Amazon Deforestation — [Mrs Madeleine Moon in the Chair]

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 6:08 pm on 7th October 2019.

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Photo of Chris Law Chris Law Shadow SNP Spokesperson (International Development) 6:08 pm, 7th October 2019

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Roger. I thank all who have spoken. Everyone pointed in the same direction: urgent action is needed now. I thank those who initiated and added their signature to this petition. I believe there are more than 122,000 signatories, many hundreds of whom are from my city of Dundee. They have enabled us to have this important debate. I thank Daniel Zeichner for his insightful and informative speech, which opened the good debate we have had so far.

As many other hon. Members have noticed, it is particularly fitting that we are having this debate as Extinction Rebellion begins its two-week protest in and around Westminster. Last Friday, a couple of its members came to see me to discuss what they should do while they are outside this week. I said, “The most important thing is to pressurise each and every one of your MPs to speak,” but I am afraid to say that although there are great speakers here, this Chamber is frankly not as ram-packed as it should be.

Extinction Rebellion has been clear that human activity is causing irreparable harm to life on this planet, and that we face a global climate emergency and mass extinction as a result. That is happening both here in the UK and across the planet, and the current situation in the Amazon is a sad illustration. The continued deforestation of the Amazon rainforest will only exacerbate the climate emergency that we face and accelerate the loss of species that we should be protecting.

The protection of the Amazon rainforest is of global importance. In simple terms, the Amazon rainforest serves as the lungs of our planet. It accounts for 15% of global terrestrial photosynthesis, absorbing huge amounts of carbon dioxide every year. At a time when we are acutely aware of the need to remove CO2 from our atmosphere, it is dangerously counterproductive to risk the future of our planet by recklessly damaging a vital global resource.

More than 30 million people live in the Amazon, including between 300 and 400 indigenous groups. After my university studies in social anthropology, I had the opportunity to spend some time in the Amazon and listen to some of the many secrets and lessons that people have learned from living there. For many of them, the rainforest is not just their home; it is the home of their ancestors, it defines their daily lives and it is integral to their culture. Those people, who have lived and breathed the Amazon for generations, are the most likely to suffer as their needs are overlooked and their environment is destroyed in favour of the interests of those pursuing profit and economic growth regardless of the consequences.

Furthermore, the Amazon has an incredibly rich ecosystem, which we have a duty to protect. The rainforest contains one in 10 known species on Earth, including 40,000 plant species, 3,000 varieties of fish, and 1,300 types of bird. As Steve Brine mentioned, there are medicines there waiting to be discovered, many of which may be life-saving. All of that is under threat from deforestation. The simple but sad fact is that once we destroy these species, we will never get them back. We must not let that happen. It should be unthinkable that future generations will grow up without such biodiversity in one of the world’s natural wonders, but without serious action we risk losing this vital asset, with devastating consequences.

We will have all seen the shocking images of fires in the Amazon rainforest over the summer; more than 30,000 were recorded in August alone. That has prompted much of the recent discussion on deforestation—a huge problem in the Amazon over the past 50 years, during which 17% of the forest cover has been devastated. We are all familiar with the reasons for deforestation: the expansion of extensive cattle farming and timber plantations, the increase of oil, gas and mining operations, and the construction of large-scale infrastructure projects such as big dams and roads.

Between 2004 and 2012, large-scale voluntary commitments, regulatory reforms and the creation of protected areas helped to result in a dramatic drop in deforestation in the Amazon; in 2012 Brazil recorded its lowest deforestation rate in the past 20 years. That would have been something to be proud of if the trend had not reversed since then, troublingly: deforestation began to rise again in 2016, and the rate of damage and loss over the past two years is higher than it was 20 years ago.

It is clear that we have not been vigilant enough in protecting our rainforests, and it appears that 2019 has been a particularly bad year. Deforestation rates in June were 88% higher than in June 2018, and according to preliminary satellite data, the losses in the first seven months of 2019 were 16% above the recent high of 3,183 sq km lost in 2016. We are witnessing disaster unfold before our eyes.

What is most troubling is the attitude of the Brazilian President, Jair Bolsonaro. We know that he is sceptical about actions to curb climate change and that he wanted to pull Brazil out of the Paris climate change accord. He has spoken of the Amazon as a “virgin” that should be “exploited” for agriculture, mining and infrastructure projects. When Brazil’s institute for space research revealed the extent of deforestation this summer, he said that the numbers were fake, dismissed international concerns as sensationalist and sacked the head of the institute.

Bolsonaro’s stripping back of protections and anti-environmental rhetoric have clearly encouraged those who wish the deforestation of the Amazon for their own gain. Worryingly, they appear to be becoming something of a global pattern, with Bolsonaro following in the climate change-denying, anti-environmental footsteps of President Trump. Each President scorns the need to protect the environment, undermines the Paris agreement and is willing to sacrifice precious resources, which will only embolden the next populist leader elsewhere intent on dismissing the scientific evidence in front of us, turning their back on collective responsibility and refusing to take on the environmental challenge that we all face in favour of furthering their own short-term, narrow interests regardless of the consequences.

We must have a means to fight back against those attitudes and actions. Trade wars are in no-one’s best interest, but we must keep every option open to combat deforestation and the climate emergency. My SNP colleague in the European Parliament, Alyn Smith, has joined other MEPs across the member states in writing to the European Commission to urge it to make implementation of the Paris agreement on climate change a precondition for any country that wants to conclude a trade agreement with the European Union. Additionally, Ireland’s Taoiseach and France’s President have said that they will attempt to block the Mercosur trade agreement if Brazil continues to ignore its environmental commitments.

The UK Government should listen seriously to those words. They cannot continue with business as usual while Bolsonaro presides over the destruction of the Amazon. The deforestation of the Amazon is a global issue that requires a global response. It is evident that economic development will always trump environmental protection in the eyes of Brazil’s current President, and the UK cannot indulge and seek to benefit from Bolsonaro’s desire for growth and trade while the Amazon rainforest is sacrificed. In any future trade talks with Brazil, what provisions will be made to disincentivise deforestation and ensure that goods that originate from illegally cleared land in the Amazon do not form part of any trade deal or find a way into the UK? We need a crystal-clear answer from the Minister today about the UK Government’s plans.

Furthermore, it is imperative that we act not only as defenders of the environment, but as defenders of human rights. Bolsonaro has stated that “not a centimetre” more of land will be demarcated for indigenous reserves, and has transferred responsibility for delineating indigenous territories from the Justice Ministry to the Agriculture Ministry, which means putting people among cattle as if they were one and the same. That was seen by many people as a concession to the agriculture industry and an expression of his desire to pursue the expansion of agriculture at the expense of the rights of indigenous people—one lawmaker described it as

“letting the fox take over the chicken coop.”

Ensuring the territorial rights of indigenous peoples is an urgent imperative. What efforts are the UK Government making to ensure that those rights are protected? The protection of the Amazon cuts across foreign policy, trade policy and international development policy, so there must be coherence among the relevant Departments in how the UK tackles the ongoing problem of Amazon deforestation and of global climate change and environmental degradation more generally. As we know, policy coherence across the UK Government has been left wanting, so what steps are being taken to ensure policy coherence to tackle this hugely important problem in the short and medium term?

Throughout this debate, I have been reminded of the passionate words of Greta Thunberg at the UN last month:

“People are suffering. People are dying. Entire ecosystems are collapsing. We are in the beginning of a mass extinction. And all you can talk about is money and fairytales of eternal economic growth.”

Nothing exemplifies that more than the deforestation of the Amazon. It is one of the great tragedies of our time, and we must do everything we possibly can to stop it spiralling out of control.