EU agricultural imports and deforestation

Europe's resolve to act against the Bolsonaro government’s environmental crimes appears to be strengthening.

Tightening sustainability requirements in the EU food system should be accompanied by policies that raise standards globally.

Brazil has entered uncertain times. Two health ministers and the Justice Minister have resigned within the last month, throwing President Jair Bolsonaro’s government into disarray as opposition to his reckless response to Covid-19 mounts.

The country now has the highest Covid-19 death rate in Latin America – a rate estimated to be doubling every five days - and hospitals in São Paolo are close to collapse.

The relentless assault on forests and Indigenous Peoples’ rights has remained constant throughout this turmoil. If anything, such attacks have intensified. Support for them comes from the very top of government: Brazil’s Supreme Court has just released footage in which the environment minister suggests that coronavirus is a good opportunity to simplify regulations in the Amazon while media attention is elsewhere.


Deforestation in the Amazon rose by 64 percent in April compared to a year ago, as environmental protectors stayed away from the field. Their absence created the opening for loggers and miners to invade Indigenous lands. 

Against this backdrop, the Amazon region has become a flashpoint for the spread of coronavirus. The Brazilian Indigenous Peoples' Association (APIB) said in a statement: "The virus is reaching Indigenous territories across Brazil with frightening speed."

APIB noted that 40 Indigenous groups have now reported coronavirus cases, and that mortality rates appear higher among them than in the general population.

APIB and other Indigenous groups have long called for the European Union (EU) to address its role in the destruction of the Amazon and the Cerrado, and the rights’ violations which accompany it. This responsibility stems chiefly from EU consumption of soy and beef, which it imports in vast quantities from Brazil. Evidence linking these industries to social conflict, land grabs and deforestation is overwhelming.

Tightening sustainability requirements in the EU food system should be accompanied by policies that raise standards globally.

The current crisis only compounds the need for urgent EU and UK action to tackle this.


On 5 May, the Brazilian Climate Observatory (Observatório do Clima), a network of 50 civil society organisations working on climate policy, called for the EU to review its trade deal with the Mercosur nations, which includes Brazil.

They said: “The coronavirus pandemic imposes the need for a sustainable economic recovery. Thus, environmental safeguards within the agreement, which were insufficient before Covid-19, have now made the document outdated."

Fortunately, support for an EU due diligence regulation to tackle human rights violations and environmental destruction in EU members’ supply chains – as exemplified by imports from Brazil - is finally gaining momentum, following the publication last year of the European Commission’s Communication on stepping up EU action to protect and restore the world’s forests.

The EU has now laid down another marker to ensure that its agricultural imports no longer fuel Brazil’s unfolding disaster.

The European Commission’s Farm to Fork strategy for Sustainable Food, published on 20 May, is at the “heart of the [European] Green Deal”, and sets out to “address the challenges of sustainable food systems in a comprehensive way, recognising the inextricable links between healthy people, healthy societies and a healthy planet.”


The strategy acknowledges that tightening sustainability requirements in the EU food system should be accompanied by policies that raise standards globally “in order to avoid the externalisation and export of unsustainable practices.” 

It also explicitly states such measures should be legally enforceable: “To reduce the EU’s contribution to global deforestation and forest degradation, the Commission will propose regulatory and non-regulatory measures to minimise the deforestation risk with commodities placed in the EU market.”

As such, it’s another signal that the EU is committed to setting global sustainability standards in food supply chains and eradicating the deforestation and other abuses that scar its agricultural imports. The proof will now be in the execution.

In a further sign that antipathy to the Bolsonaro government’s environmentally destructive tendencies is hardening into something more tangible, on 19 May, 40 companies - including major UK supermarket chains, Tesco, Morrisons, Asda and Marks and Spencer - wrote an open letter warning they might boycott Brazilian products if a contentious new law that would legalise private occupation of public lands, was passed in Brazil. The law, they said, would encourage “further land grabbing and widespread deforestation”.

Our consumption and production patterns are heavily dependent on other peoples’ land and resources - often taken without their consent. The consequences of this are vividly clear today in Brazil. 

As our Brazilian colleagues make clear, the best way for Europeans to respond is through concrete action, including legislation making importing goods produced under such circumstances illegal. Finally, such action looks closer to being realised.

This Author 

Nicole Polsterer is a sustainable consumption and production campaigner at the forests and rights NGO, Fern.

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