• Reading Level 5
Science | Geography | Citizenship

Supermarkets warn Brazil of boycott over Amazon

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. 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.KeywordsJair Bolsonaro - The right wing Brazilian president from 2019 to 2022.

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