Brazil is the custodian of rain forests that are crucial for protecting biodiversity and climate stability, in addition to being the home of almost one million indigenous people. However, the current government is putting both in danger at the expense of agricultural expansion. We are not just innocent onlookers as the EU has imported a third of crops and livestock associated with deforestation from 1990-2008. In order to show the EU that we want to put the environment and human rights first in trade agreements, more than 600 European scientists and 300 Brazilian Indigenous groups have come together to sign an open letter, that has been published today in Science.

A hidden price

Of course, we enjoy our beef, coffee, and palm oil, but they come at a heavy price. We may not think of where the products that we use come from, but the EU’s imported products have led to a loss in forest cover the size of Portugal in fewer than 20 years (1990-2008). Studies have shown that EU imports have led to the loss of 9.9 ha (roughly the size of a football field) of rain forest per hour from 2005 to 2013. Our personal diets can also be linked directly to tropical deforestation, up to a sixth of our diet-based carbon footprint.

“We want the EU to stop importing deforestation and instead become a world leader in sustainable trade,” said lead author Dr. Laura Kehoe, an Irish postdoctoral fellow at the University of Oxford who studies how meat consumption can drive deforestation, “we protect forests and human rights at home, why do we have different rules for our imports?”

Rain forest is being converted for pastures and crops. Image credits: Thiago Foresti.

It is important to stop cutting down rain forest for both environmental and humanitarian reasons. Brazil has an extremely high number of species that are only found there (second in the world after Indonesia). There are estimated to be 1.8 million species in the country, only 170,000 to 210,000 of which are currently known. All of this known and unknown diversity is at risk of going extinct if too much of the rain forest is cut down. The rain forest also sequesters carbon dioxide, and thus are an important buffer against global warming. Deforestation releases large volumes of CO2 from slashing and burning, as well as the replacement of forests with agriculture and ranches. Not only that, but removing forests can even disrupt climate patterns and lead to drought, threatening food security in Brazil. The indigenous groups that inhabit the forests and lead traditional lifestyles are under threat of losing their homes. The conversion of indigenous land has been linked to violence, with three attacks and at least nine casualties this year.

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The path forward

“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”, added Andrew Balmford, Professor of Conservation Science at the University of Cambridge.

According to a recent study, there is actually no need to cut down more rain forest. By increasing the productivity of current pasture lands from 32-34% to 49-52% of their potential, they would be able to meet increased agricultural demands. It is estimated that restoring degraded lands and improving yields could meet demand for at least two decades, without additional deforestation.

Let’s protect the forests! Image credits: Larissa Rodrigues.

“It is crucial the EU defines criteria for sustainable trade with key stakeholders including the most affected parties, which in this case is local communities and indigenous groups in Brazil” said Malika Virah-Sawmy, a German resident and scientist at the Geography Department of Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin.

In the open letter, the signatories urge the EU to make trade with Brazil contingent on three key points. Firstly, Brazil should uphold the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. Secondly, the transparency of where goods come from should be improved. Consumers should be able to know if the products that they buy are associated with deforestation and Indigenous rights conflicts. Thirdly, Indigenous Peoples and local communities, including scientists and policy-makers, should be involved in defining social and environmental criteria for traded goods. If these three points are upheld, conditions will be better for the environment and for human rights.

As indirect players in the deforestation of rain forests, it should be the responsibility of importing countries to make sure that goods have been produced in a sustainable way.

More information on the open letter and these issues can be found here: EUBrazilTrade.org.