on behalf of international governments and corporations alike, Brasilia is unlikely to step in and stop the destruction of natural land.
For Brasilia, see no evil
The vast savannah of Cerrado, one of the world’s most biodiverse natural areas, has sometimes been described as an upside-down forest because of its plants’ deep roots.
The region dominates central Brazil, covering more than 20% of the country’s surface, and serves as a critical carbon sink. Less famous than the Amazon basin, but just as important to global biodiversity and mitigating the effects of climate change, the Cerrado is now under grave threat.
The decision to stop monitoring the region’s deforestation, ostensibly due to a lack of funds, came just days after data showed a substantial rise in environmental degradation of the Cerrado. It’s just the latest setback for environmental protection under Bolsonaro, who has proven singularly unmotivated to curb the destruction of Brazil’s vital ecological resources.
Bolsonaro and his administration have maintained an antagonistic relationship with environmentalists throughout his term, including the National Institute for Space Research or INPE, which uses satellite imagery to monitor deforestation. In 2019, the controversial president attacked INPE and accused the agency of lying about the data proving an increase in Amazon rainforest deforestation.
With Bolsonaro unrepentant and fresh speculation that Brazil might “end illegal deforestation” by simply legalizing it, experts have flagged the international community’s responsibility to avoid participating in the destruction of Brazilian biomes. Importing products like beef and wood from Brazil without adequate traceability to prove that the products didn’t contribute to deforestation is one of the main drivers of ecological destruction in the country.
Europe’s private and public sectors take notice
Indeed, the ecological responsibility which international consumers of unsustainably-produced Brazilian products bear is difficult to ignore, particularly in regions like Europe, where consumer behaviour has shifted towards more sustainable practices in recent decades.
According to a Greenpeace report, a third of deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon is caused by meat producers grabbing public land and clearing space for cattle ranches. As a result, consumers in wealthy European nations like Italy, the Netherlands, Spain, Germany, and the United Kingdom have indirectly contributed to the release of 21 million tons of greenhouse gas emissions in 2019 alone through the import of Brazilian beef.
Several journalistic investigations published in recent years have highlighted the extent to which the Brazilian cattle farming industry engages in the practice known as “cattle laundering.” The scheme sees cows raised in illegal farms linked with deforestation transferred to legal, “eco-friendly” farms, just weeks before being slaughtered and shipped across the world to unsuspecting customers. According to one study, at least 17% of beef shipments from the Cerrado and the Brazilian Amazon may be linked to illegal deforestation.
These practices stand in sharp contrast to the stringent requirements which European agricultural producers must obey, including an imperative to trace European cattle from birth to slaughter. Encouragingly, both private companies and policymakers have begun taking action against Brazilian beef which is undercutting European ranchers as well as European environmental norms. Last month, six European supermarket chains announced that they will stop shelving beef products originating in Brazil over the industry’s links with deforestation.
French President Emmanuel Macron, meanwhile, has pushed vigorously for the adoption of “mirror clauses” in future EU trade agreements, a practice which ensures that agricultural imports such as beef are required to meet the same environmental standards as European products. Macron’s government has also promised to make the adoption of such clauses at a European level a priority of France’s nascent EU presidency. As France’s agriculture minister recently underlined, “we cannot continue to accept imports into the EU market of products that do not respect the standards that we impose on our own productions.”
Chinese demand to sustain industry—and deforestation
Wide-scale implementation in Europe of measures like mirror clauses could prompt the Brazilian beef industry and others heavily involved in deforestation to clean up their act. Ideally, Europe’s commitment to keeping out unsustainable products would spark other companies and lawmakers around the world to follow suit.
Beijing has particular leverage. Beef imports from Brazil to China have skyrocketed, growing by a staggering 76% between 2019 and 2020. Brazilian beef has a roughly 43% market share in China, and China was quick to lift a temporary ban on Brazilian beef over an outbreak of mad cow disease. While the ban might have contributed to the diversification of the Chinese beef market, Brazilian beef will continue to see significant demand in China due to its affordability, unless Beijing is swayed by environmental considerations.
The destruction of Brazil’s natural resources is an environmental and moral disaster happening before our very eyes and, sometimes, on our very plates. The world must stand united against the wholesale razing of South America’s unique habitats. Holding off on Brazilian beef until the industry can prove that its products respect strict international environmental norms is one key step towards stopping the unfolding catastrophe.