EU urged to stop Mercosur trade talks over Brazilian deforestation

By Niamh Michail

- Last updated on GMT

Deforestation in Brazil. © GettyImages/Eduardo Frederiksen
Deforestation in Brazil. © GettyImages/Eduardo Frederiksen

Related tags Trade commodities Exports Soy Beef Sustainability Human rights deforestation

Over 340 organizations are demanding the European Union stop trade talks with Mercosur due to a spike in deforestation and human rights violations in Brazil under the Bolsonaro's government.

The letter expresses deep concerns over environmental degradation in the Amazon and Cerrado, attacks on environmentalists and indigenous people, and the weakening of Brazil's Forest Code since far-right Jair Bolsonaro took office as Brazilian president in January this year.

The Environment Ministry is now led by a climate change denier, it adds.

To read the letter in English and see the full list of the 340 signatories, click here.

The signatories from civil society around the world hope to make their voices heard as EU and foreign ministers from the Mercosur countries - Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay, Uruguay - are due to finalize negotiations at a meeting in Brussels next week.

Adrian Bebb, trade expert of Friends of the Earth Europe' said: "European civil society is urging the EU to use its commercial influence to stop violations of human rights and deforestation in Brazil, thereby supporting Brazilian civil society and environmental defenders."​ 

'A crucial moment'

Shefali Sharma, director of the Institute of Agriculture and Trade Policy of Europe, said: “This is a crucial moment for the European leadership to demonstrate that it respects its principles and will not negotiate agreements that undermine the Paris Climate Agreement and human rights."

Europe is a major buyer of soy, used primarily for animal feed, and beef from Brazil. The EU is also Brazil’s second biggest trading partner and, together, its member states are the largest source of foreign direct investment in Brazil.

In the past, the EU has suspended trade preferences with countries over human rights violations, such as Myanmar and the Philippines.

If the EU-Mercosur free trade agreement materializes, it will create the biggest free trade zone in the world​, establishing a marketplace of 730 million people.

In 2018, Mercosur's exports to the EU were €42.6 billion​ while the EU's exports to the four Mercosur countries totaled €45 billion in 2018.

What does Mercosur sell to Europe?

Mostly agri-food products. In 2018, these included food products, beverages, and tobacco (20.5%), vegetable products such soy and coffee (16.3%), and meats and other animal products (6.1%), according to EU figures​.

EC: Trade deal will contain reference to deforestation

The NGOs have not received a direct response from the Brazilian government, nor from the European Commission.

Perrine Fournier, spokesperson on trade and forestry for the NGO, Fern, told FoodNavigator-LATAM: “This is not surprising given that Directorate General for Trade (DG Trade) has told us in the past that negotiating stronger environmental and social provisions for this deal is unrealistic. DG Trade says it is already difficult to agree on the proposal put on the table.” 

However, at a press conference in Brussels this week, trade commissioner Cecilia Malmström said: “The agreement, when it’s ready, will obviously contain trade and sustainable development chapter with reference to deforestation​,” she said.

Malmström said that the Commission was in close contact with many of the NGO that have signed the open letter.

“[We have] listened to them and tried to see what we can do," ​she added. "There have been some measures taken in Brazil that we certainly do not agree with. […] A free trade agreement cannot solve all the miseries of the world, but we can get a context to discuss these issues.”

In December last year, the European Commission published a report​ acknowledging that EU demand for food products was driving deforestation around the world, leading to biodiversity loss, climate change, and poverty.

The report read: “The causes are many and complex, though increased production of commodities such as soy, beef, palm oil, coffee, and cocoa drives almost 80% of all deforestation."

Public opinion

Negative public opinion and civil society campaigns have managed to hamper proposed trade agreements, such as the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) between the EU and the US, in the past.

An EU Citizens’ Initiative, a mechanism through which Europeans call on the Commission to legislate, attracted 3.2 million signatures against TTIP. Could Mercosur galvanize a similar backlash?

Bebb told us: “Mercosur isn't as big as TTIP and doesn't attack our democracy and safety standards in the same way as the EU-US trade would have done.

“Nevertheless, there is opposition across the board to the EU agreeing on a Mercosur trade agreement, from civil society to farming organizations and national governments.”

France, Poland, Ireland, and Belgium, for instance, have written to the Commission expressing concerns about the impacts of LATAM beef imports on their domestic farming sectors.

According to Perrine Fournier, spokesperson on trade and forestry for the NGO, Fern, said European citizens support a more environmental agenda within the EU.

Although the far-right made headway in the recent European elections so did the Green party, emerging as a stronger political force. In Germany, the European Union’s economic power, the Green party won the biggest share of votes with 27%.

Malmström: Mercosur talks have made 'a lot of progress'

Malmström said the Mercosur talks had progressed well this year and she was feeling optimistic. However, there were still some “difficult​” stumbling blocks related to agriculture to overcome.

“It’s important to conclude [this agreement] but not at any price of course. Many people are watching this with great attention,” ​she added.

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