Boris Johnson was personally thanked by the Brazilian government for refusing to support European action over the Amazon fires, according to documents obtained by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism.
As the rainforest burned last summer – fuelled by a sharp rise in deforestation that critics blame partly on President Jair Bolsonaro’s agenda – Johnson criticised a threat by the French president, Emmanuel Macron, 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 documents released to the Bureau through a freedom of information request.
Ed Davey, acting co-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 rethink 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.”
Trade deals a risk to Amazon
Brazil 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, soya beans and timber. Opposition parties in the UK have called for guarantees that any future UK-Brazil trade deal would not contribute to the destruction of the Amazon.
Preserving the rainforest is critical in the fight against the climate crisis. Scientists say large-scale felling means the Amazon could reach a “tipping point” within 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 Green party leader, 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.”
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 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 GBP10m 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”.
The UK government declined to comment when approached.