The timing could hardly have been worse, or even more internationally and politically embarrassing for the Norwegian government: As fires raged in the Amazon, and just a week after Norway withheld funds because of Brazil’s alleged violations of rain forest preservation, Norway and its fellow members of the European Economic Area have entered into a free trade agreement with Brazil and several other South American countries. The leader of Norway’s Rain Forest Fund, several top politicians and the leaders of environmental organizations are stunned and furious.
“Norway should not go into any trade deal with Brazil as long as deforestation increases and the rain forest fires aren’t stopped,” declared Øyvind Eggen, secretary general of the Norway’s Rain Forest Fund. It has administered billions of Norwegian taxpayers’ kroner over the past 10 years to preserve Amazon rain forests, only to see them burn and be chopped down during the first half year of Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro’s term in office.
“All of the worst we’d feared from Jair Bolsonaro’s government is happening,” Eggen told newspaper Dagsavisen on Saturday. “We have seen attacks on the Amazon’s indigenous population, satellite photos of the rain forests that are very frightening and now these fires.” Eggen noted how the new right-wing Brazilian president has wanted to cut forests in Brazil in order to clear more land for agriculture. Preservation of rain forests is widely viewed as a major means of battling climate change.
“It’s still illegal to cut rain forests, but folks have begun to do so anyway, and expect to avoid any punishment,” Eggen said in a remarkably blunt interview. He noted how Bolsonaro, literally under fire this past week from leaders around the world for his failure to halt deforestation, initially responded to the crisis by claiming that the Amazon is an internal issue and that no other country has any business telling Brazil what to do. He likened international criticism to “colonialism” and even suggested that environmental groups themselves were behind the fires “since they’re no longer getting money” to preserve the rain forests.
On Saturday international media were reporting that Bolsinaro had backed down somewhat and was finally sending the Brazilian army to the Amazon to fight the fires. Faced with mass demonstrations against his policies at home and criticism from abroad, he suddenly claimed he “loved” the Amazon and would “help to protect it.” The move came just two days after Bolsinaro claimed he lacked resources to fight the fires.
Many top officials in Norway, meanwhile, have expressed deep concern over the fires and Environment Minister Ola Elvestuen followed Germany in halting all new grants from the Rain Forest Fund because of the Bolsinaro government’s violations. Bolsinaro immediately responded by ridiculing Norway, after Elvestuen had called Brazil’s rapid deforestation “extremely serious for the entire campaign to reverse climate change.”
On Saturday Elvestuen’s fellow government minister from the Conservative Party, Torbjørn Røe Isaksen, went in an entirely different direction, which is what baffled and angered many Norwegians across the political spectrum. Isaksen confirmed Bolsinaro’s announcement, to the dismay of Eggen and other climate activists, that Norway and its EEA partners Switzerland, Iceland and Liechtenstein had nonetheless agreed to a free trade deal with the so-called Mercosur group of nations including Brazil, Argentina, Paraguay and Uruguay.
In an apparent attempt to repel the criticism they knew it would bring, the government even entitled their press release on the trade deal: “Better conditions for trade and obligations to fight illegal deforestation.”
Isaksen claimed that while the new free trade deal will provide for increased exports for Norwegian companies and thus create jobs in Norway, it also contains measures “tied to sustainable development, climate and environmental consideration and workers’ rights.” Isaksen claimed it had been “important for us that the parties among other things commit themselves to fighting illegal deforestation. I’m satisfied with the result.”
Few other climate and environmental advocates are, while Elvestuen, who was outspoken against Brazil last week, referred questions to Isaksen. Trade Minister Isaksen’s prepared statement on the deforestation, released Saturday morning, claimed that the government is seriously concerned about “the situation” in the Amazon and recent developments. He defended the trade agreement that’s been under negotiation for months as containing the “comprehensive chapter” on trade and sustainable development “that supports our international agreements regarding the environment, climate and employees’ rights.” The chapter “has been a high priority for Norway,” Isaksen insisted. He added that the new free trade agreement will not provide for increased imports to Norway of meat or soya, the production of which can be at odds with climate goals.
Isaksen also stressed that Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay and Paraguay have a combined population of nearly 260 million people and therefore form “an important market for Norway. Brazil is our biggest trading partner in Latin America and several Nowegian companies have operations there.” The new trade agreement means that fully 99.2 percent of all Norwegian exports of industrial goods and seafood to the Mercosur countries will be free of customs duty.
For opposition politicians in Norway, the deal amounts to another example of “money talks, principles walk.” Audun Lysbakken, leader of the Socialist Left part (SV), had, like Eggen, wanted Norway to halt all free trade negotiations.
“We can’t criticize Brazil for deforestation one day and then negotiate a free trade agreement with them the next day, as though nothing has happened,” Lysbakken told state broadcaster NRK. Arild Hermstad of the Greens Party was also upset, and has wanted Norway to halt all sales of Brazilian soya to the Norwegian farming and fish farming industries.
“No Norwegian wants to support businesses that contribute towards razing the Amazon,” Hermstad claimed. “That’s what we’re doing when we buy goods from Bosonaros’ Brazil.”
Isaksen, however, told NRK that a free trade deal “is not the way to punish Brazil or other partners.” He wouldn’t specify, however, what demands Norway will place on Brazil.
While EU countries including Ireland and France have signalled they will vote against the EU’s own looming trade deal with Brazil, Norway has gone the other direction. Lysbakken went so far as to call it “scandalous and irresponsible.” Isaksen was left to take the heat on Saturday, just hours after Prime Minister Erna Solberg had fended off another government crisis over road tolls.
Eggen called on Solberg to face the critics as well: “Erna, yesterday you saved your government. Now it’s time to save the rain forest.” He claimed Norway’s new free trade deal with Brazil will be viewed internationally as “inconsistent” with Norwegian policy over the years.
“Other countries are using free trade deals to put pressure on Brazil,” Eggen told NRK: “It looks very strange when the country that’s best known for its commitment to saving rain forests doesn’t do the same.”