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Can France get Brazil to Fall in Line?

As the Amazon burns, Macron threatens to pull the plug on the Mercosur deal, forcing Bolsonaro to change his tune or lose a major export market.

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The world has watched in horror as the Amazon burns while Brazil’s president Jair Bolsonaro refused to do anything about it for weeks at a time, calling concerns from other nations “meddling”. That was until Emmanuel Macron threatened to hit him where it hurts: his purse strings.

Macron has threatened to block the upcoming Mercosur farming deal, which if ratified would significantly boost trade between the EU and the Mercosur countries of Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay, and Paraguay by providing preferential access to their main agricultural exports thanks to tariff-free access, or quotas. It would be the largest EU agreement in terms of tariff cuts, saving exporters an estimated 4 billion euros according to the European Commission.

However, European farmers oppose the deal fearing increased competition from cheaper South American beef, sugar, and chicken. Environmental groups warned that increased sales of these products was an incentive to ramp up deforestation activities to increase farmland  – a concern that has proven all too prescient.

The deal took over two decades to negotiate, but it can only kick in if it wins the approval of all EU states and passes a vote in EU Parliament, and that process is now in jeopardy.

Forcing the issue to the fore of the G7 meeting, Macron demanded better management of the Amazon to stem the ecocide in the region, accusing Bolsonaro of lying to the G20 summit in June when he downplayed climate concerns and the climate commitments he made to France at the last G20 summit in Osaka, Japan.

“The president can only conclude that President Bolsonaro lied to him during the Osaka summit”, read a statement from Macron’s office. At the G7, Macron said that he would try to raise the finances to reforest the devastated area as quickly as possible, while also developing mechanisms to prevent additional forest fires.

Bolsonaro has since sent in the army, using warplanes to dump water on the forest fires, but not without first firing back at Macron – earning the praise of US President Donald Trump, who announced via a tweet that he offered to aid fight the forest fires.

“I regret that Macron seeks to make personal political gains in an internal matter for Brazil and other Amazonian countries. The sensationalist tone he used does nothing to solve the problem”, said Bolsonaro in a tweet. He also said that Macron using the G7 talks to discuss the issue evoked a “misplaced colonialist mindset in the 21st century”.

At the closing of the G7 summit, Macron replied that he hoped Brazil got a new president. “I hope they will very soon have a president who is up to the task”, he told reporters. Bolsonaro then rejected the 20 million euros in aid offered by the G7, suggesting he might accept if – and only if Macron apologised.

“Before speaking or accepting anything from France, even if it comes from the best possible intentions, he must retract his words. Then we can talk”, he told journalists. Macron, however, has not demanded Bolsonaro apologises for mocking his wife.

What Happens if the Amazon Keeps Burning?

The Amazon rainforest stretches over a vast territory covering the borders of nine South American countries, while the majority of the forest is located within Brazilian territory. It is a major source of oxygen, biodiversity, and a foremost carbon sink. Deforestation has long been a problem in the region, and while efforts to curb deforestation showed some success in the early 21st century, the rate of destruction has been increasing since 2014.

The discovery of fossil fuels in the area has also led to increased drilling and forest clearance. Currently, about 17 percent of the rainforest has been burned, logged, and cleared for agribusiness and drilling. Because logging reduces the precipitation in the area, and as the forest soil is notoriously poor, clearing forest for farmland and pasture is only viable in the short-term – with long-term damage to the ecosystem all but guaranteed.

In this year alone, the Amazon rainforest has had a record 74,000 fires, up from 2018’s total of 40,000, marking an 84 percent increase. In addition, multiple droughts devastated the forest in both 2005 and 2010. Making matters worse, research by Brazilian climate scientist Carlos Nobre suggests that once 20 to 25 percent of the forest is cleared (a mere 3 to 8 percent more), the forest will reach a “die-off” tipping point, resulting in a much dryer savannah. This would eliminate the habitat of millions of species, while releasing tremendous amounts of carbon into the atmosphere – making reversing or slowing climate change even more difficult, if not impossible.

At first, Bolsonaro dismissed the fires as part of South America’s dry season, and even accused NGOs of igniting the fires deliberately to discredit him. Since facing widespread international condemnation, he has since sent in the army, saying that protecting the rainforest is “our duty” and that he is acting to combat “criminal activities”.

However, Bolsonaro is also the person who encouraged cattle ranchers and farmers to clear the land, as he and his political allies are eager to extract mineral and agricultural wealth from the Amazon basin. Bolsonaro also weakened government environmental enforcement organisations by slashing their budgets and firing their staff. This, in turn, has encouraged people to clear the land through legal and illegal means – something that indigenous groups living within the Amazon have desperately tried to combat.

The resulting crisis has led to worldwide criticism, threats to block the ratification of the Mercosur trade deal, and calls on social media for Jeff Bezos  – who runs the online retail shop Amazon (named after the river that flows through the rainforest) – to use his massive fortune to combat the crisis. Brazilians also protested over the weekend in cities across the country.

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Organised protest in Goias, Brasil against President Bolsonaro’s stance and in support of protecting the Amazon. Copyright: hpoliveira / shutterstock.com

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“The Amazon is burning and this is an issue that concerns the entire world, because it is a source of biodiversity.” Macron told French news website Konbini. “We have a real ecocide that is developing everywhere in the Amazon and not only in Brazil.”

Responding to Bolsonaro’s reluctance to contain the fires, Macron added that “People forget, the Brazilian president forgets, but France is in the Amazon. France’s biggest exterior border is between Guiana and Brazil, so we are there”, referring to the French overseas territory on the northern coast of South America. In a tweet, Macron wrote  “Our house is burning. Literally. The Amazon rainforest — the lungs which produce 20 percent of the planet’s oxygen — is on fire.”

The relationship between Bolsonaro and Macron had been deteriorating long before the current crisis. As tensions over combating climate change mounted, Bolsonaro suddenly canceled a July 29th  meeting with French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian to go for a haircut instead. Now, the long-awaited trade deal might be derailed altogether as reproach keeps mounting.

Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar backed up Macron, saying they would also withdraw their support for the Mercosur trade deal if Brazil did not adequately address the forest fires. “There is no way that Ireland will vote for the EU-Mercosur Free Trade Agreement if Brazil does not honour its environmental commitments”, Varadkar said.

Similar sentiments were endorsed by Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. On Twitter, he wrote that he “couldn’t agree more”, adding, “We did lots of work to protect the environment at the G7 last year in Charlevoix, and we need to continue this weekend. We need to act for the Amazon and act for our planet — our kids and grandkids are counting on us.”

However, Ireland and France will need support from other European states to form a large enough bloc to veto the deal. Yet, despite long-standing reservations about Brazil’s commitment to combat climate change, Macron received pushback on his decision to block the Mercosur deal from Britain and Germany. “There are all sorts of people who will take any excuse at all to interfere with trade and to frustrate trade deals, and I don’t want to see that”, said British Prime Minister Boris Johnson.

A spokesman for German Chancellor Angela Merkel took a more diplomatic approach: “The non-conclusion of the Mercosur agreement would not help to reduce forest destruction in Brazil”, he said, saying that nixing the deal was “not the appropriate answer to what is happening in Brazil now”.

Spain did not support blocking the trade deal either. “Spain has been at the forefront of the last effort to sign the EU-Mercosur agreement that will open huge opportunities for the two regional blocs”, Madrid said in an online message.

Even so, Bolsonaro’s insistence that how Brazil treats the rainforest is one of national sovereignty and that international concern is merely “international interference”, holding back Brazilian agribusiness, has alienated both Germany and Norway – two main contributors to the Amazon Fund, which supports preservation initiatives. The result is tens of millions of dollars withheld. And despite his fans on the far-right, many Brazilians are worried that the impact on their country’s reputation could also spread to damaging their exports as well.

“The image of the burning forest ignites public opinion and incinerates Brazil’s reputation“, wrote Ana Lucia Azevedo, a columnist for Brazilian newspaper O Globo. She went on to warn that the crisis is wrecking Brazil’s “prestige and credibility”.  Similarly, another commentator, Vinicius Torres Freire, wrote that “within a few months, especially in recent weeks, he has knocked down two decades of improvements in Brazil’s international image regarding the environment”.

“You have a president who is basically torpedoing this deal, not only with his environmental policy, but with the way he presents it to the world”, said Oliver Stuenkel, international affairs expert at the Getulio Vargas Foundation in Sao Paulo. “There are a growing number of voices particularly in France and Germany saying that unless this policy changes the EU should no longer ratify the deal”, he said.

Finland, which holds the EU’s rotating presidency, called for the bloc to consider banning the import of Brazilian beef. Sigrid Kaag, the Netherlands Trade Minister, promoted using the Mercosur deal to “exert pressure, if needed” on South American governments.  “We need to be smart and strategic about it”, Kaag said. “It’s absolutely tragic to see what is happening.”

EU Council President Donald Tusk also noted the continued crisis may derail the deal’s ratification altogether. The European Union “stands by the EU-Mercosur agreement”, Tusk told reporters. But “it is hard to imagine a harmonious process of ratification by the European countries as long as the Brazilian government allows for the destruction of the green lungs of planet earth”, he added.

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B. Lana Guggenheim

Lana is a freelance journalist based in New York City. She has a M.Sc. in International Conflict from the London School of Economics and Political Science. She has worked as an analyst, reporter, and editor, covering extremism, culture, economics, and democracy.

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