UK Trade Minister goes to Brazil for post-Brexit trade talks while the Amazon’s ablaze

Bournemouth West MP Conor Burns, made a trip to Brazil this week as the newly appointed Minister for Trade for discussions on future trade and investment opportunities post-Brexit.

Posting on his Twitter, Mr Burns wrote of his meeting with Wilson Witzel, the Governor of Rio stating “This was my first meeting on my first overseas visit- showing the potential we see between our two countries.”

Pictures from his visit posted on his social media account show clear skies in Rio and Brasilia, but in the Brazilian city of Sao Paulo this week, day-time skies were darkened by clouds of smoke from forest fires in the states of Rondonia and Amazonas, some 2,700km (1,700 miles) away.

Among a series of Tweets by the Minister expressing his productive meetings with Brazilian officials and business leaders, he makes no mention of the deeply alarming wildfire situation in the Amazon Rainforest, which has seen a record number of blazes over the last few weeks. The Government’s press release detailing the trade meetings, also makes no reference to the escalating deforestation and fires that have occured since Jair Bolsonaro took office. 

The fires have been set illegally by cattle ranchers, loggers and miners emboldened by President Jair Bolsonaro’s pro-business rhetoric for economic expansion inside the Amazon. The National Institute for Space Research (INPE) in Brazil have detected over 74,000 fires so far this year, an 84% increase on the same period in 2018, and the highest number since records began in 2013.

Germany and Norway have recently ceased aid funding to Brazil, in reaction to Bolsonaro’s plans to use the financial aid to assist farmers. This raised concerns that the funding would support agribusiness, which is one of the biggest causes of deforestation in the Amazon. The rapidly increasing levels of deforestation is frequently linked to cattle ranches and production of soy-beans, which are mostly used for animal feed exports, including a significant proportion of feed for UK livestock. But while Germany and Norway have withdrawn aid, discussions took place between Minister Burns and Brazil’s Special Secretary for International Trade and International Economic Affairs Marcos Troyjo over a trade facilitation programme which will see £80 million invested in Brazil over the next four years as part of the Government’s Prosperity Fund, an aid initiative aimed at facilitating economic growth in middle income countries, to reduce poverty

In October 2018, a report collaboration by arts and activist group Platform, Friends of the Earth and Christian Aid revealed that the UK Prosperity fund had spent development aid money promoting fourteen fossil fuel projects abroad, two of which were initiatives to support oil and gas expansion in Brazil

While there hasn’t been explicit reference of an intention to use any of the £80 million announced for the next four years for fossil fuel projects, Minister Burns did visit the factory of oil and gas company Baker Hughes, which has a partnership with the Baker Hughes factory in Newcastle. He was also expected to meet with representatives from Weir Minerals, who operate four facilities in states across Brazil and specialise in mining equipment and expertise for mineral extraction, including support for coal and oil sands sectors in the region

The trade facilitation programme will also take aim at tariff barriers between the two nations. Currently, UK trade with Brazil through the EU is subject to certain tariffs, although even in the EU, these could soon be removed as it seeks to ratify the EU-Mercosur Free Trade Agreement. The deal would mean lower tariffs on EU exports to the South American bloc, but also lower tariffs on beef exports into Europe, alongside a new 99,000 tonne quota. However, the deal has yet to pass through the EU Parliament and will need approval from member countries. This week, some MEPs have called for parliament to block the deal in response to the Amazon fires, while France and Ireland have also threatened to block the deal

A UK post-Brexit trade deal with Brazil that fails to take action on the destruction of the rainforest and other important biomes, such as the Cerrado grasslands in Brazil, could be a possible outcome considering the recent actions of UK ministers. As well as Minister Burns’ trip to Brazil this week amidst the Amazon wildfire outbreaks, Michael Gove had already expressed plans to lower taxes and tariffs on beef imports after Brexit for beef-producing countries like Brazil

But beef imports are only part of the problem. In 2017, the UK imported approximately 70% of its whole soybeans from Brazil, most to be converted to animal feed, while direct soy meal for livestock originating from Brazil accounted for 1% of the UK’s imports of this product. Soybean production is also heavily linked to deforestation in the Amazon. Meat and dairy consumption, even in the UK, is a major driver of rainforest destruction. 

Last week, the new Trade Minister also met with Brazilian Ambassador Fred Arruda in preparation for his trip to Brazil. This was on the same day that indigenous women leaders led a peaceful march through Brazil’s capital city of Brasilia, to protest against President Jair Bolsonaro’s regressive rollback of socio-environmental protections. Outside the Embassy, Extinction Rebellion activists held a protest, while inside, talks commenced.

Amazon Watch has reported that illegal invasions of indigenous territories saw 150% under Bolsonaro, with fourteen invasions taking place by March this year and Brazil is consistently one of the most dangerous places to be a land or environmental defender. In 2018, there were fewer assassinations in Brazil, in line with the lower homicide rate, however it has in recent years topped the table as the most dangerous place to be an environmental defender, averaging at 42 murders per year since 2012. Indigenous people are on the frontlines and at significant risk – earlier this month, Jorginho Guajajara, a community leader of the Guajajara people in Maranhao state, was murdered after conflict with loggers who were encroaching into their land.

Meanwhile, scientists are warning that we’re nearing a number of irreversible tipping points in the Amazon, at which point forests turn to savannah and the ability to store carbon is diminished, with devastating consequences for the planet.

A UK Parliamentary Petition has been launched to call on the UK government to demand EU and UN sanctions on Brazil, until deforestation in the Amazon is halted.

Hannah Sharland