Smoke billows during a fire in an area of the Amazon rainforest near Porto Velho, Rondonia State, Brazil.   © REUTERS/Bruno Kelly 2019

Last August, as forest fires raged in the Brazilian Amazon, President Emmanuel Macron declared “our house is burning” and warned that “under these conditions” France would not support a pending trade deal between the European Union and Mercosur that includes commitments to fighting deforestation. 

Today the situation in the Amazon has only become more dire, especially for our Indigenous communities who are on the forefront of efforts to defend the rainforest. The fires are expected to begin again soon, potentially worse even than last year—and at a time when we are already reeling from the Covid-19 pandemic, which is ravaging communities throughout the Amazon and Brazil as a whole.  

Now more than ever we need European leaders to speak out on commitments to a healthy environment—as Macron did on June 29 when he reiterated his doubts about the EU-Mercosur deal. But to really make a difference, they should be clearer about what exactly Brazil needs to do to assuage their doubts about Brazil’s commitments to addressing climate change. 

In the past, Brazil’s president, Jair Bolsonaro, has angrily rejected criticism from Macron and other European leaders as an affront to Brazilian sovereignty. But the president does not speak for the many Indigenous and non-Indigenous Brazilians who have been struggling for years to preserve our rainforest. 

Brazil was once a global leader in forest conservation. Between 2004 and 2012, we achieved an 80 percent decrease in deforestation. But after 2012, budget cuts and policy missteps weakened Brazil’s environmental enforcement agencies, and deforestation rebounded. 

This rebound has been driven by violent criminal networks from whom the Bolsonaro government has abjectly failed to protect us, as is its duty. A 2019 Human Rights Watch report documented how these local mafias threaten, attack, and kill environmental enforcement agents, members of Indigenous communities, and other rainforest residents who get in their way. The killers are rarely brought to justice.

The real conflict over the Amazon, in other words, isn’t between Brazilian sovereignty and European environmentalism. It’s between criminal mafias razing the rainforest and the law-abiding Brazilians who are trying to stop them.  

Bolsonaro has effectively sided with the mafias. He has sabotaged Brazil’s already weakened environmental agencies and sought to sideline its environmental groups. His environment minister was recently caught on tape urging him to push through further deregulation of environmental policy while the media is distracted by the pandemic.  

It’s no surprise that deforestation rose by more than 80 percent last year—according to data based on real-time alerts by Brazil's Space Research Agency—and continues to increase this year. Nor is it a surprise that threats against forest defenders have continued, as has the encroachment of Indigenous territories by miners, loggers, and other intruders emboldened by Bolsonaro's anti-environmental policies.

Scientists say that unchecked deforestation is speeding the Amazon toward an irreversible “tipping point,” where it will stop serving as a “carbon sink” and release massive amounts of stored carbon. The result will compound the climate crisis that threatens Europeans and Brazilians alike. 

The EU-Mercosur trade deal, agreed to in principle last June, includes commitments to fight deforestation and uphold the Paris climate agreement. What sense would it make for the EU to ratify the agreement when Bolsonaro is actively demonstrating an intent not to honor one element of it by deliberately dismantling Brazil’s capacity to comply with these provisions and hastening that “tipping point” where compliance could become impossible?

Instead, the EU should send a clear and categorical message to Bolsonaro that ratification cannot be considered until Brazil shows it’s ready to comply with its environmental commitments. To assess this readiness, it should establish clear benchmarks, based on concrete results, not plans or proposals.

These benchmarks should address the interrelated problems at the heart of the crisis: violence and deforestation. 

First benchmark: substantial progress in ending impunity for violence against forest defenders, as measured by the number of these cases investigated, prosecuted, and brought to trial. 

Second benchmark: a reduction in deforestation rates that is sufficient to put the country back on track to meet its own targets under the Paris Agreement.  

Bolsonaro has shown no interest in what Brazilians like us—in Indigenous communities and civil society—have to say. He’s shown no concern about the rainforest or climate change. But he and his administration do care about the trade deal. If France and the European Union use this opportunity wisely, it could be our best hope for protecting our Indigenous territories, and saving our rainforest.