Boycotting Brazil is not the best way to stop Amazon deforestation
In July and August 2019, several manmade and coordinated fires affected parts of the Amazon forest. It is the highest number of fires recorded in the Amazon since 2011, according to the Brazilian National Institute for Space Research (INPE).  In an open lecture from 3 October at Stockholm University, PhD Ana Paula Aguiar  and PhD Larissa Basso presented and discussed the political, legal, historical and socioeconomic background of the deforestation in Brazil.
Deforestation has a long history in Brazil.

-    It didn’t start with President Bolsonaro. Pressure to expand the economic exploitation has always existed, Larissa Basso says.

Brazil is a federation, and the federal government, states and municipalities share legal and administrative competence over environmental issues. In addition, legal status and property rights are not uniform all over the Amazon. There are different laws depending on whether the area is publicly or privately owned, whether it is owned by the military or by indigenous people and whether the area is governed at federal or state level. There are also vast non-designated areas with unclear legal status.

The Brazilian Forest Code, enacted in 2012, applies to private areas and

Logs floating in the Amazona river
Foresting in the Amazona. Logs floating in the Amazona river

allows the land owner to deforest 20 percent of the area. However, if the area is located in a Brazilian state where 65 percent or more of the state territory is occupied by indigenous lands or public conservation units, the law requires  to keep the forest in  at least 50 percent of their land.

An incentive to illegal occupation

In 2017, a new law was enacted, regularizing property titles of private areas up to 2,500 hectares which were occupied between 2004 and 2011, even if they were so illegally.

-    This legalization works as an incentive to illegal occupation. There is however, a positive side to it, since the law demands that private owners reforest their property to conform with the 80% requirement of forest coverage, says Larissa Basso.

The Amazon is also rich in mineral resources, and many of the reserves have so far been protected from exploitation. Yet pressure to change this has been increasing. One area between Pará and Amapá states – RENCA – is for instance rich in copper and has  been safeguarded from exploitation by the Brazilian state since 1984. In 2017, however, a federal decree changed this status to allow exploitation, only to be revoked a month later due to intense protests by environmentalists and indigenous peoples.

-    Deforestation in public areas is a huge problem. People just invade illegally. It is easy to avoid the authorities since it is very hard to monitor such vast areas, says Larissa Basso.


Deforestation started during the military regime

According to Ana Paula Aguiar, you must understand Brazilian history to explain the current events:

-    Until the 1960s, human occupation in the region happened mainly along the rivers and without impacts on the forest cover. It was during the military regime 1964 – 1985 that the deforestation process actually started. The government saw “internationalization” as a threat and therefore wanted to guarantee control of the region by e.g. populating and developing it, launching  several colonization projects, promoting cattle ranching and building infrastructures. Then came the re-democratization period after 1985 and the “developmental” mentality continued. The forest was the enemy – the “green hell” to be conquered and converted to pasture. Until today, pasture comprises the majority of deforested area in the Amazon.

Two women holding a lecture.
Larissa Basso and Ana Paula Aguiar think that EU boycotting Brazil is not the most effective way to stop deforestation.

Thus, during the military regime, a culture developed, similar to the culture of the Wild West, where the supposedly virgin lands of the Amazon were the last frontier to be cultivated in order to make Brazil prosper. This culture remains even today in some areas.
When Lula da Silva was elected president, deforestation was out of control. It peaked at 27,000 km2 in 2004.

In 2005, Dorothy Stang, an American missionary, was killed in the conflicts between local communities in a settlement area in Pará State and neighbour farmers and timber companies. Her death added to the movement against deforestation and inflamed public opinion, pushing politicians and the Brazilian government to act. Following it, and with a strong Minister of the Environment in office, Marina Silva, environmental governance was strengthened, through a Federal Program , called PPCDAM, involving several organizations.  Protected areas were formed, and command and control operations were organized to enforce the law.

At the same time, civil society and private sector enacted the so-called “soybean moratorium” , an agreement not to buy soybeans from deforested areas). After 2005, deforestation dropped sharply, but never ceased.  With Jair Bolsonaro, the concern is that the curve can be reversed.


Three ideological forces

Ana Paula Aguiar argues it is important to differentiate the various actors in the region in order to structure actions against the threat of deforestation increase :  First is the powerful economic elite of the agribusiness who uses the discourse of the conciliation of production and conservation, advocating for “sustainable development”. But this discourse co-exists with  parts of the old colonialists of the 1970s and 1980s who believe that every environmental policy is a threat to Brazilian development. There are also the so-called grileiros, the nickname of organized groups  who occupy public lands illegally and sell to farmers. Finally, we find the environmentalists and social activists, among them the indigenous people and traditional populations living in the protected areas.

-    Although the agribusiness gave him their support during the election, Bolsonaro actually thinks like the old colonialists. He has the old “development” mentality, and therefore he doesn’t like nor understand the environmentalists or the indigenous people’s rights, says Ana Paula Aguiar.

Based on this, both Ana Paula Aguilar and Larissa Basso agree that the current European boycott on Brazilian leather, beef and soybeans could put pressure on Jair Bolsonaro´s Amazon policy, but fear that it could also have the opposite effect.

-    It does affect Bolsonaro’s support base in the agribusiness because they care about the reputation of Brazil. “It is not good for business”. However, it could also help him with his core voters. It legitimises his idea of an international conspiracy against Brazil, to take control of the natural resources and undermine Brazil’s powerful agribusiness. This is a popular idea among his core voters – the colonisers, says Larissa Basso.


Cattle industry is mostly domestic

Moreover, the boycott affects actors whose activities do not affect the Amazon:

-    The leather industry is outside the Amazon. Only 5 percent of the Amazon deforestation is due to soybean agriculture and 79 percent of the total Brazilian soybean export goes to China. The cattle industry however, has a more severe impact on the Amazon.  But 81 percent of the Amazon beef production goes to the domestic market whereas only 9 percent of the total Brazilian beef export goes to Europe, so in practical terms, it does not affect the majority of the business in the region, says Larissa Basso.

Yet the indirect pressure through the agribusiness is  certainly important. And it is also vital to keep pressure based on international agreements of which Brazil is a part, such as   the Convention of Biological Diversity, the International Tropical Timber Agreement and the Paris Agreement – and the ongoing negotiations on an EU-Mercosur Agreement.


The EU should support local actors

Ana Paula and Larissa further suggest that the EU seek, in parallel, to build a positive agenda with local governments and actors aligned with social-environmental concerns, mainly to support law enforcement actions:

-    For actors in the frontier, involved in illegal land and wood markets for example, law enforcement is the key solution. There, you find criminal organizations acting in public land appropriation, ignoring the laws, threatening public agents and invading protected areas. Constant monitoring and strong law enforcement, through command and control operations are essential. Such operations are expensive and complicated due to lack of access in many places, and very dangerous to the agents involved, though. Bolsonaro does not support the agencies responsible for such operations, in fact he undermines them, says Ana Paula Aguiar.

To complicate things further, the resources that Norway and Germany were providing through the Amazon Fund,  which was cancelled earlier in July, were in part used to support these expensive field operations with equipment, etc.  

The two researchers urge the EU to now find another way of directly supporting the states and municipalities for continuing and improving the enforcement actions. The Para State government, for example, has just launched a call for projects mirroring the Amazon Fund at the state level. Moreover, direct support could be given to encourage economic alternatives for the local population (e.g. bio economy), fund research, as well as the local NGOs and actions to enhance the local supply chains.

What to expect in the future?

Although the number of fires in the Amazon decreased between August and September, the alerts of deforestation according to the DETER system from INPE remain very high when compared to the previous years, indicating a sharp increase in the deforestation rates in 2019 and possibly in 2020. And Bolsonaro is now claiming he will pave the road linking Porto Velho to Manaus until 2022, in the heart of the forest.   

- It is crucial to act on all fronts to avoid the pessimistic scenarios about the future of the Amazon we often find in the literature. Sadly, several of these scenario studies tell a story very similar to what we are witnessing now: paved roads crossing the forest, environmental legislation and monitoring systems undermined, agrobusiness and mining companies inside indigenous lands” – says Ana Paula Aguiar.

Ana Paula Aguiar

is a senior researcher/technologist at the Earth System Science Centre (CCST) of the Brazilian Institute for Space Research (INPE) and a Research Fellow at Stockholm Resilience Centre, at Stockholm University. She has been working with sustainability science and deforestation modelling and scenarios in the Amazon for more than 15 years.

Larissa Basso

is a Brazilian lawyer, with a PhD in International Relations, and a Postdoctoral Fellow at the Department of Law, in the Stockholm University Initiative of Environmental Research in Human Sciences. She specialises in legal and political aspects of environmental issues at national and international scales.

The seminar was organised by Stockholm Environmental Law and Policy Centre in cooperation with the Institute of Latin American Studies.



INPE – PRODES and DETER systems
SEI - Trase (beef and soybean supply chain data)