OTTAWA - Canada is forging ahead with trade talks with the South American Mercosur trading bloc, hoping to push Brazil to better protect the critical Amazon rainforest, a government spokesman said Tuesday.
The talks are continuing despite Brazil's initial rejection of international funding to help fight fires in the Amazon, apparently over a personal spat with France's President Emmanuel Macron.
Canada began trade negotiations last year with the four full members of the Mercosur group — Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay and Uruguay. There have been six rounds of talks, most recently in June.
Environment groups last week asked the federal government to abandon those talks in a bid to force Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro to end the rapid deforestation experts say is partly to blame for the record number of fires burning in the Amazon this year.
Tuesday, NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh echoed them, saying in a statement that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau "is putting the interests of rich corporations ahead of the fight against climate change by continuing free-trade negotiations with President Bolsonaro."
A spokesman for International Trade Minister Jim Carr said the talks will continue "because we are committed to diversifying our trading partners" but that trade is not the only thing on the agenda.
"As part of negotiations, Canada is seeking environmental provisions that would be more ambitious than the current (World Trade Organization) guidelines, and include sustainable forest management and combating illegal logging and related trade," said Michael Jones.
During recent talks for the new North American free-trade agreement, Canada successfully lobbied to get a specific chapter on environmental protections included. However Canada was not able to persuade the United States to include a mention of climate change.
Environment Minister Catherine McKenna said Tuesday any agreement with Brazil would have to have strong environmental protections, including commitments to reforestation.
Bolsonaro's policies to use the resources of the Amazon in agriculture and mining have been blamed by activists for the fires, some of which might have started by farmers burning fields to prepare them for planting. Bolsonaro disagrees entirely, even accusing critics of lighting the fires themselves.
Earlier this month, Bolsonaro fired the head of the Brazilian space agency after it released regular data on the forest that showed significantly faster deforestation since Bolsonaro took office on Jan. 1.
The policies of the Bolsonaro government, combined with the fires, led France's Macron last week to threaten to block ratification of a trade deal Europe reached with the Mercosur bloc in June. Ireland's prime minister Leo Varadkar made a similar threat.
Canada is not following their lead.
Trudeau did work with Macron to get the Amazon fires onto the agenda of the annual G7 leaders' summit in France over the weekend. The G7 countries announced a joint US$20-million commitment to help fight the fires, money Bolsonaro at first rejected, but later reportedly said he might accept if Brazil controls how the money is spent.
Canada separately announced it would send $15 million as well as Canadian water bombers and other equipment if it's needed. A spokesman for Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland said Brazil and other Amazon nations are currently assessing their needs but that the money has not been rejected by anyone.
Canada's decision not to stop the trade talks did not sit well with Singh.
"Even as France and Ireland say they'll block an EU-Mercosur Free Trade Agreement if Brazil doesn't honour its environmental responsibilities, Trudeau keeps negotiating with Bolsonaro as if the earth isn't burning up around them," his statement said.
"This is another disturbing example of Justin Trudeau saying and tweeting pretty things in public, when behind closed doors he's doing business with the person responsible for the deforestation and devastation of the lungs of the planet."
The Amazon fires are bringing the impact of climate change back into the headlines just days before the official start of a federal election campaign, in which climate change is expected to be front and centre.
Proof Strategies vice-president Greg MacEachern, a former Liberal aide, said that could bode well for the Liberals "because they are seen to be stronger on the environment than the Conservatives."
That belief is borne out in several recent polls, which have found the environment is one of the biggest issues for voters, and that respondents give the edge to the Liberals over the Conservatives on the subject.
Tzeporah Berman, international program director at environmental advocacy group Stand.Earth, said Canadians have known about the importance of the Amazon for decades and there is no doubt the fires there are contributing to their concern about climate as they ponder their election choices.
"Fires aren't supposed to happen there," she said. "It's a rainforest."
At 5.5 million square kilometres, the Amazon rainforest covers an area more than five times the size of Ontario. About two-thirds of it lies in Brazil but it extends into several neighbouring countries, including Bolivia, Peru, Ecuador and Colombia.
The region is known as the "lungs of the planet" because it produces one-fifth of Earth's oxygen supply. It also works as a significant carbon sink, absorbing vast amounts of carbon dioxide every year.