Scientists demand greater action on sustainability in EU trade talks with Brazil

Forest cut for agricultural expansion at the boundary of an Indigenous land. Photo credit: Larissa Rodrigues

Written by Simon Bager & Tiago Reis, Ph.D. candidates at UCLouvain in Belgium and Early Stage Researchers in COUPLED

This blog post expands upon a letter recently published in Science, signed by 600+ scientists (including the authors of this post) and 300 Indigenous Peoples groups.

Human consumption of food and agricultural products has a significant impact on the environment and the societies in the regions where they are produced. Research has shown that loss of forests resulting from demand for land to produce these commodities is among the main causes of anthropogenic global warming (Henders et al., 2015; Pendrill et al., 2019). A centre-piece in the struggle to keep forests and natural habitats intact are the forests and savannahs across the tropics, which store enormous amounts of carbon and is home to millions of species (Berenguer et al., 2014; Noojipady et al., 2017; Strassburg et al., 2017).

One of the countries experiencing this unprecedented loss of natural vegetation is Brazil. Here, agricultural expansion, especially for soy, as well as cattle ranching and production of other agricultural commodities, along with extraction of minerals, is leading to massive conversion of land. This causes losses of natural habitats and has detrimental effects on climate, biodiversity, and human rights. Ongoing land conversion in Brazil has already been tied to violent social and Indigenous rights conflicts, forest loss, massive release of greenhouse gases, and the loss of or pressure on a plethora of species. Already, 20% of the Amazon and 50% of the Cerrado has been lost (, and millions of hectares are projected to be lost in the coming decades (Soares-Filho et al., 2006, 2016; Soares-filho et al., 2014). To make matters worse, the new Brazilian administration is further exacerbating these problems, as they work to dismantle environmental regulations and Indigenous lands policies, we previously discussed on this blog.

Destruction of the Brazilian Cerrado. Photo by Larissa Rodrigues

The expansion of commodity production is due to increased demand (in Brazil and elsewhere) for food and feed for a growing, increasingly wealthy, global population. Brazil sells a majority of the commodities it produces to other countries; notably China and the EU, as research by the Trase project has shown. The European Union is Brazil’s second largest trade partner, importing substantial amounts of mineral and agricultural commodities, some of which are associated with deforestation and human rights violations.

Currently, trade negotiations between the EU and Brazil are ongoing, and the result of this negotiation could have massive implications for land use and agricultural production in Brazil. Given EUs and Brazil’s commitment to the Paris Agreement, the Convention on Biological Diversity, and other international treaties, the EU has a key responsibility to strengthen efforts on sustainable trade and uphold its commitments on human rights, environmental protection, and climate change mitigation. As Tiago Reis, a Brazilian citizen himself, says, “if the EU does not use its purchasing power to push for positive transformation in Brazil, they are complicit in this environmental destruction”. Simon Bager, a Danish (and thus EU) citizen, further adds: “Consumption of agricultural commodities is a major driver of forest conversion and climate change, as is also acknowledged by the Sustainable Development Goals, and the EU should acknowledge the role that trade can play in addressing these problems.”

The Amazon Rainforest in Brazil. Photo credit Larissa Rodrigues

Along with more than 600 scientists from every country in the EU, and 300 Brazilian Indigenous groups, we and other Ph.D. candidates from COUPLED have signed an open letter to the European Commission. In it, the scientists raise alarm about the need to make environmental impacts and human rights conflicts a priority in the ongoing negotiations between Brazil and the EU. In the letter, we argue that raising the alarm about this issue is necessary, as the fate of global food security relies on the integrity of natural ecosystems and their associated supporting services to ensure the production of adequate food. As Tiago explains, “it is unfortunate that farmers and producing countries have not yet realized the importance of maintaining healthy natural ecosystems despite the magnitude of traditional and scientific knowledge showing just that.” This is especially problematic, as the current economic paradigm exacerbates the problems. Through its effect on local-level decisions and national policy-making it encourages destructive farmer practices, despite these being against their own interest in maintaining productivity. However, the fact that there is a link between maintaining a healthy planet and our production of goods is becoming more accepted. As Simon adds, “we increasingly see consumers, businesses, and also some politicians, demand commodities produced with consideration for the climate, environmental and social aspects, both inside and outside Europe. The knowledge of the link between commodity production and impact on nature is a precondition to change.”

Uncontrolled fire in the Brazilian Cerrado. Photo credit Thiago Foresti/IPAM

The open letter, published in Science, outlines a pathway towards sustainability, while highlighting the need for immediate action from European policy makers. It includes three recommendations to assist the European Commission as it works to improve the sustainability of commodity imports: (i) respect human rights; (ii) improve procedures to trace commodities associated with deforestation and human rights conflicts; and (iii) develop participatory processes that include Indigenous Peoples, local communities, policy makers, and scientists to define strict social and environmental criteria for traded commodities.

With signing this letter, we as scientists strive to shed light on the link between agricultural commodity production and environmental destruction. Ultimately, we also hope to see this acknowledged in the trade policy. To this end, the European Union could make trade with Brazil contingent on the new Brazilian administration presenting concrete measures to address deforestation and to continue indigenous lands demarcation. The last point is important, as indigenous communities are known for their roles as stewards of native vegetation, biodiversity, and carbon stocks. “Important traditional knowledge and land rights are being systematically violated by the Brazilian state”, says Tiago. “It is unfortunate that instead of learning from these people on how to connect with nature and adapt to the dramatic changes we already experiencing, we are witnessing the violation of their rights.”

At a time when deforestation, climate change, and Indigenous rights violations are escalating, concrete action from the European Union is crucial. “The EU has a strong tradition of keeping policy in line with the precautionary principle”, says Simon. “Perhaps this letter can help push for much needed action on this.” As Tiago cautions, “our window of opportunity for avoiding the disastrous outcomes of climate change is closing. As the school strikes and climate protests across the World have shown, we can no longer accept production practices that cause climate change”.

The co-signatories of this letter consist of more than 600 European scientists in the field of sustainability, including several ESRs and academics affiliated with the COUPLED program. It is also signed by the Coordination of Indigenous Organizations of the Brazilian Amazon and Brazil’s Indigenous People Articulation, which represent over 300 Brazilian Indigenous groups.

More information about the initiative can be found at the dedicated EU-Brazil trade website.

Every academic has signed in his/her own capacity, and the letter and press release do not necessarily reflect the opinion of the COUPLED-ITN programme.

Originally published at on 26 April 2019.


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