UK supermarkets threaten Brazil boycott over Amazon deforestation
by James Sillars
UK retailers have renewed their threat to stop buying products from Brazil as the South American country considers a new law, which conservationists say opens up the Amazon to accelerated deforestation.
An open letter to politicians in the Brazilian National Congress, led by supermarket chains including Tesco and Sainsbury's, urges them to reject the proposal to allow the private occupation of public land.
The plan was first attempted a year ago but abandoned due to an international backlash.
Critics argue such a law would legitimise previous illegal land grabs and pave the way for more forests to be burned and cleared for agriculture - damaging efforts to combat climate change and the rights of indigenous communities.
Research in the country released in December showed Brazil's Amazon rainforest suffered its worst deforestation for 12 years during the 12 months to July 2020.
An area seven times the size of London was lost, according to the data, while the process is widely reported to be continuing at pace under the tenure of President Bolsonaro.
The letter, signed by nearly 40 major grocery chains and other food producers including Greggs, promised support for sustainable agriculture and the wider Brazilian economy if the country rejected the plan.
The Co-op signed the letter on the grounds that the rainforest is 'essential to planetary health'
But it said: "Over the past year, we have seen a series of circumstances result in extremely high levels of forest fires and deforestation in Brazil.
"At the same time, we have noted that the targets to reduce these levels, as well as the enforcement budgets available to deliver them, are increasingly inadequate.
"It is therefore extremely concerning to see that the same measure we responded to last year is being put forward again as the legislative proposal... with potentially even greater threats to the Amazon than before."
The letter warned: "If this or other measures that undermine these existing protections become law, we will have no choice but to reconsider our support and use of the Brazilian agricultural commodity supply chain."
A vote is expected in the next few days.
Mike Barrett, executive director of science and conservation at WWF-UK, said: "We cannot fight the climate crisis without the Amazon, yet its future hangs in the balance as deforestation pushes it closer to the point of collapse.
"If passed, this vote in the Brazilian Congress will fuel further destruction and place greater risk on the lives of the people and wildlife who call it home.
"As global efforts to protect the Amazon threaten to be undermined, it's encouraging to see major businesses sounding the alarm."
The Managing Director of Iceland has told Sky News that further deforestation in the Amazon is a problem his business cannot ignore.
- British supermarkets, including Iceland and Tesco, are threatening to stop using Brazilian agricultural products if the country passes a law expanding property rights for squatters on public land. Environmental campaigners warned that the law will encourage deforestation, as it would reward land-grabbers in the Amazon rainforest who occupy properties illegally. Well, joining me now is Iceland's managing Director, Richard Walker.
Richard, thank you so much for talking to us this afternoon. Why did you sign this letter?
RICHARD WALKER: Well, I think the scale of the crisis, the urgency of the crisis, cannot be overstated. Last year alone, there was a size of virgin rainforest burnt down in Brazil six times the size of London. And this legislative package that's going through the Brazilian parliament at the moment will open up tens of millions more hectares of Amazon rainforest to be burnt and chopped down. And also very importantly, it will open up Indigenous lands for developments and exploitation as well.
- People who defend this bill say that actually it's going to-- so it will allow land that has been illegally occupied from 2014 to be bought. So they argue that people who-- small-scale farmers, for example, can clarify title deeds to land. Meaning that they can buy the land that they're on if they've been illegally squatting on it if that's what you want to call it.
Title deeds are such an issue. And small-scale farming is so difficult. Do you not think that we shouldn't be getting involved in something like this from over here?
RICHARD WALKER: Well, I think this is humanity's problem. Because at some point, in the not too distant future, within a matter of years, the Amazon rainforest will turn from a net carbon sink to a net carbon emitter, which will have catastrophic consequences for all of humanity. And therefore, the best thing we can do right now is to stop chopping it down.
But we also, of course, need to protect Indigenous rights and local landholders. So we work alongside Greenpeace quite closely, and have taken soundings from WWF as well. And what we're told is that this is very much about the Bolsonaro government and his cronies taking a land grab to the Amazon and shifting the baseline away from those people who are the Indigenous rights-holders to the land.
- So what are the Indigenous groups saying about this?
RICHARD WALKER: Well, I think there's been well-documented reports of abuses and land grabs in the Amazon. And of course, as a British supermarket sector, it's incumbent on us to take responsibility for our own supply chains. We are having direct impacts on these rights abuses because we sell chicken and pork that has been fed on soy, which comes from the Amazon.
And we cannot be sure-- no supermarket can-- that that soy is deforestation-free. And therefore, we really are reaching an end point now where we have to say, enough is enough. And if they won't listen to us-- like they did a year ago and they stopped the legislation going through parliament then because money talks-- but if they won't listen to us again, then I think we do have to consider an option of a moratorium on Brazilian soy.
- What you're talking about is pretty dire, the situation there.
RICHARD WALKER: Yeah.
- Don't you think you've already reached that point where the supermarkets should say enough is enough, we're not going to deal with you?
RICHARD WALKER: Potentially, yes. But I think, you know, a boycott if you like is not the way to go. A moratorium potentially is. But it's not a light switch we can flick.
These are proper systemic problems that require systemic solutions. And therefore, we need to work with the commodity traders, like Cargill as well, and work on segregation of supply with them. So that potentially we can look at other sourcing options from South America or America or indeed, Europe.
At the moment, it's impossible to segregate because the traders aren't choosing to do so. So yes, I think drastic times do call for drastic measures. And we do need to look very closely at the situation and take what-- do everything we can to try and stop this environmental tragedy, but also this local tragedy as well.
- What do you think Jair Bolsonaro is going to make of this letter, if he even takes any note of it-- notice of it at all?
RICHARD WALKER: I think a year ago, you know, it did surprise me because letters are easy to sign, right? But action is very different. But actually, money talks. And the biggest market for Brazilian soy is Europe and China, increasingly.
But if a lot of the end buyers of this product are saying, we don't want to be complicit in Amazon destruction anymore, then they have to sit up and take notice like they did a year ago. And hopefully, like they will next week as well.
- Why are they trying it again then?
RICHARD WALKER: I don't know. And I'm certainly no domestic expert on Brazilian policies. But it is odd. And certainly, completely at odds with the rhetoric of the Bolsonaro regime last week when, at a meeting of world leaders virtually with President Biden, they pledged to halt deforestation and do lots of things to improve the local environment in the Amazon. This will have the exact opposite effect.
Tens of millions of hectares of tropical rainforest will be destroyed, which, of course, is not just a problem for the animals and the fauna and flora that live there, but of course, the global rainfall patterns and indeed, climate change as well.
- Richard Walker of Iceland, thank you so much for talking to us.