As the largest importer of Brazilian Soy & Beef, Beijing can use its leverage to deter the destruction of the Amazon Rainforest.
Since his election, President Jair Bolsonaro has made good on his promises to open formerly protected areas in the Brazilian Amazon to development. The recent surge in deforestation and fires is a direct result of this policy change.
Unless the international community takes action, Bolsonaro’s Presidency poses a real threat to the world’s largest tropical forest.
Despite global outcry, China has remained silent on the Amazon fires. Next week, President Bolsonaro will meet the Chinese President Xi Jinping, in an effort to further relations with China.
President Xi will also visit Brazil in November at the planned BRICS summit in Brasília. China, a leader in the fight against global warming, should use its leverage to stop this ecological tragedy.
Driven by a growing demand for commodities, Chinese companies invested an estimated $58 billion in Brazil from 2007 to 2018 in areas like oil, minerals, soy, electricity, infrastructure and technology.
Last year, 40 percent of China’s investments in Brazil came from Chinese state owned companies, which means that their decision making can deeply influence political elements. It’s time China also assumed responsibility for its role in the destruction of this unique ecosystem.
China, which accounts for 20 percent of the world’s population but controls less than 9 percent of its arable lands, adds millions of citizens to its middle class each year. Consumption of meat was once considered a rare luxury for Chinese citizens. But with higher incomes, the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development reports that the China now consumes more than a quarter of the world’s meat, and that figure is set to increase.
In 2018, Brazil sold China 70 percent of its soy exports, or over $27 billion in 2018 a value increase of 90 percent compared with 2016. China is also the largest buyer of Brazilian beef, fuelling Brazil’s transformation into an agribusiness colossus that controls an astonishing 6 percent of the global food trade.
International agribusiness companies looking to expand their food exports to China have heavily invested in some of the least-developed Brazilian regions, resulting in the transformation of former jungle areas into wealthy cities.
While Brazilian farmers, looking to take advantage of the demand brought about by Chinese tariffs on United States soybeans and the country’s rising meat consumption, set fires to clear land for growing crops and cattle.
Cattle ranching in Brazil and soy cultivation, are the largest drivers of deforestation. According to official preliminary data, deforestation grew a staggering 93 percent during the first nine months of President Bolsonaro’s Presidency compared with the same period in the previous year. In September alone, deforestation rates surged 96 percent compared with the same month in 2018.
Pressured by a fading popularity and an unnerved agribusiness sector fearing commercial retaliations from European countries, President Bolsonaro deployed the Brazilian Army to the Amazon to implement a 60-day ban on burning.
But as a former Brazilian Institute of Environment and Renewable Natural Resources official recently told me: “What could the whole Brazilian Army and, eventually, its 300,000 men do in a region spanning five million square kilometres? Would they be able to effectively fight deforestation? Only the market can solve this.”
For Brazil, the market has a clear name: China, its largest trade partner.
Some experts have tied Chinese demand for beef and cattle to previous deforestation in the Amazon, calling it the “China factor.” But this isn’t a zero-sum game, despite President Bolsonaro’s contention that it is. Brazilian agriculture doesn’t have to move farther into the forest to increase its output; improvements in productivity, as well as recovering millions of acres of already deforested, degraded land, could fuel further growth in production.
Recently, a Top Executive of China’s biggest food and agricultural company, Cofco, told Brazilian agribusinesses that the Chinese state owned conglomerate planned to buy up to 25 percent more Brazilian soy in the next five years. He also acknowledged that this insatiable demand cannot undermine the preservation of the Amazon.
President Xi has emphasised that China wants a more “harmonious coexistence between humanity and nature.” Using his unmatched leverage with President Bolsonaro to preserve a strategic region to fight both climate change and the global loss of biodiversity, he now has a perfect opportunity to show the world that he is truly committed to this goal.