Brazil hits out at EU ‘protectionism’ behind planned anti-deforestation law

Brazil’s foreign minister has attacked the EU for “trade protectionism” and “myopia” after the bloc proposed a ban on agricultural imports from deforested areas, singling out France for particular criticism over farm subsidies.

Brussels proposed a law this month which would force companies selling beef, soy, palm oil, coffee, cocoa and wood into the bloc to prove the commodities were not produced on land that had been deforested or degraded after 2020.

Brazil is a major exporter of many of the products targeted and the EU initiative has reignited long-running tensions with the government of far-right president Jair Bolsonaro, which sees ulterior motives behind the bloc’s proposal.

“What I can’t accept is using the environment as a form of trade protectionism. It’s bad for consumers [and] trade flows,” foreign minister Carlos Alberto Franco França told the Financial Times in an interview. “I think there’s a certain myopia from the EU.”

The planned legislation was published shortly before fresh satellite data that showed destruction of the Brazilian Amazon had surged to a 15-year high, sparking fresh questions over the government’s commitment to protecting the world’s largest rainforest.

More than 13,200 sq km was razed in the 12 months to July — an area over eight times the size of Greater London — representing a 22 per cent jump from the previous year, according to data from Brazil’s National Institute for Space Research (Inpe). It was the fastest rate of deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon since 2006.

The figures have overshadowed plaudits Brazil won for its undertakings at the COP26 climate change summit this month in Glasgow, including a pledge to halt illegal deforestation by 2028 and a more ambitious net zero target of 2050. “The [deforestation] numbers are shocking. Brazil has a serious credibility problem,” said one senior western diplomat in Brasília.

França described the latest forest destruction data as “surprising”, but said the numbers were “not as bad as they seem” because there had been an improvement since July. Inpe data for August, September and October of this year suggest a 28 per cent decrease in the number of forest fires.

“There’s no Brazilian desire to hide the problem,” the minister added. “When there is illegal deforestation it is often linked to other crimes, such as labour infractions, tax evasion and money laundering. We are treating it as a police matter and this is delivering results.”

Brazil is proud of its technologically advanced and highly productive agricultural sector and officials often stress that the vast majority of the country’s farm exports come from properly managed land in the centre and south of the country, not from illegally cleared forest in the Amazon.

França singled out for criticism France’s state backing for its agricultural sector. “I understand the internal political reasons the French government has for supporting their farmers. It isn’t environmentally correct that they give [agricultural] subsidies. Because land and water are scarce resources and operating them inefficiently isn’t sustainable.

“It’s better to plant here in Brazil where agriculture is increasingly technologically advanced than to produce in France.”

Frictions between Brazil and its European counterparts have contributed to an impasse in the ratification of a trade deal painstakingly negotiated over 20 years between the EU and Mercosur, a bloc that also includes Argentina, Paraguay and Uruguay.

Brussels is reluctant to move ahead on ratifying the agreement because of strong opposition from some member states that believe Brazil in particular is not doing enough to combat deforestation. França agreed that the trade pact was “not moving forward”. A foreign ministry spokesperson added: “We are not the party obstructing the deal, Brazil is ready to move forward.”

A low-profile career diplomat who has served stints in the US, Bolivia and Paraguay, França was previously head of protocol at the presidential palace under Bolsonaro. He was appointed foreign minister in March, replacing Ernesto Araújo, an outspoken ideologue of the Bolsonarista movement known for his admiration of Donald Trump, dislike of “globalism” and who was accused of hostility towards China.

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