Cropped, 1 December 2021: Brazilian deforestation soars; Fishing subsidy fights; Indian farm laws repealed

Welcome to Carbon Brief’s Cropped. 
We handpick and explain the most important stories at the intersection of climate, land, food and nature over the past fortnight.

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Snapshot

New data show that deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon reached its highest levels since 2006 this year. Recent investigations revealed that many luxury brands source their leather from cattle raised on deforested land. Environmental groups are sceptical of a proposed “sustainable development zone” plan that claims it will reduce illegal deforestation.

The World Trade Organisation indefinitely postponed its much-awaited 12th ministerial conference. However, negotiations on a landmark fishing subsidies agreement continue, as rich countries look to evade limits on non-specific fuel subsidies for fishing and developing countries seek more time and differentiation. 

After a year of protests by farmers, the Indian government officially repealed controversial farm laws in parliament. Protests are set to continue as farmers demand a minimum support price to tide them through an agrarian crisis, as crop losses from climate change mount and fertilisers become more expensive.

Key developments

Brazilian deforestation

RECORD RATES: Deforestation in the Amazon soared to a 15-year high in 2021, Reuters reported, undercutting the nation’s COP26 pledges towards ending deforestation in the coming decade. The data, which come from Brazil’s National Institute for Space Research (INPE), reveals a swathe of more than 13,000 square kilometres (km2) deforested during the period from August 2020 to July 2021. Reuters pointed out that this “surging destruction” is at odds with Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro’s “efforts to show his government is serious about protecting the Amazon”. Preliminary data for the year had shown a 5% decrease in deforestation over that time, which Brazil had “touted” ahead of COP26 – but a “source with knowledge of the matter” told Reuters that Bolsonaro’s government had the INPE data in advance of the summit.

LUXURY LEATHER: Two recent investigations revealed links between high-end brands and deforestation in the Amazon. The first, conducted by the New York Times, showed how makers of luxury cars including SUVs and pickup trucks “increasingly” rely on Brazil as a leather supplier. The Times detailed how ranchers on illegally deforested land sell their cattle to middlemen in order to “hide the true origins” of their livestock. A separate investigation, conducted by the research firm Stand.earth and covered in the Guardian, revealed more than 50 fashion brands with “multiple connections” to a leather exporter that is “known to engage in Amazon deforestation”, the paper wrote. The Guardian noted that “a number of the brands surveyed have recently announced policies to untangle themselves from actors along the supply chain that contribute to deforestation”.

‘SUSTAINABLE’ INITIATIVE: Environmental groups have been raising concerns about a proposed “sustainable development zone” in northwest Brazil that is expected to get the green light from Bolsonaro later this year, the Guardian reported. The plan’s proponents, which include prominent agribusiness figures, say that the zone will allow them to scale up and intensify livestock agriculture on land that has already been cleared. But others have said the plan “is unlikely to change the system responsible for the breakneck pace of deforestation”, the Guardian wrote. Mongabay reported that the plan’s leadership hopes the zone will also attract private investment for other businesses “from agroforestry and fish farming, to tourism, logistics, information, communication and technology, and research and development”.

Subsidy showdown

TRADE TALKS STALL: On 26 November, the World Trade Organisation (WTO) called off its much-awaited 12th ministerial conference (MC12), due to take place in Geneva from 30 November to 3 December. While the world’s eyes were on a vaccine intellectual property waiver, countries were also set to negotiate a landmark agreement to end subsidies for overfishing and practices that deplete global fish stocks. The identification of the Covid-19 Omicron variant and the travel restrictions it prompted in Switzerland and other EU countries meant that the talks have been “indefinitely postponed”, IISD News reported. WTO director-general Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala ruled out a virtual format, saying these were “complex negotiations on politically sensitive issues”, the story said.  

FISHFUL THINKING: Laws to limit fishing subsidies have been 20 years in the making. In 2015, the UN Sustainable Development Goal 14.6 spelt out the role WTO fisheries negotiations must play to “conserve and sustainably use the oceans”. It set a target year of 2020 for countries to “prohibit subsidies for overfishing”, “eliminate” subsidies for “illegal fishing” and “refrain” from introducing new such subsidies, while “recognising” that developing and least developed countries must receive “special and differential treatment”. A year on from the target date, countries now finally have a draft agreement. On 24 November, Colombia’s Santiago Wills, who chairs the WTO’s fisheries subsidies negotiations, submitted a draft for ministers saying that a deal “is within our grasp”. If countries can agree, as well as “sustain negotiating momentum”, it would be “a big step for sustainability of the global commons”, Wills said. 

DIFFERENTIATION: In 2018, China provided an estimated “$5.9bn worth of harmful fishing subsidies”, followed by Japan at $2.1bn, the European Union at $2bn and the US at $1.1bn, with India giving a “relatively modest $174m”, reported Politico. As scientists from 46 countries called for a ban against harmful fishing subsidies, Bangladesh’s Daily Star reported that least developed countries (LDCs) have been arguing for at least a partial continuation of subsidies. Firstpost reported that “the pressure to act is high on WTO and it may come up for extended negotiations”. It reported that India is seeking a 25-year deferment on any new clauses for developing countries as “special and differential treatment”, a demand that the European parliament’s international trade committee said was “not acceptable”. Meanwhile, text in brackets refers to non-specific fuel subsidies, which Indian negotiators called “a complete sleight of hand” because they form the bulk of developed country subsidies. The Financial Times reported that India’s position drew “attention away from the EU’s problems with persuading member states, notably France and Spain, to eliminate fuel subsidies for their long-distance fishing fleets”. 

Farm laws repealed

LAWS REPEALED: On 19 November, India’s prime minister Narendra Modi announced a repeal of controversial farm laws in a “televised address to the nation”, the Wire reported. On 29 November, the Farm Laws Repeal Bill 2021 was passed in under five minutes in both houses of India’s parliament, the Hindu reported, with opposition parties outraged at the lack of debate or discussion, similar to when the laws were unilaterally passed. The laws were introduced to deregulate agricultural procurement, a move farmers feared would force them to compete with big agribusiness interests at a time when climate change, price rises and mounting debt are taking their toll. 

BACKDROP: The repeal of the laws comes after more than a year of nationwide protests by farmers, who camped outside toll-gates surrounding the national capital of Delhi, enduring heat and cold extremes as well as floods. Most of the 600 farmers who died during the protests were largely “small and marginal farmers” and “landless cultivators”, a recent study found. Solidarity messages from youth climate activists Greta Thunberg and Disha Ravi drew the ire of Indian authorities, who arrested the latter under national security laws, later granting her bail. 

PROTESTS CONTINUE: While there were celebrations across the country, protests will continue. Farm union leader Rakesh Tikait said the “farmers will not leave protest sites until a discussion on minimum support price takes place”, one of the key demands of the protesting farmers who have faced crop losses, Down To Earth reported. Separately, India’s minister for agriculture Narendra Singh Tomar on Tuesday said that more than 5m hectares of land saw crop losses because of extreme weather. The laws were solely focussed on pricing mechanisms to deal with an agrarian crisis, so they “did not concern themselves with climate change, environment and food security”, noted Kota Sriraj in the Pioneer.

News and views

FOOD AND FERTILISER PRICES: A worldwide shortage of nitrogen fertiliser is causing food prices to soar to record levels. The EU’s “choking gas market” in October led to “substantial temporary curtailments in European fertiliser production by companies including Yara, BASF, CF Industries and Fertiberia,” reported Financial Times. Other fertiliser inputs, such as phosphate, potash and sulphur, are also seeing “significant price increases”, the story said. Concurrently, world food prices hit a 10-year high in October. Reuters reported that “higher fertiliser costs could translate into higher meat and bread prices” in North America, where farmers are delaying purchases and could risk “a spring scramble” before planting season. Bloomberg reported that “India is one of the worst affected” by the crisis, the shortfall leading to a “thriving [black] market” for crop nutrients. 

EU AGRICULTURAL POLICY: The European Parliament approved the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) by a “wide majority” amidst growing protest from groups calling to “scrap the CAP”, EurActiv reported. The reforms, which will take effect from 1 January 2023, aim to “increas[e] the level of EU ambitions in terms of sustainability”. Climate Home News noted that environmental and youth activists have called the reforms “watered down”, while lawmakers opposed to the reform claim it “fail[s] to align” the policy with the EU’s Green Deal. The reform was also opposed by some farmers’ groups. A group of Irish farmers rode a “fleet of tractors” into the Irish capital to protest some of the CAP’s new measures, EurActiv reported in a separate piece. (For more on the CAP reforms and their climate impacts, see Carbon Brief’s in-depth Q&A.)

PALESTINIAN FARMERS: Middle East Eye examined the myriad difficulties facing farmers in the Gaza Strip, which include “the increase in temperatures, lack of rain and the 11-day Israeli war” earlier this year, according to one farmer. The paper noted that rising temperatures have resulted in “meagre harvests” and introduced new pests into the region. It cited statistics from Gaza’s agriculture ministry that 2021’s olive harvest was only two-thirds the size of 2010’s – despite being planted on nearly double the acreage this year. 

ROADLESS RULE: The Biden administration in the US proposed to reinstate “a Clinton administration-era rule to ban logging and road-building in more than half of North America’s largest temperate rainforest”, reported the Washington Post. Road restrictions in Alaska’s Tongass national forest “managed to stay in place for years because of a series of court battles, but the Trump administration wiped them out last fall”, it said. Alaska Daily News reported that on 23 November, the Biden administration “formally began the process of restoring Roadless Rule protections” that “would apply to about 9m acres of the Tongass”. The Biden government “opened a 60-day comment period to undo action taken by the Trump administration”, which received mixed responses. Tribes had earlier filed a lawsuit in favour of roadless protections, while Alaska’s elected leaders described the move as “federal overreach”, it said. 

LAND CLASHES: In Paraguay, police officers in riot gear forced members of the Hugua Po’i community off of their land in the country’s “latest clash over land rights”, the Guardian reported. The ancestral land of the Hugua Po’i community has “fertile soil, a river and a paved road”, but holds spiritual significance for its people. Their eviction was part of a “wave” of such actions driven by the advancement of agribusiness into forested areas, the paper wrote. The Guardian also noted that this event underscored the challenges countries would face in translating the deforestation pledges made at COP26 into “concrete action to halt agribusiness” expansion into Indigenous lands. Work by the not-for-profit research centre BASE-IS, cited by the Guardian, showed that police destroyed at least five communities of small farmers and Indigenous people in Paraguay during the month of November. 

Extra reading

New science

Mapping the irrecoverable carbon in Earth’s ecosystems
Nature Sustainability

A new study showed that Earth’s ecosystems hold nearly 140 gigatonnes of “irrecoverable” carbon – carbon which, if it were released to the atmosphere, would not be able to be recaptured by mid-century. Researchers used satellite data and estimates of carbon stocks to calculate the amount of carbon that could be irrecoverably lost due to human activities such as agricultural land conversion. They found that around half of this irrecoverable carbon was concentrated in hotspots covering only 3.3% of global land surface and 33% of it was in lands managed by Indigenous peoples. The researchers concluded that the work “highlight[ed] opportunities for targeted efforts to increase global climate security”.

Climate and land-use changes reduce the benefits of terrestrial protected areas
Nature Climate Change

More than one-quarter of the protected areas in the world will face “high rates” of both climate change and land-use change by mid-century, according to a new study. Using data on temperature, precipitation and land use, researchers calculated “velocities” of change around the globe for a range of future climate scenarios. They found that nearly two-thirds of protected areas are projected to “experience high rates of climate change” by 2050, while 27% will also face high rates of land-use change. They wrote that this result “suggest[s] that more than one-quarter of the current global investment in biodiversity conservation hedges towards high-risk zones during the near future”.

Reduced deforestation and degradation in Indigenous Lands pan-tropically
Nature Sustainability

A new study found that, across the tropics, Indigenous lands had lower deforestation and degradation rates than comparable non-protected areas. Researchers looked at deforestation and degradation rates between 2010 to 2018 over 3.4m km2 of Indigenous lands, 2m km2 of protected areas, and 1.7m km2 of overlapped Protected Indigenous Areas. Study authors concluded that “Indigenous support is central to forest conservation plans, underscoring the need for conservation to support their rights and recognise their contributions”.

In the diary

Cropped is researched and written by Dr Giuliana Viglione and Aruna Chandrasekhar.

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