- China is Brazil’s largest trading partner, so it is uniquely positioned to influence the Brazilian agri-food sector and to help limit the drastic cuts in environmental protections implemented by the Jair Bolsonaro administration.
- However, when Brazilian Bolsonaro visited Chinese Secretary-General Xi Jinping last week, the environment seemed to have no place in their high-level talks focused on trade agreements.
- Bolsonaro has raised international concern about his anti-environmental policies with the EU and with international investors. Germany and Norway, in particular, have reduced their aid to Brazil for its deforestation programs.
- Some environmentalists are hoping that China, which has recently spoken out on the issues of sustainability and climate change, will act to curb the excesses of Bolsonaro’s anti-environmental policy, but other analysts believe China will maintain its position. main focus on Brazilian trade.
Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro visited China last week for three-day talks with Secretary-General Xi Jinping. However, Brazil’s environmental crisis – including the Amazon fires in August, increasing deforestation, and Bolsonaro’s plans to open indigenous reserves to mining – were apparently not on the agenda.
Bilateral meetings between Xi and Bolsonaro were held in the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on October 25, with a focus on trade and business cooperation. The couple signed a total of eight deeds, including one pledging to increase Brazil’s beef jerky exports. But the environment appears to have been ignored, fueling concerns about China’s commitment to green development and the growing threats to the Amazon rainforest. Growth in Brazilian exports to China – especially beef, soybeans, and other agri-food and mining products – could endanger the world’s largest remaining rainforest.
A single mention of the environment did not reassure environmentalists. It happened at the Brazil-China Cooperation Forum on October 25, just hours before Bolsonaro’s meeting with the Chinese leader, when the Brazilian president thanked China for its support in the Amazon crisis: “I mean thank you for the words of the Chinese Ambassador to Brazil, recognizing our sovereignty over the Amazon region, ”Bolsonaro said in a room filled with eminent businessmen. “To the Chinese government, thank you. This public recognition is priceless. On August 23, Chinese Ambassador to Brazil Qu Yuhui had noted that the Amazon crisis was a bit “fabricated”. Senior Chinese government officials made no further statements.
In anticipation of Brazil’s diplomatic visit last week and the upcoming summit of the emerging economies of the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) in Brasilia next month, expectations have risen as to whether China would continue its green speech beyond the borders of the Asian nation. In a recent New York Times Commentary, Heriberto Araújo called on China to use its influence to end the destruction of the Amazon. Araújo, author of China’s silent army, said Bolsonaro-Xi’s visit presented a “perfect opportunity to show the world that [China] is truly committed ”to the fight against global warming. Bolsonaro, as his hero Donald Trump, has shown contempt for the Paris climate agreement, which China supports.
As Brazil’s largest trading partner, China is uniquely positioned to influence Brazil’s agri-food sector and to help curb the drastic cuts in environmental protections implemented by the Bolsonaro administration. In 2018, Brazilian exports to China reached a record $ 64 billion, a quarter of Brazil’s total exports.
This year’s Amazon fires (directly linked to deforestation since Bolsonaro took office in January) and continued skyrocketing deforestation rates through October 2019 have put the international community on high alert. Brazil’s anti-environmental policies have fueled tensions with France and the G7 and alarmed international investors. Norway and Germany have cut millions of dollars in funding for Brazil’s environmental protection programs, including the Amazon Fund freeze.
But for Oliver Stuenkel, an expert in international relations with the Getúlio Vargas Foundation, it is “absurd” to expect pressure from China on environmental issues, given its long-term non-interference foreign policy. “China has this power, but it is also clear that China will not use this power,” he said. “China could also put pressure on North Korea and have a huge impact there in terms of human rights violations, but it won’t. The idea of putting pressure on other countries is not aligned with the Chinese approach.
China and Hong Kong represented 44 percent of all Brazilian beef exports in 2018. And the data of Trase, a supply chain transparency initiative, shows that 42% of all Brazilian soybeans were exported to China between 2013 and 2017. Beef and soy are the main drivers of Amazon deforestation. Brazil’s soybean exports to China may, however, decrease this year as the Asian nation grapples with African swine fever that could kill up to 200 million pigs by the end of the year (Chinese animals are heavily fed Brazilian soybeans).
Chinese authorities have previously played down their role in contributing to Amazon deforestation. Foreign Ministry spokesperson Geng Shuang implied that there was no correlation between the Amazon fires in August and Chinese imports of Brazilian beef.
But according to Trase director and sustainability expert Toby Gardner, the data shows the correlation is “robust.” Any assertion to the contrary, he says, is “categorically false.”
Research shows that Chinese exports are responsible for at least 22,700 hectares of Brazilian deforestation, concentrated in the Matopiba region (which includes part of the Amazon rainforest biome as well as the Cerrado savannah biome), and has an estimated 81 percent risk of deforestation. The Trase study found that Matopiba soybeans (covering the states of Maranhão, Tocantins, Piauí and Bahia) represent 8 percent of all Chinese soybean imports from Brazil.
Despite Xi’s silence, some environmentalists are hopeful that market pressures in China will create more sustainable supply chains. In recent years, China has made a strong commitment to becoming a greener and more sustainable nation. “China must take the initiative in international cooperation on climate change to ensure the survival of mankind,” Xi said during his 2017 opening speech in the Congress of the Chinese Communist Party.
Peggy Liu, a leading advocate for Green China, warns that if Brazil’s environmental policies deteriorate, Chinese companies could change their supply chains. “If Brazil gets worse, China will continue to cover supply chains in different countries and become more self-sufficient,” she told Mongabay.
Gardner believes there is hope Chinese companies are taking action, many of which are run by the government. The flip side of Xi’s environmental silence, he said, is the sensitivity of Chinese companies to damage to reputation and long-term reliability. “Bolsonaro shouldn’t take Xi’s not saying anything as a sign that Chinese markets will ignore Brazilian agribusiness,” he said. “They rely heavily on their imagery. “
According to Gardner, China’s leading food trader and Brazil’s largest soy importer, COFCO, has shown more interest in securing an environmentally friendly supply chain than its raw material counterparts in the United States. United. in detail and are committed to understanding what their supply chain really is. Cargill, on the other hand, makes a lot of noise and does nothing, ”he told Mongabay.
Jun Lyu, President of COFCO, made ambitious environmental statements at the World Economic Forum in Davos in January. “We can feed the world in a sustainable way, but we have to act now,” he said.
Stuenkel, however, remains skeptical. Chinese companies are not likely to risk trade relations with other countries anytime soon, he says, as they have to feed more than a billion people. “China depends on Brazil because they are not self-sufficient with their food supply. They depend – and will always depend – on Brazil. Many young Chinese are paying attention to the environmental matrix of products, but it is still budding. “
Bolsonaro, who during his campaign criticized China’s too much influence in Brazil, has pivoted heavily in his position since taking office. The President apparently answered the question recently asked by the South China Morning Post: “China-basher or bridge builder?” Brazil now appears determined to build bridges to better trade relations with China, and the Asian country also appears determined, even if that means silence on the environment.
Banner image caption: President Jair Bolsonaro with Chinese Secretary General Xi Jinping during the Brazilian leader’s first visit to China. Image courtesy of Agência Brasil.
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