Europe is contributing to widespread deforestation in Brazil, say scientists

Coalition urges European Commission to take urgent action in trade negotiations

Land cleared for crops at the border of indigenous land in the Brazilian Cerrado. Photograph: Larissa Rodrigues

A coalition of more than 600 scientists in the EU, and 300 Brazilian indigenous groups have accused the European Commission of contributing to widespread deforestation in Brazil, which is exacerbating climate change and fuelling human rights violations.

In a letter backed by scientific evidence, it underlines the urgent need to make environmental impacts and human rights breaches a priority in ongoing trade negotiations between the EU and Brazil.

The scale of international agricultural demand – notably for beef and soya – is driving deforestation and putting the Amazon’s future at risk, it states.

“The task of ensuring sustainable trade has become an urgent one with Brazil’s new administration working to dismantle their environmental and indigenous lands policies,” it adds.


The leading research journal Science has taken the unusual step of endorsing the letter and publishing it in full in its latest issue.

Ongoing land conversion in Brazil has already been linked to violent indigenous rights conflicts, it notes, while deforestation releases vast amounts of CO2 “contributing to global climate breakdown. And a multitude of endangered species are at risk under continued clearance of native vegetation”.

The coalition claims the EU "is a world leader in importing crops that cause deforestation", resulting in forest loss equivalent to the size of Portugal between 1990 and 2008.

Despite the global importance of Brazil’s natural areas, the EU imported more than €2 billion worth of livestock feed from Brazil in 2017, not knowing its provenance, it says. “One-sixth of the carbon footprint of EU diets are directly linked to tropical deforestation though consumers have no way of knowing whether the food they eat has contributed to deforestation and loss of land for indigenous people.”

Consumption power

“One study found that beef and livestock feed imported from Brazil to the EU in 2011 was linked to deforestation of an area larger than 300 football fields every day,” it says.

"We want the EU to stop importing deforestation and instead become a world leader in sustainable trade," said Dr Laura Kehoe, an Irish postdoctoral fellow at the University of Oxford who initiated the joint action. Dr Kehoe studies how meat consumption can drive deforestation.

The scale of international agricultural demand – notably for beef and soya – is driving deforestation and putting the Amazon’s future at risk. Photograph: Thiago Foresti

She added: “We protect forests and human rights at home, why do we have different rules for our imports?”

"Europe is complicit with the crimes committed in the name of agricultural production," said Sônia Guajajara, leader of Brazil's Indigenous People Articulation. "Europe and other consumer markets in the world need to learn how to use their consumption power to make sure our traditional rights are respected and to promote the preservation of forests."

Climate justice campaigner and former UN commissioner for human rights Mary Robinson has endorsed the campaign: "Our dinner choices should not put the lives of Brazil's indigenous peoples at risk, the EU must mitigate climate disaster and protect human rights by introducing stringent trade regulations with Brazil."

Powerful agribusiness

"The irony is that there is really no need for further deforestation in Brazil: foreseeable agricultural demand could be met entirely from improving existing farm practices and restoring degraded land, without any more conversion of natural habitats," said Andrew Balmford, professor of conservation science at the University of Cambridge.

Halting deforestation made economic sense as intact forests were critical to maintaining rainfall patterns on which Brazilian agriculture depended, while restoring degraded lands and improving yields could meet rising agricultural demand for at least two decades without need for further forest clearance.

The letter outlines a pathway towards sustainability. Along with respecting human rights and tracing the location of where crops and livestock products originate, “a participatory process needs to be introduced that includes indigenous peoples, local communities, policy makers and scientists”, it says.

Thousands of indigenous people descended on Brasília this week to protest against the actions of president Jair Bolsonaro. Elected with the help of powerful agribusiness and evangelical lobbies, he has vowed to freeze demarcations of new indigenous reserves, revoke the protected status of others, and free up commercial farming and mining.

Indigenous leaders are incensed by a decision to transfer responsibility for demarcation of indigenous reserves to Brazil’s agriculture ministry, which is controlled by members of a powerful farming lobby opposed to indigenous land rights.

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Kevin O'Sullivan

Kevin O'Sullivan

Kevin O'Sullivan is Environment and Science Editor and former editor of The Irish Times