An international group of researchers, led by the University of Oxford and the Nature Conservancy, has concluded that an upcoming trade agreement between the EU and Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay and Uruguay (the Mercosur bloc) fails across sustainability criteria and stands in direct contradiction to the goals of the European Green Deal.
The article, published in One Earth, reports that mechanisms to include and protect local communities, trace the origin of commodities, and to enforce sustainability standards are lacking throughout the proposed EU-Mercosur deal text. Frameworks to support inclusiveness, such as the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP), have been overlooked. Mechanisms to trace the origins of commodities with a high risk of driving deforestation, such as beef and soy, are absent.
This provisional deal comes at a time when deforestation and violent attacks on Indigenous lands have accelerated in Brazil since Bolsonaro took office, with a sobering 516 major fires already detected this summer in Brazil’s Amazon, with unprecedented fires sweeping through Argentina’s and Brazil’s wetlands. The destruction of natural habitat causes species extinctions, increases the likelihood of future pandemics, and accelerates the global climate crisis. As the Amazon burns, it nears a tipping point, that if reached could trigger a rapid shift from lush rainforest to a dry savannah – drastically reducing the rainfall on which South America’s agriculture depends.
After meeting with Greta Thunberg and other youth climate activists, Angela Merkel now has ‘considerable doubts’ over this contentious deal. French President Emmanuel Macron has repeatedly voiced doubts about the deal in the context of deforestation. Nevertheless, pressure from big business and from within the EU have led to an apparent softening in this stance in recent weeks.
For example, the French Trade Minister recently clarified that the government’s aim “is not to halt all efforts to increase our trade relations”. Instead France’s preferences would be to seek “guarantees on compliance with the Paris agreement and on deforestation”. Meanwhile the German Finance Minister was more opaque, asserting that “even without reopening the text, there are certain issues that we need to clarify, that we can clarify”. The European Commission has stated its intention to seek “a clear commitment” from the Mercosur countries.
As this research highlights, even without a trade deal the EU imports over 10 million tonnes of soy and 200,000 tonnes of beef each year from the Mercosur bloc. Ongoing imports to the EU from Mercosur are already linked to one football pitch of deforestation every three minutes. Rather than improving that situation, the proposed deal as negotiated risks significantly worsening it.
This outcome is not inevitable. The research outlines how the economic power of trade could instead be utilised as an incentive for countries to meet their Paris Agreement commitments: “Importantly, bans on trade in specific goods and services should be introduced until commodities comply with basic legal and sustainability criteria in line with international agreements. This is a particularly powerful policy option given the lack of legal mechanisms to enforce international agreements such as the Paris Agreement.”
At a time when deforestation, climate change, and Indigenous rights violations are escalating, urgent action from the European Union is crucial. “Our window of opportunity for avoiding the disastrous outcomes of climate change is closing. As the school strikes and climate protests across Europe have shown, we will no longer accept production practices that cause climate change”, says Tiago Reis, a Brazilian PhD candidate at the Université Catholique de Louvain in Belgium who studies how international trade affects land use in producing countries.
The sad irony of it all is that there was never any need for more deforestation in Brazil: research has shown that future agricultural demand could be met from improving existing farm practices and restoring degraded land, without any need for more conversion of natural habitats.
While the text of the trade deal does include some sustainability principles, stating “increased trade should not come at the expense of the environment or labour conditions”, the researchers point out that there are no legally binding enforcement mechanisms included to ensure that principle is followed.
“It has become painstakingly clear: when we destroy forests we all suffer.” said lead author Dr. Laura Kehoe, a scientist with the LEAP programme at the University of Oxford and the Nature Conservancy, “This is my message to the new Trade Commissioner Valdis Dombrovskis: we already have many of the solutions to avoid fuelling conflict and ecocide abroad, what we need is strong leaders willing to take action to transform trade and protect the living world. A great first step would be to make trade deals contingent on countries progressing towards their Paris Agreement targets.”
While questioning the sustainability of trade may be new to many in Europe, in Latin America there is a long history of contention over trade deals. “For years, the global benefits of free trade agreements were assumed rather than proven, particularly in wealthier regions like the EU,” says Dr. Chris O’Connell, one of the article’s authors and a researcher at DCU’s School of Law and Government.
“Across the Global South, however, the negative impacts of liberalised trade for local economies, indigenous peoples, workers, and the environment are a daily reality. The examples in the article of the negative impacts of trade deals for indigenous peoples – such as the Baguazo in Peru or the plight of the Wayuu in Colombia – are not isolated occurrences.”
“Now, as a result of the climate emergency, rampant fires and accelerated deforestation, people here are starting to ask what is driving this situation. This article provides a framework for understanding what is at stake, and recommendations for making trade more sustainable and just.”