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Agribusiness faces turning point as fire outbreaks soar

. Jan 10, 2021
agribusiness amazon Landowners often use fires to clear up space for pastures. Photo: Paralaxis/Shutterstock

Amid the catastrophe of the coronavirus pandemic — which has claimed over 200,000 lives in Brazil — the country suffered from another tragedy in 2020: a huge wave of fire outbreaks that consumed large parts of two of Brazil’s main biomes, the Amazon rainforest and the Pantanal wetlands. 

The situation of calamity was documented throughout the year, with devastating images of decimated vegetation and animals consumed by flames. When 2020’s statistics were finally tabulated, the year saw the highest number of fire outbreaks in a decade.

</p> <p>The number of fires in Brazil rose 12.73 percent last year, in comparison to 2019, according to data from the National Institute of Space Research (Inpe). The country recorded a total of 222,798 outbreaks over 2020.</p> <p>The increase was larger still in the Pantanal, with the number of fire outbreaks more than doubling 2019 figures, making it the worst year for the biome since records began. Estimations made during 2020 suggest that at least 23 percent of the wetlands were destroyed.</p> <p>Concerned, major business owners have mobilized to mitigate the effects of the federal government&#8217;s lax environmental policy, which has been roundly criticized by the international community and reflects negatively on the country&#8217;s economy.</p> <h2>Agribusiness companies on the spot</h2> <p>In July 2020, the <a href="https://cebds.org/?gclid=CjwKCAiA_9r_BRBZEiwAHZ_v16QaAEveX6mwElHU1rqUuhxh5BmmqjxTh1yj-9bD2uaHMtgi1HggmRoCg84QAvD_BwE">Brazilian Business Association for Sustainable Development</a> (CEBDS) issued its Brazilian Business Sector Release, an open document signed by 91 companies and organizations. It represents a public pledge to contribute with solutions based on the following axes:</p> <ul><li>Strict and comprehensive combatting of illegal deforestation in the Amazon and other Brazilian biomes;</li><li>Social and economic inclusion of local communities to ensure the conservation of forests;</li><li>Minimization of the environmental impact of the use of natural resources, seeking efficiency and productivity in the economic activities derived from them;</li><li>Appreciation and preservation of biodiversity as an integral part of business strategies;</li><li>Adoption of mechanisms to trade carbon credits;</li><li>Directing funding and investment toward a circular low-carbon economy;</li><li>Incentive packages for the economic recovery from the effects of the <a href="https://brazilian.report/coronavirus-brazil-live-blog/">Covid-19 pandemic</a>, conditioned to a circular low-carbon economy.</li></ul> <p>“Many of the solutions ahead of us in the post-pandemic recovery period involve speeding up the transition to a decarbonized economy,&#8221; said CEBDS, in a statement sent to <strong>The Brazilian Report</strong>.</p> <p>The association believes it is crucial to &#8220;use this opportunity of resuming business to put the global economy on a path toward a net zero world, zeroing liquid emissions.&#8221;</p> <p>CEBDS also highlights the &#8220;urgency&#8221; of programs of fiscal recovery that include analysis of climate risks, encompass positive social impacts toward reducing inequality, and large-scale policies that do not shirk from the responsibility of reducing carbon emissions.&nbsp;</p> <h2><strong>Buyers saying no to non-eco-friendly products</strong></h2> <p>A large part of fires in Brazil are set intentionally with the objective of transforming native vegetation into pasture for cattle or grain plantations. According to the article &#8220;The rotten apples of Brazilian agribusiness,&#8221; published in U.S. scientific journal Science in June, approximately 20 percent of Brazil&#8217;s soy and beef exports to the European Union are the result of illegal deforestation.</p> <p>The paper came to light as EU countries expressed strong resistance toward ratifying a free trade agreement signed between the bloc and Mercosur in 2019. Since Jair Bolsonaro took office as president in January of that year, deforestation in the Amazon has continuously increased.&nbsp;</p> <p>The illegal destruction of the rainforest has sullied the image of Brazilian agricultural products abroad, particularly in Europe. The responsible exploitation of resources along the entire production chain has become a more common demand imposed by major international buyers. Indeed, items associated with practices that harm the environment have been increasingly rejected by eco-friendly consumers.</p> <p>Brazil&#8217;s agribusiness giants have understood the message and are employing concrete measures. For instance, Brazilian firm JBS — the largest meat processing company in the world — announced its goal last year to <a href="https://brazilian.report/environment/2020/09/05/meat-giant-jbs-once-again-linked-to-deforestation-in-brazil/">track all of its indirect suppliers in the Amazon</a> and completely eradicate illegal deforestation from its productive chain by 2025. American agribusiness firm Bunge has made a similar pledge, tracking suppliers across its entire chain within the next five years.</p> <p>In August, Brazil&#8217;s three largest private banks Itaú Unibanco, Bradesco, and Santander joined forces to create the Amazon Advisory Council, in partnership with researchers, biologists, former Environment Ministers, and organizations such as the Brazilian Climate, Forests and Agriculture Coalition and the Brazilian Rural Society.</p> <p>According to consulting firm Safras &amp; Mercado, major companies need to adapt and stay a step ahead of the game in direct negotiations — particularly with the European market, which is traditionally more demanding in environmental issues.

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Renato Alves

Renato Alves is a Brazilian journalist who has worked for Correio Braziliense and Crusoé.

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