Chris Grayling (Epsom and Ewell) (Con)
I beg to move,
That this House has considered deforestation in the Amazon.
I called this debate because of what I see as a mounting crisis in the battle to protect the Amazon rainforest, which is one of the world’s most important biomes, if not the most important. The Amazon is thought to be home to 10% of known species on earth, including 16,000 species of tree, 3,000 species of fish and more species of primate than anywhere else on earth. It is one of the last refuges for jaguars, harpy eagles and pink river dolphins and is home to sloths, black spider monkeys and poison dart frogs. It is a really important part of our global ecosystem.
For decades, large swathes of the Amazon were cleared to make way for agriculture, but the Amazon was not only place affected in that part of the world: areas such as the Atlantic forest in Brazil have also largely disappeared, all too often to leave space for agriculture, and all too often agriculture that uses up the fertility of the land in a few years and leaves behind sparsely used and degraded land. In recent years, the impact of deforestation has become clearer and clearer, and international efforts to halt it have grown. I could speak for much longer than I have available today on the need to increase those efforts, to protect essential habitats and biomes, and to produce a global strategy to begin restoring some of the areas that have been lost, but that is not what the debate is about. It is about what is happening right now in Brazil, which in my view is tragic and cannot be accepted by the rest of the global community.
For many years, it seemed as if progress was being made in slowing the loss of the rainforest. Brazil committed to sharply reduce deforestation, introduced new legislation to strengthen environmental protections, and worked with soy traders to end the purchase of soy from illegally cleared areas. At the Paris climate change conference, it agreed to end illegal deforestation by 2030. However, the Brazilian Government have reversed that progress. I say that with great sorrow and dismay, because Brazil is a friend of this country, but we have to speak truth to friends, and the reality is that the Government in Brazil have reversed the process. Despite warm words to the international community, the situation is now going from bad to worse. The loss of rainforest in the Amazon is now acute, with 2019 and 2020 being disastrous years for the Amazon. In a 12-month period, an area the size of Israel was cleared. In 2020, the loss amounted to 4,281 square miles—and that is a Brazilian statistic. Despite the pandemic, the situation continues to look bleak. Current estimates are that deforestation has actually accelerated this year, with the loss of an area the size of the Isle of Man in just one month. Despite warm words internationally, this clearly has official sanction.
Instead of taking steps to halt deforestation, the Brazilian Government are now pushing legislation through the Congress that will have the opposite effect by regularising the rights of people who have cleared and occupied forest areas illegally. At the same time, a presidential decree has reduced the likelihood of environmental criminals being punished for past actions. I cannot think of any step more likely to encourage those who have been breaking the existing protections and clearing areas illegally than letting them off the punishments that they might have been expecting, or deciding to allow them to stay on those sites legally. What clearer message could there be that they will be allowed to get away with it if they try it again? It is no surprise that environmental groups are up in arms. They rightly see this as a clear route to further illegal forest clearances.
There are also plans to open up to commercial mining interests lands that enjoy existing protections—lands that are those of the indigenous peoples. I suspect that we will hear a bit more about that later from my hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Neil Parish), who has been champion of indigenous peoples and the protections they need.
New environmental assessment rules for road building do not take deforestation into account, opening the way for large-scale road building through the Amazon, and the inevitable consequence of more clearances for mining and other uses, as remoter areas become more accessible. Those are not policies that come from a Government who are taking their environmental responsibilities seriously. The Brazilian Government claim that they are victims of misinformation, but I am afraid that simply is not true. The reason we know it is not true is because they told us themselves: at a recent meeting, the Brazilian Environment Minister was caught on video threatening to use the pandemic as a smokescreen to run the cattle herd through the Amazon, change all the rules and simplify standards. Heaven help the Amazon if that is the real policy of the Brazilian Environment Minister.
My message today, and the reason for calling the debate, is to say to our Government and the Minister that the international community really act on this issue, and the UK has to take a lead, along with other nations, in making that action happen. The reality is that other countries in that part of the world are working on this—for example, Colombia is starting to get to grips with the issue—but, sadly, the Brazilians are not. The first battleground has to be over trade, but it will not be easy. China has become a huge market for Brazilian exports and Brazil’s reliance on European and north American markets has been reduced, but that is not a reason for us to avoid action. It now looks unlikely that the provisional trade agreement reached between the European Union and the Mercosur trade bloc in South America will be able to go ahead in the agreed form because of what is happening in the Amazon. In the European Parliament, steps are already being taken to block the deal, and several EU Parliaments have voted to oppose it. It certainly gives the impression of being dead in the water.
As colleagues know, I do not always believe in following the example of the EU, but I definitely make an exception in this regard. The UK should not countenance even starting discussions with Brazil about a free trade agreement while the current situation continues. There must be no trade deals with Brazil while it continues to allow wholesale clearances in the Amazon, and we need a very clear message from our Ministers to their counterparts in Brasilia that this is the case. We cannot simply treat this as if it is not happening. Unless the situation changes quickly, I think we actually have to go further than that and deal with the issue in a very direct and robust way. Given the mood in Brussels and the changes in the United States, we can work internationally to tackle the issue directly.
It is very hard to work constantly to identify which products come from sustainable sources and which do not. For example, retailers in the UK tell me that it is hard to tell which soy used in their products has sustainable origins, given that the major dealers mix their supplies together in big batches. We now have to look very seriously at international action to impose tough tariffs on relevant Brazilian food exports unless and until there is clear evidence that the Government there are taking serious steps to protect the Amazon. That might seem strange coming from a strongly profree trade Conservative, but it is essential if we are to put the kind of pressure on Brazil that will stop this deforestation while we still have time. We cannot simply let the exports and imports flow if they are increasingly coming from more and more areas of the Amazon that have been cleared.
There is also a debate in the United States at the moment about whether President Biden and his climate change envoy, John Kerry, should even engage with the Brazilian Government, and in particular meet President Bolsonaro. I think they should, and I think our Government should be engaging as well: we should be having discussions and trying to strengthen relationships, but we have to be absolutely clear all along that future partnerships and future trade agreements are conditional on deforestation stopping. Of course, there is the issue that other countries are close trading partners with the Brazilians—the Chinese, for example. We should be clear with the Chinese Government that, as major importers of its produce, we need them to be part of putting the pressure on Brazil. Although the Chinese are making clear commitments themselves—they are chairing the COP on habitat and biodiversity later this year—they need to be putting that into practice and putting pressure on the Brazilian Government as well.
Protecting our natural ecosystems must become a central responsibility of all countries on Earth. Of course we need development, of course we need homes and jobs for a growing global population, and of course we understand the economic challenges that the Brazilian Government face, but none of the things that need to be done to remove poverty risks and improve the lives of citizens can be allowed to happen at the expense of key biomes and the habitats of endangered plant and animal life. A smart approach to land management and smart technology can help us to reverse the damage that has been done and start to rebuild the natural environment around us, but that work has to start quickly, and the loss of key habitats must stop now.
We, the United Kingdom, will be chairing the COP summit on climate change this autumn. We will, I hope, be the drivers of a new agreement on climate change and environmental improvements. This year, Ministers have already taken a lead role in the pre-discussions happening ahead of that meeting. As a Government, we have taken some really quite significant steps to address environmental challenges, both domestically and internationally, so I think we are as well placed as anyone to say, “We are willing to take a lead, but we need the help of others to follow.” In my view, there is no greater environmental need than this, both because the Amazon rainforest is key to dealing with the challenge of climate change and because it is such an important habitat—such an important home—for so many species and for indigenous people. It is a global asset, it is globally vital and it must be protected, but we are now facing a situation where a Government of a friendly nation is allowing policies and actions to go ahead that are accelerating the destruction of that global asset.
My message to the Minister today is very simple: the UK has to act on all of this. We have to be saying to Brazilian Ministers and others in Brazil, “We are your friends. We are going to carry on being your friends, but we cannot just stand idly by while this happens. We will take action. We will take action with the international community to put pressure on you if you do not listen and if you do not act.” It is in the interests of every Brazilian citizen, as it is in the interests of every citizen around the world, to deal with these environmental issues. Brazil has perhaps a bigger responsibility and a bigger burden than most, because it is home to such an important asset, but that responsibility has to be shouldered none the less, and this problem has to be addressed. As such, I say to the Minister and, through her, to colleagues in Government that this is something on which the UK Government have a duty to act. This year, we have a duty to lead, and if that means tough action and very tough words, we have to do it, because it is a historic responsibility that we cannot and must not shirk.