Boris Johnson has been lambasted after documents obtained by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism revealed the Brazilian government had personally thanked him for refusing to support action over the Amazon fires.
As the rainforest burned last summer – fuelled by a sharp rise in deforestation that critics blame partly on Bolsonaro’s agenda – Johnson criticised a threat by President Macron of France to block the EU’s Mercosur trade deal with Brazil.
Speaking in Biarritz before the G7 summit in August, Johnson described the fires as a “tragedy” but called Macron's threat an excuse to interfere with free trade. Leo Varadkar, the Irish prime minister, had already given his support to Macron’s proposal.
Days after the G7, the Brazilian ambassador “thanked the prime minister for his stance at Biarritz, and said it had not gone unnoticed in Brasilia”, according to Foreign Office internal documents released to the Bureau through a freedom of information request.
Ed Davey, acting leader of the Liberal Democrats, said he was astounded at the revelation, especially as the UK is due to host the COP26 global climate negotiations later this year. “Any remaining credibility Boris Johnson has on climate is now gone,” he said.
“For the British prime minister to cosy up to one of the world’s leading climate deniers, and protect President Bolsonaro from international reaction to his destruction of the Amazon rainforest, just beggars belief.”
Barry Gardiner, Labour’s shadow international trade secretary, called on Johnson to re-think his approach. “Our government has refused to challenge President Bolsonaro over his policy measures, which are directly responsible for encouraging some of the worst forest fires ever seen and the mass displacement of indigenous peoples,” he said. “They should be showing leadership, not endorsing a regime that is responsible for some of the most climate-damaging policies of our time.”
Brazil now wants a trade deal between South American countries and a post-Brexit UK, similar to the Mercosur agreement. Politicians and campaigners have expressed concern that the Mercosur deal could put the Amazon at risk by boosting imports of products that fuel deforestation, such as beef, soy and timber.
Preserving the rainforest is critical in the fight against climate change. Scientists say large-scale felling means the Amazon could reach a “tipping point” in a decade, after which much of it would collapse into a dry savannah that would emit more carbon than it absorbed.
The vast majority of the Amazon basin sits in Brazil, where deforestation rose by 30% last year. About 17% of the entire biome has been felled; the tipping point will be reached at 20-25%, according to one estimate.
Caroline Lucas, the former leader of the Green Party, said: “The hypocrisy of Johnson’s self-proclaimed leadership on climate is staggering.
“We should be using trade deals to try to drive up environmental protection and climate action around the world, not give a nod and a wink to Bolsonaro’s destruction of the rainforest.”
The Bureau last year revealed the extent of the UK’s involvement in the Amazon crisis. Three Brazilian meat businesses that have been linked to deforestation – JBS, Marfrig and Minerva – shipped nearly £1bn worth of beef to the UK in recent years.
Every year up to 5,800 sq km of forest — an area four times the size of Greater London — is being felled in the Amazon and other protected areas to be converted into pasture used for cattle farming, according to research by Trase, a supply-chain transparency initiative.
Campaign groups including WWF are calling for a commitment to a “due diligence” clause to be added to the government’s environment bill, which would require British companies to assess the environmental impacts of their global supply chains and report on their progress in eradicating them.
Mike Barrett, of WWF, said: “As the UK negotiates new trade deals, we must insist on the highest environmental standards to protect people and the planet – including removing deforestation from our supply chains.”
Shortly after Johnson’s pronouncement in Biarritz, the Brazilian government accepted £10m from the UK to fund existing anti-deforestation projects, having rejected similar offers from other countries. Lucas said this amounted to “pretending to show concern”.
No 10 did not respond to a request for comment.
Header image: Boris Johnson arriving in Biarritz for the G7 summit in August 2019 Credit: Getty Images
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