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The EU's deforestation law was cheered here. Brazilian experts and farmers are skeptical

Trees lie in an area of recent deforestation identified by agents of the Chico Mendes Institute in Seringal Humaita, Acre state, Brazil, Dec. 8, 2022.
Trees lie in an area of recent deforestation identified by agents of the Chico Mendes Institute in Seringal Humaita, Acre state, Brazil, Dec. 8, 2022. Copyright AP Photo/Eraldo Peres
Copyright AP Photo/Eraldo Peres
By Patricia Figueiredo
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The new EU law to ban imports of products that drive deforestation has been cheered by people across the continent but on the other side of the Atlantic, fears are growing it will disproportionately impact small farmers and lead to deforestation in less protected areas.

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The EU deforestation law, which secured its final green light in May, will require producers of cattle, cocoa, coffee, palm oil, soy, rubber and wood to provide proof that their supply chain is entirely free of deforestation.

Getting to know where the products we consume come from, and making sure that their entire supply chain is free from deforestation, is currently a top priority for many consumers. According to a survey conducted by Globescan in 2022, 78% of Europeans believe that governments should ban products that drive deforestation.

But fears are that the new technological requirements for exportation will place an additional financial burden on small-scale producers, which are often more sustainable than larger farmers, to demonstrate their environmental standards. In the end, it might be easier for them to just stop exporting their production to Europe at all.

“The legislation is very good to prevent European countries from consuming products associated with deforestation, but not necessarily in reducing deforestation itself. It’s more about getting rid of the problem than solving it," Olivia Zerbini Benin, a researcher at the Brazilian non-profit IPAM, told Euronews.

GPS coordinates and satellite photos

To export to Europe, Brazilian farmers will need to upload traceability data including GPS coordinates, which will be mapped against satellite photos of farms and forests, among other documents.

Inspections will be conducted according to the level of risk attributed to each country: for those deemed high-risk, up to 9% of the exports will be checked. Even though the regulation was approved in May, companies have until December 2024 to adjust to the new rules, and a lot of details about how the enforcement will take place are still to be determined.

The European bloc is Brazil's second-biggest trading partner, and the Latin American country is the single biggest exporter of agricultural products to the EU, so it’s no surprise that its agriculture minister, Carlos Favaro, heavily criticised the new European deforestation law right after its approval, calling it “an affront” to international trading.

But, according to farmers and experts, the impact of the rule is not just political. They argue that there is a risk of social impact if the law imposes barriers that only large-scale farmers can adapt to.

“How are you going to demand this level of traceability if you don't provide conditions for production to be regularised? Farmers need technical support for both identifying the bottlenecks and for regularising their supply chain. They need a kind of assistance that doesn't exist today, and small-scale farms will certainly be the most affected," said Caio Penido, producer and president of Instituto Mato-grossense da Carne (Imac), which represents cattle farmers from Mato Grosso, the largest beef-producing state in the country.

Even among Brazilian environmentalists the new deforestation law is under scrutiny. Olívia Benin, who is part of a scientific non-profit that works with public policies to protect Brazilian ecosystems, believes that the new guidelines are a step in the right direction, but should have been built collectively with the countries most affected.

An expert on international trade and sustainable development in the Amazon, with emphasis on the Brazil-European Union relationship, Benin argues that even though the new legislation has good intentions, its ability to reduce tree loss in Brazil is limited.

“It’s great to see countries start to question what they consume and where it comes from, but the effects in Brazil are narrow because much of the deforestation happens in areas that are not covered by the new law," the researcher said.

Deforestation leakage

A big point of criticism for Brazilian environmentalists is that the legislation only covers the areas of the country that are already under protection. This could lead to what is called deforestation leakage, which happens when less protected ecosystems are targeted for deforestation instead.

“At the end of the day, when you look at Brazil as a whole, what change will this legislation bring in terms of deforestation? Because many areas that are very much in danger were not covered, even in the Amazon forest," Olivia Benin said.

Around 84% of the Amazon forest is protected by the new EU law, according to a technical note released by MapBiomas, an initiative to monitor land use in Brazil developed by a network of universities, NGOs, and technology companies. But, in other ecosystems, the percentage of protection is much lower.

The FAO definition that is being used by the EU regulations covers a large proportion of only three out of seven biomes mapped in South America. In addition to a high percentage of the Amazon, it also protects a large part of the Chaco (75%), an ecosystem present in Argentina and Paraguay, and the Atlantic Forest (71%), which exists in Brazil, but covers a much smaller part of the country.

The MapBiomas report warns that in other ecosystems spanning large areas of Brazil, such as the Caatinga, the Pampa, the Pantanal and the Cerrado, only 10% to 26% of the remaining vegetation is covered, and “all of them are now under intense pressure by large-scale agriculture expansion”.

Diverse reactions

Officials from the Brazilian government have been pushing for change in the legislation, but even though most sectors have criticised the law, the backlash is stronger in some sectors than in others. Cattle farmers, for instance, have protested much more fiercely than coffee growers.

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For Sueme Mori, director of international relations at the Brazilian Agriculture and Livestock Confederation (CNA), there is still hope that the certifications required will be based on controlling tools that are already in place in Brazil, such as the electronic land-use record.

“Whenever you put an extra load on supply chains, it weighs more for small and medium producers. They are the ones who will suffer the most and who could be excluded from the international market," Mori said.

The director of the most powerful representative of Brazilian producers points out that the sectors expected to be the most affected are soy, cattle and coffee farmers.

In spite of that, representatives of the coffee industry are confident they only need to work on technical solutions to prove that their production is sustainably sourced.

“Coffee farms are already obeying this legal criteria in terms of zero deforestation. Now, we are working on creating a platform to provide technical support and traceability tools for all of our associates," Silas Brasileiro, president of CNCafé, the National Coffee Council, which represents coffee growers, told Euronews.

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However, even if they don’t think complying with the rules will be an issue, some producers argue that generating proof of such compliance will bring a new, unexpected cost.

“Certainly there is a risk of small producers being affected because they do not have the funds to invest in a traceability system," said Henrique Sloper, coffee grower and owner of Fazenda Camocim, which exports coffee grounds to over 27 countries.

“To be able to certify and measure the criteria required by law is going to be the main difficulty. Technology has advanced a lot in terms of traceability, and Brazil is very well equipped for this, but not all regions of the country are equally prepared," Sloper highlighted.

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