Preferential option for agribusiness?

Image: Tom Fisk


By placing restrictions on the basis of deforestation, the Europeans leave the Lula government in a tightrope

The conventional media and social networks are unanimous (outside the Bolsonarist bubble, of course), here and abroad: Lula was “a blast” on this trip to Europe. Apotheotic, world statesman, genius, were some of the adjectives used to describe the success of our president.

Far be it from me to downplay this spectacular result. But I want to discuss some contradictions that seem to me to complicate the epiphany that dominates the scene. Let's go:

Lula first questioned the terms of the letter attached to the Mercosur/European Union agreement. According to the speech, which reiterated another feat in the presence of the highest head of the European Union, Ursula van der Leyen, here in Brazil, the letter makes threats to the Mercosur countries, in case of non-compliance with the clauses referring to the climate agreements.

Lula pointed out the fact that rich countries are not complying with the same clauses and that it would be pure protectionism to apply penalties to Brazilian agribusiness exports. Lula also introduced in his speech a reference to the need to combat global warming to be articulated with the fight against poverty and social inequalities. At another point, Lula made reference to legislation passed by the European parliament preventing exports of agricultural products from deforested areas after 2020. In conversation with French President Emmanuel Macron, Lula put this legislation up for debate in the agreement.

Examining Lula's arguments, we can see a few things:

(i) The concern with combating poverty and inequality is unrelated to the issue of threats to restrict imports from the European Union due to environmental concerns. The president's emphasis on this issue is very fair and fits into a broader discourse on international relations in the context of combating global warming. In the framework of negotiations for the Mercosur/European Union agreement, it is out of place, especially when the dispute is related to agribusiness exports, the great beneficiary of the suspension of restrictions on the import of agricultural products by the European Union.

(ii) The protest against the clause that requires compliance with international climate agreements is more than justified, since no country, “rich” or “poor”, is complying with the protocols decided at the COP meeting in Paris, in 2015 However, the president's target is above all the recently approved European legislation (and not mentioned in the letter attached to the agreement under debate), prohibiting agricultural imports from deforested areas.

(c) The accusation of protectionism by the European Union in placing these restrictions is a half-truth. On the one hand, the history of protectionism in the European Union, under pressure from its own agribusiness, is well known. But this protectionism could have been triggered by other measures, such as the already widely used sanitary requirements, especially in relation to the levels of contamination by pesticides, much higher here than there.

By placing restrictions on the basis of deforestation, the Europeans are putting the Lula government in a tight spot. After all, this agreement was not signed in the four-year period of the Bolsonaro government because of the restrictions of European governments (which were not part of the terms of the agreement) in relation to the intense process of deforestation directly caused by the energetic person sitting in the chair of president of Brazil .

The skirt is even tighter, because Lula denounced the environmental disaster of the Bolsonaro government and gloriously announced to the world that the government’s goal was zero deforestation “in all biomes”, a promise made at the COP in Sharm-el Sheik, in November past.

If the Brazilian government has the same objective as European governments, that is, to eliminate deforestation, why protest against a measure by importers that would facilitate action against Brazilian agribusiness, predators of nature? Lula has said that he wants to convince agribusiness to adopt a “modern” position in relation to the environment and has used importers' restrictions as an argument to show this path. How can we justify this obvious retreat now?

President Lula's argument that “threats of sanctions do not belong in an agreement between friends” makes no sense. All that's left now is to make deals by exchanging beard strands or spitting in your partner's hand and squeezing it. Just imagine what would happen if Jair Bolsonaro had won the election, or what would happen if he, or an avatar of him, won the next one. Agreements between countries are not agreements between people and they are signed to last for many years, after the current leaders are already retired.

By defending the suspension of sanctions, Lula sends a message that was not understood by a world stunned by the applause deserved for the president's performance in Paris. What he means is that he took the pain of Brazilian agribusiness on himself and his government. The other hypothesis is that this staging is not for the external public, but for the internal one, that is, for the Brazilian agribusiness.

After all, the chance of negotiating the withdrawal of sanctions, as defined in the attached letter, is quite reasonable, not least because they are quite generic and, as already mentioned, lack legitimacy when imposed by governments that also do not follow the booklet of climate agreements. But the restrictions not mentioned in the letter, that is, European legislation restricting imports from deforested areas, are not directed at Brazil or Mercosur, but at the whole world. They are being ratified by the parliaments of each member country of the European Union and are not subject to any bilateral or multilateral agreement.

In the event that Lula is putting on a show to gain a foothold with agribusiness, even knowing that the restrictions will happen with or without the agreement including them, I think he will pay a double price.

In the first place, agribusiness and European environmentalists will not fail to point out the inconsistency between Lula's environmentalist and ruralist discourses and the tight skirt will tend to become more evident, diminishing the president's international glow.

Secondly, Brazilian agribusiness will not be on good terms with Lula because he defended his “right to deforest”. They don't care about intentions, but about results. If the restrictions come within the agreement or outside it, the anger of agribusiness will be turned against the president "who did not know how to defend them".

In his reaffirmed intention to reach zero deforestation, Lula should thank the measures taken by the parliaments of the countries of the European Union. If it were up to the government to establish stronger restrictions on predatory agribusiness, the difficulties would be immense, given the weight of the ruralist group in Congress. With restrictions coming from abroad, everything becomes easier because, as Lula himself has already argued, the government would start to defend the “modern” sector that would adjust to the requirements, separating it from the predatory sector that would continue in the same practices.

Controlling deforestation, as I already had the opportunity to write on another occasion, will require more than activating Ibama and ICMBio, with the support of the Federal Police. This will be a battle against loggers, land grabbers and miners, in other words, against the illegal economy. This will already be a bloody battle and, in order to work effectively, it will be necessary to control the flow of illegal products with a lot of investment in intelligence to catch the links between illegal activities and the market, nationally and internationally.

This could tackle the illegal economy, if the effort is sustained and broad. However, there is legal deforestation, permitted by the Forestry Code or by the huge loopholes in the legislation. It is likely that the government will have to use indirect means of restriction, such as suspending financing for landowners who have deforested. But the judicial war will be great and the government's capacity for pressure is notoriously small. Stimulus methods via facilitated and subsidized credits, aimed at reducing deforestation and introducing less predatory practices, may be questioned and brought to the legislative debate.

It is for these difficulties that Lula should thank his orixás for the restrictions imposed by the European Union. They do not refer to the legality or otherwise of Brazilian agribusiness practices. They restrict all deforestation, legal or illegal. And the most obvious way will be to demand a georeferencing of all products, in order to be able to cross-check with the data, now very accurate, of the deforested areas. All this is technically feasible although it does not guarantee the end of deforestation.

The most practical way to circumvent European restrictions is something that already exists, in part. It is about exporting from regions without deforestation and bringing production from areas where it will continue to the domestic market. Note that the Europeans do not restrict imports from Brazil, in general, but from products originating from deforestation areas. The large slaughterhouses already make this separation, with part of the meat from cattle raised in the Cerrado and the Amazon being directed to national consumption and that from other regions being exported.

But until today this separation is very limited, due to the requirements of specific buyers. If it is necessary to do this on a massive scale, it will become more complicated because the volume of meat coming from deforested areas exceeds the domestic market. The rearrangement will be bigger or smaller depending on the behavior of our biggest importer of agricultural products, China.

All of this goes to show that we can even come to terms with the Europeans, integrating environmental requirements into products exported there while deforestation continues unabated. To stop deforestation, it will be necessary to face agribusiness in a more comprehensive way, and for this the government's appetite is much smaller. To make this fact clear, it is enough to see that this government has not yet changed the policy of accelerated approval of new pesticides, inaugurated in the government of Michel Temer and greatly expanded in the government of Jair Bolsonaro. In less than six months, almost 200 new products have been produced, with just under half of them having a high degree of toxicity.

Other points raised by President Lula in part of his speech contesting points of the Mercosur/European Union agreement deserve more attention. The most important thing is the demand for equal conditions for European industries in relation to Brazilian ones, with regard to government purchases. This would eliminate any orientation of public purchases of school lunches, for example, prioritizing family farming. Europeans want to put Danone in competition with family or community laricine industries. At this point the animal takes and takes heavy.

Finally, it is worth recalling the broader position assumed by Lula, demanding a real commitment from rich countries to finance the transition of developing countries towards a green economy. I don't really like the argument that global warming is the fault of rich countries and that therefore they should make every effort to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

This gives the impression that we are allowed to emit more gases to compensate for the historical guilt of others. We all have to reduce emissions if we want to survive and let's not forget that today Brazil is the fifth largest emitter of GHG in the world. But yes, the richest have more responsibility because they have more conditions to finance a collective global effort.

*Jean Marc von der Weid is a former president of the UNE (1969-71). Founder of the non-governmental organization Family Agriculture and Agroecology (ASTA).

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