Opinion: China’s cooperation critical to fighting environmental crime in the Amazon

Deforestation in the Amazon rainforest has been accelerating to the point of no return in recent years. How can Brazil and China work together to stop the trend?
<p>Cattle ranching in an illegally deforested area in Jamanxim forest in the Brazilian Amazon (Image: Ricardo Funari / Alamy)</p>

Cattle ranching in an illegally deforested area in Jamanxim forest in the Brazilian Amazon (Image: Ricardo Funari / Alamy)

Environmental crimes have been rampant in the Brazilian Amazon in recent years. In 2021 alone, more than 13,000 square kilometres of the country’s portion of the rainforest were lost, the highest one-year figure since 2006, according to government data. Research shows that more than 90% of this deforestation was illegal, and that almost a third took place on public lands.

Cattle ranching remains the main driver of deforestation in the Amazon. In second place is soybean agriculture, which has advanced in an accelerated manner, with a planted area that has increased tenfold in the region over the last two decades. Scientists estimate that soy farming has been responsible for 10% of deforestation in South America.

While most of the beef produced in the Brazilian Amazon is destined for the domestic market, 52% of the country’s soy output is exported, with 80% of these exports going to China, compared to 9.5% to Europe. Therefore, the economic and environmental importance of China for Brazil cannot be underestimated.

Soybean harvesting
Soybean harvesting in Luís Eduardo Magalhães, Bahia state, Brazil. (Image: Diego Lezama / Alamy)

Our new study suggests that the progressive increase in Brazilian exports of primary products to China over the last two decades may have significantly contributed to the scale of deforestation in the Amazon. The analysis compared more than two decades’ worth of public data on foreign trade and deforestation rates from 219 municipalities in the Amazon that exported commodities to China.

While these impacts seem obvious, they are difficult to quantify and should be interpreted with caution, since other factors also influence the phenomenon. As we have noted, deforestation caused by conversion of forest to pasture and planted areas also feeds the domestic market and, in addition, deforestation can occur indirectly through the creation of transport infrastructure.

As the main consumer of agricultural products exported by Brazil, China has a vital role to play in ensuring the success of international efforts aimed at reducing environmental crimes in the Amazon. Export-oriented agribusiness puts pressure on the forest and intensifies land conflicts and violence in the rural areas. International cooperation is a way to build a more transparent and responsible economic development policy at every link in the supply chain.

Seeking cooperation on deforestation

As a signatory to the Paris Agreement, China, like Brazil, is under pressure to reduce its carbon emissions, particularly those arising from the use of coal for electricity generation.

In 2020, Chinese President Xi Jinping promised that the country’s emissions would peak before 2030 and reach carbon neutrality before 2060. But these pledges and agreements only cover domestic emissions – only part of the problem for China and other big emitters, with international imports and investments having a huge impact on emissions around the world, including those linked to deforestation.

The Chinese government has already signalled that it plans to combat deforestation in commodity-producing countries. Meanwhile, soybean trading company COFCO, China’s largest commodity trader, has committed to eliminate deforestation from its supply chain in the Amazon, Cerrado and Gran Chaco biomes by 2030.

The Chinese government has already signalled that it plans to combat deforestation in commodity-producing countries

Among the indirect effects of Chinese investment in products exported from northern Brazil is the strengthening of Brazilian agribusiness. Since the sector has significant influence on Brazil’s internal politics, pressure has been exerted to force through environmentally damaging legislative and administrative changes – in particular the relaxation of environmental permit requirements and attempts to open up Indigenous territories and other protected areas to extractive activities. Impacts have also been seen in relation to Chinese financing for large-scale infrastructure projects, including the construction of railways by Chinese companies for the transportation of livestock and other agricultural resources.

To reduce the direct and indirect socio-environmental impacts of commodity production for export, the Brazilian government must establish more effective mechanisms to ensure the traceability and sustainability of supply chains with an environmental footprint in the Amazon. The administration’s agro-environmental planning should also take into account environmental and climate risk management and include incentives for those engaged in responsible forest management and smaller-scale family agriculture. Doing so will help combat environmental crime as well as protecting food sovereignty and fair trade – essential ingredients for ensuring the continuity of working families in the countryside, including traditional peoples and communities.

Negotiating a bilateral political declaration with China, with commitments from both sides to strengthen bilateral cooperation to prevent and combat deforestation and promote supply chains free from environmental crime, is another route Brazil should take to promote a development model aligned to sustainability and climate justice in the Amazon.