Wednesday

8th Jul 2020

Opinion

Time for EU sanctions on Brazilian government

  • Destruction of Amazon can be seen as a kind of 'lung cancer' for the world (Photo: leoffreitas)

The Amazon is burning. More than 40,000 wildfires have been recorded in the region since the beginning of the year, and more than 2,500 square kilometres of rainforest are being been lost every month due to deforestation.

This is a massive increase compared to something between 200 and 1000 sq. km per month in the previous years. It is estimated that everyday an area of the size of Greater London is destroyed.

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This is neither new in Brazil nor something unique in the world. Large wildfires frequently destroy big chunks of nature in Siberia, California, the Mediterranean, and many other regions.

What makes the case of the Amazon region very special and worrisome is, first, the unique significance of its rainforest for the planet and, second, the blatant political responsibility of the Brazilian leadership for its destruction.

Unique treasure - unique responsibility

The Amazon rainforest is the most important ecosystem in the world. It covers 5.5m square kilometres - an area far larger than the EU.

It contains a third of all known plant and animal species. It produces more than 50 percent of all the rain that falls in the Amazon region and it affects rainfall patterns far outside South America.

It is branded by many as the "planet's lung". Its destruction can be seen as a kind of "lung cancer" for our nature's health.

In this context, one could expect a high sense of political responsibility from the leader of the country where that natural treasure is located. Alas, this is not the case at all.

Brazil's president Jair Bolsonaro had vociferously pledged during his electoral campaign in 2018 to "exploit" the Amazon region and rollback protective measures for its forest and indigenous people.

He promised to end demarcation of new indigenous lands, reduce the power of environmental agencies and liberalise mining and industrial farming on indigenous reserves.

Hours after taking office on 1 January 2019, he issued an executive order transferring the management of the area to the agriculture ministry which is controlled by the powerful agribusiness lobby.

According to some figures, deforestation of the Amazon area has seen a 67 percent increase since Bolsonaro came to power.

Most of the fires have been intentionally set by farmers or firms to clear land for illegal cattle ranching, mining, soy production and other uses.

These fires exacerbate the climate crisis, because the huge amount of carbon stored by the rain forest is being released into the atmosphere and the Amazon has played a critical role in absorbing it from the atmosphere.

Bolsonaro has faced criticism from all sides, both at national and international level. People accuse him of either turning the blind eye or actively encouraging logging and farming in the Amazon region.

As the number of fires picked up this summer, he was quick to describe the satellite data confirming the huge degree of deforestation as "lies" and attacked his own environmental agencies.

He further accused European governments for their interventionism.

Open attack

On 23 August 2019, he hit back at the French president Emmanuel Macron, after the latter had urged a G-7 leaders debate on the situation in the Amazon region.

He accused him of using the "internal issue of Brazil and other Amazonian countries" for personal political gain and blamed him for a "misplaced colonialist mindset in the 21st century."

Those words and deeds are not political business as usual.

They constitute an open attack against the nature and indigenous people of the Amazon on the basis of a far-right ideological agenda. It is the agenda that treats nature only as a subject of exploitation, recognises no rights for indigenous groups and detests the environmental campaigners which are perceived as leftists or foreign agents.

It further dismisses any international dimension of the issue and puts national sovereignty first. Business and nationalism thrive against humanistic and environmental values.

The EU must not stay idle or simply stick to mild measures.

It is time to take decisive action and warn the Brazilian president with the imposition of sizeable sanctions if his government continues its current policy.

The EU has a much bigger economy than Brazil's and a huge political leverage to push in that direction.

In particular, the EU is Brazil's second-biggest trading partner, accounting for 18.3 percent of its total trade.

On the other hand, Brazil is the EU's 11th-biggest trading partner, accounting only for 1.7 percent of total EU trade in 2017.

It could absorb any negative effects of the sanctions by diversifying its trade with other partners from South America or elsewhere in the world.

Leadership through sanctions

A first obvious step would be to block or amend the terms the recently negotiated Mercosur agreement, the big trade deal between the EU and several countries of South America, including Brazil.

This issue has already been contemplated openly by France and Ireland, which threatened not to ratify that agreement unless Brazil does more to protect the region against fires.

But a more effective approach would consist of direct sanctions against the political and corporate interests of Brazil that destroy the region.

The sanctions should target the products which derive directly from Amazon's deforestation: iron ore, soybeans, sugar, coffee, corn.

They should be progressive and equivalent to the rate of deforestation. Strict and verifiable conditions should be set for their lifting or softening, depending on the progress in the forests' protection.

European firms that would be hurt the most should be partially compensated and supported by the EU public budgets or other means to recover parts of their losses.

The sanctions should also apply to competing firms from around the world which would profit from the Amazon's destruction thanks to the withdrawal of the European firms.

The EU has little to lose and much to gain from such a move.

It would demonstrate moral leadership in an issue of global concern and responsibility.

It would help its people and business to realise the importance of fair trade, with comparatively little cost.

It would remind everyone about its powerful position in the world as the second biggest economy.

It would also further send a message of determination, strength and unity at the international stage - especially in difficult times like the one of Brexit.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, it would pay a huge service to the global climate cause and the future of our planet.

Author bio

The authors are members of The European Alliance, a political group in the European Committee of the Regions, an EU institution. Karamitsios is employed as a legal officer by the European Commission. His views expressed in this text are strictly personal and do not represent those of his employer.

Disclaimer

The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.

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