Academics and Indigenous groups unite to stand up for the natural world

26 04 2019

Rain forest gives way to pastures in the Brazilian Amazon in Mato Grosso. Photo by Thiago Foresti.

More than 600 scientists from every country in the EU and 300 Brazilian Indigenous groups have come together for the first time. This is because we see a window of opportunity in the ongoing trade negotiations between the EU and Brazil. In a Letter published in Science today, we are asking the EU to stand up for Brazilian Indigenous rights and the natural world. Strong action from the EU is particularly important given Brazil’s recent attempts to dismantle environmental legislation and ‘develop the unproductive Amazon’.

It’s worth clarifying — this isn’t about the EU trying to control Brazil — it’s about making sure our imports aren’t driving violence and deforestation. Foreign white people trying to ‘protect nature’ abroad have a dark and shameful past, where actions done in the name of conservation have led to the eviction of millions of Indigenous people. This has predominantly been to create (what we in the world of conservation would call) ‘protected areas’. The harsh reality is that most protected areas either are or have been ancestral lands of Indigenous people who are closely linked to their land and depend on it for their survival. Clearly, conservationists need to support Indigenous people. This new partnership between European scientists and Brazilian Indigenous groups is doing just that.


Brazil’s forest loss 2001-2013 shown in red. Indigenous lands outlined. By Mike Clark; data from

In Brazil, many Indigenous groups still have a right to their land. This land is predominantly found in the Amazon rainforest, where close to a million Indigenous people live and depend on a healthy forest. Indigenous people are some of the best protectors of this vast forest, and are crucial to a future of long-term successful conservation. But Brazilian Indigenous groups and local communities are increasingly under attack. Violence on deforestation frontiers in Brazil has spiked this month, with at least 9 people found dead. The future is particularly scary for Indigenous people when there are quotes such as this from the man who is currently the President It’s a shame that the Brazilian cavalry hasn’t been as efficient as the Americans, who exterminated the Indians.

On top of human rights and environmental concerns, there is a strong profit driven case for halting deforestation. For example, ongoing deforestation in the Amazon risks flipping large parts of the rainforest to savanna – posing a serious risk to agricultural productivity, food security, local livelihoods, and the Brazilian economy. Zero-deforestation doesn’t harm agri-business, it allows for its longevity.

This isn’t just about protecting the Amazon. The Cerrado is the richest savanna in the world, with over 10,000 species including the jaguar, maned wolf, giant anteater, and giant armadillo. This region has seen rapid deforestation in recent years. To the west, the Pantanal is the largest wetland in the world, but only 5% of its area is protected, with much of the rest grazed by cattle. Keeping these regions intact is also crucial if we have any chance of staying within 2 degrees of global warming. Today, only a minority of land users are directly behind natural land conversion. The irony here is that further conversion isn’t even needed — future demand in Brazil could be fully met by restoring degraded lands and improving yields.


Photo by Sara Lucena and Laura Kehoe

Despite the global importance of Brazil’s natural areas, the EU imported over 2 billion euros worth of livestock feed from Brazil in 2017, with no way of knowing whether that feed was grown on deforested land or whether it was associated with Indigenous rights conflicts. On average, more than a football field of Brazilian forest was lost every single hour from 2005-2013 as a result of EU imports of cheap livestock feed for European meat (86,366 ha per year or 9.9 ha per hour — author calculation from SI). The situation is so bad that a sixth of the carbon footprint of the average EU diet is directly linked tropical deforestation.

Despite the fact that trade negotiations are ongoing, environmentally and socially destructive imports continue to enter the EU on a tariff-free basis. Right now, European consumers have no way of knowing how much blood is actually in their hamburger.

Europe is complicit with the crimes committed in name of agricultural production” states Sônia Guajajara, the leader of Brazil’s Indigenous People Articulation which represents more than 300 Brazilian Indigenous groups and has co-signed the letter, “Europe and other consumer markets in the world need to learn how to use their consumption power to make sure our traditional rights are respected and to promote the preservation of forests.”

The EU was founded on the principles of respecting human rights and human dignity. Today, it has the opportunity to be a global leader in supporting these principles and a habitable climate by making sustainability the cornerstone of its trade negotiations with Brazil. We urge the EU to seize this opportunity.

Visit for more information – including a list of Parliamentary Members standing in the upcoming European election that support this initiative. If you are from the EU, register to vote in the elections here.

Laura J. Kehoe is an Irish postdoc at the University of Oxford and is the lead author on the Letter published today.



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