In the increasingly polarized international political arena, it has become difficult to find common ground to solve Brazil’s ongoing environmental crisis, which has global as well as local implications. International buyers of Brazil’s agricultural commodities have raised concerns about products that are contaminated by deforestation (i.e. deforestation occurred during the process of producing the product).

European Union criticism of the Brazilian government bolsters demands to boycott Brazilian products and to withhold ratification of the trade agreement reached in 2019 between the EU and Mercosur, the South American trading bloc. Among the concerns is that increasing greenhouse gas emissions from deforestation and forest fires in Brazil could cancel out EU climate change mitigation efforts. The Brazilian government and agribusiness contend that national laws ensure high conservation standards, and hence trading bans should not include legally authorized deforestation.

A logging truck in the Amazon. Beef and soy production are the top drivers of tropical deforestation in South America, including the Brazilian Amazon and Cerrado. Photo: Brasil2 / Getty Images

This article in Science‘s Policy Forum addresses the links between illegal deforestation in the Amazon and Cerrado – the largest Brazilian biomes with the highest rates of deforestation – and EU imports of Brazilian soy and beef, the country’s major agricultural commodities. The authors find that, although most of Brazil’s agricultural output is deforestation-free, 2% of properties in the Amazon and Cerrado are responsible for 62% of all potentially illegal deforestation, and that roughly 20% of soy exports and at least 17% of beef exports from both biomes to the EU may be contaminated with illegal deforestation.

Raising awareness is important to press Brazil to conserve its environmental assets and to promote international political will for cutting telecoupled GHG emissions. This could be achieved, for example, through the environmental safeguards of the Mercosur-EU trade agreement, which require EU imports to comply with the exporting country’s legislation.