As Bolsonaro meets Xi, China remains silent on Brazil’s environmental crisis

  • China is Brazil’s largest trading partner, so it is uniquely positioned to influence Brazil’s agribusiness sector and help limit drastic cuts to environmental protections led by the Jair Bolsonaro administration.
  • However, when Brazil’s Bolsonaro visited China’s Secretary General Xi Jinping last week, the environment seemed to have no place in their high-level talks centered on trade deals.
  • Bolsonaro has raised international concern over his anti-environment 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 hope China, which has recently been vocal on the topics of sustainability and climate change, will act to curb the excesses of Bolsonaro’s anti-environmental policies, but other analysts believe that China will continue to focus primarily on Brazilian trade.

Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro visited China last week for three days of talks with Secretary General Xi Jinping. However, Brazil’s environmental crisis – including August’s Amazon fires, increasing deforestation and Bolsonaro’s plans to open up indigenous reserves to mining – were apparently not on the agenda.

Bilateral meetings between Xi and Bolsonaro took place at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on Oct. 25, with a focus on trade and business cooperation. The two men 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 growing threats to the Amazon rainforest. The growth of Brazilian exports to China – especially beef, soybeans and other agro-industrial and mining products – could put the world’s largest remaining rainforest at risk.

A single mention of the environment did not reassure conservationists. It happened during 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 want to thank you for the words of the Chinese ambassador to Brazil, acknowledging our sovereignty over the Amazon region,” Bolsonaro told a room full of prominent businessmen. “To the Chinese government, thank you. This public recognition On August 23, Chinese Ambassador to Brazil Qu Yuhui said the Amazon crisis was “a bit fabricated.” Senior Chinese government officials made no further statement.

In anticipation of Brazil’s diplomatic visit last week and the upcoming BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) emerging economies summit in Brasilia next month, China was expected to conduct its green conversation beyond Asian nation borders. In a recent New York Times commentary, Heriberto Araújo called on China to use its influence to stop the destruction of the Amazon. Araujo, author of The Chinese Silent Armysaid the Bolsonaro-Xi visit offered a “perfect opportunity to show the world that [China] is really committed” to the fight against global warming. Bolsonaro, like his hero Donald Trump, has shown contempt for the Paris Climate Accord, which China supports.

Jair Bolsonaro looks out from the Great Wall of China during his visit last week. Image by Isac Nóbrega / Agência Brasil.

As Brazil’s largest trading partner, China is in a unique position to influence Brazil’s agribusiness sector and to help curb the Bolsonaro administration’s drastic cuts in environmental protections. In 2018, Brazilian exports to China reached a record $64 billion, a quarter of Brazil’s total exports.

This year’s fires in the Amazon (directly linked to deforestation that has occurred since Bolsonaro took office in January) and continued spikes in deforestation rates through October 2019 have put the international community on high alert. Brazil’s anti-environmental policies have stoked 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 freezing the Amazon Fund.

But for Oliver Stuenkel, international relations expert at the Getúlio Vargas Foundation, it is “absurd” to expect pressure from China on environmental issues, given its long-term foreign policy of non-interference. “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 abuses, but it won’t. The idea of ​​pressuring other countries is not aligned with the Chinese approach.

China and Hong Kong accounted for 44% of all Brazilian beef exports in 2018. And data from 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 deforestation in the Amazon. Brazil’s soybean exports to China could drop this year, however, as the Asian nation deals with African swine fever that could kill up to 200 million pigs by the end of the year (Chinese animals are fed largely on Brazilian soybeans).

Chinese officials have previously downplayed their role in contributing to deforestation in the Amazon. Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang suggested there was no correlation between the fires in the Amazon in August and Chinese imports of Brazilian beef.

But according to Toby Gardner, director of Trase and sustainability expert, the data shows that the correlation is “robust”. Any claim 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 presents a risk of deforestation estimated at 81%. Trase’s study found that Matopiba soybeans (covering the states of Maranhão, Tocantins, Piauí and Bahia) account for 8% of all Chinese soybean imports from Brazil.

Despite Xi’s silence, some environmentalists hope market pressures in China will create more sustainable supply chains. In recent years, China has made a commitment to becoming a greener and more sustainable nation. “China must take the lead in international cooperation on climate change to ensure the survival of mankind,” Xi said during his 2017 keynote address to the Chinese Communist Party Congress.

Peggy Liu, a leading Green China advocate, warns that if Brazil’s environmental policies deteriorate, Chinese companies could alter their supply chains. “If Brazil deteriorates, China will continue to cover supply chains in different countries and become more self-sufficient,” she told Mongabay.

Gardner thinks there is hope for action from Chinese companies, many of which are government-run. The flip side of Xi’s environmental silence, he says, is Chinese companies’ sensitivity to reputational damage and long-term reliability. “Bolsonaro shouldn’t take Xi’s silence as a sign that Chinese markets won’t hold Brazilian agribusiness to account,” he said. “They rely heavily on their imagery.”

According to Gardner, China’s top food trader and Brazil’s largest soybean importer, COFCO, has shown more interest in ensuring an environmentally friendly supply chain than its US counterparts. “We have worked with COFCO and found that they are much more into the details and committed to understanding what their supply chain really is. Cargill, on the other hand, is making a lot of noise and doing nothing,” he told Mongabay.

Jun Lyu, President of COFCO, made ambitious statements on the environment at the World Economic Forum in Davos last January. “We can sustainably feed the world, but we need to act now,” he said.

Stuenkel, however, remains skeptical. Chinese companies are not risking their trade relations with other nations anytime soon, he says, as they have to feed more than a billion people. “China depends on Brazil because it is not self-sufficient in food supply. They depend — and always will depend — on Brazil. Many Chinese young people pay attention to the environmental matrix of products, but this is still in the making.

Bolsonaro, who during his campaign criticized China’s excessive influence in Brazil, has changed his position sharply since taking office. The president apparently answered the South China Morning Post’s recent question: “China-basher or bridge builder?” Brazil now seems determined to build bridges towards better trade relations with China, and the Asian country also seems determined even if it 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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