Supermarkets warn Brazil of boycott over Amazon

Slash and burn: A section of rainforest cleared by fire in Rondonia state, Brazil. © Carl de Souza/AFP via Getty Images

Can supermarkets save the Amazon? Yesterday, UK retailers attacked a Brazilian bill they argue would encourage deforestation, hinting that they would stop buying the country’s products.

In August 2019, fires raged across the Brazilian Amazon. They blackened the sky above Sao Paulo, 1,700 miles away. The smoke was a signal. The rainforest was under new management.

Since the election of Jair Bolsonaro in 2018, farmers in Brazil’s Amazon region have felt emboldened. Seeking to replace the rainforest’s rich habitat with cattle pasture and fields of soybeans, they have conducted burnings at a furious pace.

Already this year, 430,000 acres of rainforest have been destroyed – an area larger than London. More than a football pitch of rainforest is cleared every minute.

Yesterday, some of Britain’s biggest supermarkets sent their own message to Bolsonaro.

In an open letter, food retailers including Tesco, Sainsbury’s and Greggs, called on Brazil’s legislators to rethink a law currently before the senate, which critics have described as a “land-grabbing bill”.

By letting some farmers legally claim land they have burned and occupied, environmentalists argue, this law is making deforestation legal.

British and European supermarkets have suggested that, if the law is passed, they would have “no choice” but to remove Brazilian agricultural products from their supply chain.

Around 17% of the Amazon has now been cleared. If more than 20% goes, experts believe that the forest will reach a tipping point where it can no longer produce enough rainfall to sustain itself. The whole forest will start to die away.

This would be a tragedy for the almost 1,000,000 indigenous people for whom the Brazilian forest is home, as well as its vast number of animal and plant species.

It could also have devastating consequences for climate change. The rainforest absorbs carbon dioxide, which would then be pumped into the atmosphere.

Recognising these dangers, retailers made similar threats when the bill was first discussed in 2020. It was then delayed.

The retailers’ action follows a path trod in 2006, when companies worldwide, including major supermarkets, signed up to the soy moratorium, agreeing to boycott all soybeans grown on illegally occupied land in the Amazon.

The moratorium is credited by some with helping keep deforestation under control. Rates of forest clearance declined from 2008 to 2016.

Trade between Britain and Brazil is valued at around £6bn per year, and many supermarkets stock Brazilian corned beef, as well as products made with soya, not just from the Amazon, but from the also fragile Cerrado ecosystem.

Even with their financial power, the letter’s signatories may find Brazil’s government hard to pin down. This April, US president Joe Biden met with Bolsonaro who then pledged “zero illegal deforestation by 2030”.

One effect of the proposed law would be to define much illegal deforestation out of existence. Preserving the existence of the actual rainforest, as the letter from the supermarkets suggests, is another matter.

So can supermarkets save the Amazon?

Super savers

Yes, say some. Brazil might not listen to patronising lectures about environmentalism from countries that long ago destroyed their own forests, but when money talks everyone has to listen. Businesses can lead in creating ethical supply chains. That is why we now have widely available Fairtrade coffee, and why free-range eggs outsell those from caged hens. Money is the reason farmers destroy the Amazon and money is the reason they will save it.

No, say others. This is an empty threat when the worldwide market craves the meat and soybeans that Brazilian farmers are growing. Compared to the recent EU-South America free trade deal, the impact of these supermarkets’ decision is likely to be small. The supermarkets are responding to consumer pressure, but would not do anything that truly threatened their own bottom lines.

You Decide

  1. Should politicians be punished under international law for crimes against the environment?
  2. If a group of Brazilian businesses demanded that the UK stop fishing in the Atlantic, would that be interfering in the democratic process?

Activities

  1. After watching the New York Times video on farmers in Pará, in pairs, come up with a campaign poster to persuade farmers not to keep cutting down the forest. There should be an image and a slogan.
  2. Divide into groups of four and pick one of the following roles: Indigenous Community Leader in Amazonia, Cattle Farmer, Urban Businessperson, Environmental Activist. After doing independent research using the links, explain in character why you support or oppose Brazil’s plans to grant legal ownership to those occupying land in the Amazon.

Some People Say...

“It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own self-interest.”

Adam Smith (1723 – 1790), Economist and author of The Wealth of Nations

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
It is widely agreed that the biggest problem in fighting deforestation in Brazil has to do with enforcement of current laws protecting the Amazon. Over 90% of deforestation that happens is already illegal. Under Bolsonaro, the budget of Ibama, the administrative body responsible for enforcing environmental laws, has been repeatedly cut. Shortly after pledging to increase spending on conservation this April, Bolsonaro cut the environment ministry’s budget by 24%.
What do we not know?
One main area of debate concerns the trade-off between profit and values that businesses such as supermarkets have to negotiate. If they lose enough money to a competitor who is willing to cut more ethical or environmental corners, they may feel obliged to lower their standards. While some argue that a culture of social responsibility within the company encourages businesses to go green, others argue that only government regulation can really prevent a race to the bottom.

Word Watch

Brazilian Amazon
The Amazon rainforest covers eight countries: Brazil, Bolivia, Peru, Ecuador, Colombia, Venezuela, Guyana and Suriname. The majority of it, however, is in Brazil.
Jair Bolsonaro
Brazil’s right-wing president at one point embraced the nickname “Captain Chainsaw”, to show his enthusiasm for rainforest clearance.
Habitat
An environment that houses a species. 10% of all of earth’s biodiversity is in the Amazon.
Soybeans
This crop is primarily grown as animal feed. Brazil overtook the US to become the world’s largest producer of soybeans in 2020.
Supply chain
Everything involved in putting a product on the shelf, from the raw materials to the labour of putting it together.
Indigenous
Descendants of the original inhabitants of the continent before Europeans arrived. Brazil is home to many different indigenous peoples, including some who have never been contacted by the wider world.
Carbon dioxide
A recent study showed that the Amazon area in Brazil no longer absorbs more CO2 than it emits, as a consequence of ongoing deforestation, but the Amazon as a whole is still carbon negative.
Moratorium
A ban.
Cerrado
This tropical savanna is the second-largest major habitat in Brazil, where similar processes of clearing have taken place. The majority of Brazil’s beef and much of its soy are grown there.

Subjects

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