China accounts for almost 20 percent of the global population. To feed its growing middle class, China relies on imports from countries like Brazil. The South American nation is a major supplier of meat and soy to China. However, this trade relationship has come at a cost — the widespread deforestation of Brazilian rainforests.
According to Trase Initiative, Brazil exports almost 1.4 million tons of beef every year and this causes 250 to 290 square miles of deforestation. China alone was estimated to be responsible for the deforestation of 85 square miles. The biggest impact of deforestation is in the Amazon region.
Porto Velho, one of the biggest cities in the Brazilian Amazon, has the fifth largest cattle herd in the country. A decade earlier, the population of humans and bovines was almost equal. The region currently has two cattle for every person due to Chinese demand. Almost a third of all the meat produced in Porto Velho is shipped off to China. With ranchers becoming more successful, businesses started investing in the region, cases of land fraud became common, and the trend of deforestation picked up.
Brazil is also one of the biggest sources of soybeans for China. Last year, Brazil saw record harvests and acreage, with China buying 10 million tons of soy from the country. According to non-profit CDP, Chinese companies that operate in the Brazilian soy market show very little awareness about the consequences of their practices on the country’s ecosystem.
In a recent study, CDP checked the funding sources of 30 Chinese soy-related companies. “The organization’s analysis of the supply chain to China… revealed that more than 40 percent of loans to these companies, worth [US]$2.1 billion, bear the risk that they may have financed deforestation. More than [US]$7 billion of bonds and shares to underwrite these companies also carry similar risk… In 2017, Brazilian soy exported to China was associated with more than 189 square miles of land conversion risk, accounting for 35 percent of all the soy land conversion risk,” according to Pacific Standard.
Deforestation of the Amazon hit a record in August according to data from Brazil’s Deter-B satellite system. The Amazon lost more than 43 square miles of forests in the month, which is the highest level since 2015 when the monitoring system was set up. The figure excludes deforestation caused as a result of the wildfires. Some experts believe that deforestation could end up crossing 3,800 square miles this year, which would be a first in a decade.
“The August data from Deter is hardly surprising… The current Brazilian government was elected precisely with the promise of dismantling the policies and governance structures that prevent deforestation, and they are duly delivering on it… Brazil has since 2004 had a plan for preventing and controlling deforestation in the Amazon. That plan is locked up in a drawer at the environment ministry, which shut down the office in charge of implementing it,” Claudio Angelo of Climate Observatory, an NGO coalition of environmental groups, said to The Guardian.
Since Bolsonaro took charge of the country this year, he has made clear that he would prioritize the farming and mining industries above environmental issues. Clearing forests is not a cheap affair. The cost is estimated to be around US$243,000 for 2,470 acres of forest. But as long as China is willing to buy Brazil’s meat and soy, these costs are well worth the investment for most businesses.