Can the Amazon rainforest be saved?

How Europe can help us save the Amazon

Last August, when the fire raged in the Brazilian Amazon rainforest, French President Emmanuel Macron declared: “Our house is on fire”. At the same time, he warned that “under these conditions” his country would not support the upcoming trade agreement between the EU and Mercosur, which contains provisions to combat deforestation.

Today, the situation in the Amazon is even grimmer, especially for indigenous peoples who are spearheading the struggle against pickup. The forest fires will come back and may be even more devastating than last year. At the same time, Brazil is already suffering severely from the Covid 19 pandemic, which is raging in villages across the Amazon region and across the country.

More than ever before, we need European heads of state to publicly stand behind our commitments to protect the environment - as Macron did on June 29th when he again expressed doubts about the EU-Mercosur agreement. However, in order to really make a difference, Europe's decision-makers need to make it clear in detail what Brazil must do about their reservations that challenge Brazil's resolve to protect the climate.

So far, Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro has always outraged the criticism of Macron and other European politicians. But he does not speak for the many indigenous and non-indigenous Brazilians who have been working to save the rainforest for years.

Brazil was once a global pioneer in protecting forests. Deforestation there fell by 80 percent between 2004 and 2012. From 2012, however, the trend was reversed: Brazil's environmental protection authorities were weakened by cuts and wrong political decisions and deforestation picked up speed again.

The return of deforestation is mainly due to violent criminal networks, which Bolsonaro's government failed miserably to combat. A 2019 Human Rights Watch report documents how regional mafias threatened, assaulted, and murdered environmental officials, indigenous peoples, and other rainforest residents who get in their way. The murderers are only brought to justice in very few cases.

So the real conflict is not between Brazil's sovereignty and Europe's environmental protection goals, but between criminal clans who are clearing the rainforest and law-abiding Brazilians who try to prevent them from doing so.

Bolsonaro has effectively sided with the mafias. He has sabotaged Brazil's already weakened environmental protection authorities and tried to silence environmental protection organizations. His environment minister recently urged Bolsonaro in front of running cameras that he should use the reduced public awareness during the corona pandemic to further promote deregulation.

Against this background, it is hardly surprising that deforestation - according to preliminary data based on real-time reports from the Brazilian space agency - soared by more than 80% last year and is also increasing this year. Meanwhile, threats against forest conservationists and the invasion of indigenous areas by miners, loggers and other intruders, who they feel strengthened by Bolsonaro's anti-environmental policies, continue.

According to scientists, deforestation is accelerating towards an irreversible "turning point" from which the Amazon region ceases to function as a natural reservoir for carbon dioxide and instead releases huge amounts of greenhouse gases. This will further exacerbate the global climate crisis that threatens Europeans and Brazilians alike.

The trade agreement, the main features of which were agreed in 2019, contains commitments to respect the Paris Agreement on climate change and to combat deforestation. It would be completely absurd for the EU to ratify the agreement while Bolsonaro shows quite blatantly that he does not intend to respect a single element of the treaty. Bolsonaro is deliberately sabotaging anything that could enable Brazil to comply with the agreement. As a result, the "turning point" at which the implementation of the contractual provisions becomes impossible is getting closer and closer.

The EU should make it clear and categorical to President Bolsonaro that ratification of the trade agreement will only come into question if Brazil is ready to implement the environmental protection provisions contained therein. To assess this willingness, the EU should set clear and verifiable benchmarks based on concrete actions and results, not plans and proposals.

In particular, the criteria must also take into account the connection between violence and deforestation, which plays a central role in the Amazon crisis.

First criterion: Concrete progress in impunity for violence against forest protectors, measured in the number of criminally investigated, prosecuted and brought to trial cases.

Second criterion: Progress in reducing deforestation in the Amazon region sufficient to enable Brazil to meet the goals of the Paris Agreement.

Bolsonaro is evidently closed to the concerns of indigenous peoples and civil society, the fate of the rainforest and climate protection apparently leave him indifferent. Surrendering the trade deal is, however, important to him and his government. France and the EU should use this fact wisely, it could be the most promising option for the protection of the indigenous areas and the rescue of the rainforest.