Money Doesn’t Grow on Trees: Amazon Deforestation

At this point, it’s tiring and futile to continue to rail on about the negative effects of climate change to the deaf ears that continue to ignore or deny the issue. No matter how many reports are written, there are still those who refuse to address the crisis. Most pushback is in the name of economic development. The focus is solely placed on business and economics — nothing else matters.

With this in mind, Brazil’s president, Jair Bolsonaro, has announced plans to lessen protections and regulations for the country’s share of the Amazon rainforest. The move is set to support agribusiness as it will allow greater tracts of the Amazon to be converted into farmland and ranches. Cattle ranchers and soybean farmers plan to be two of the main groups that will benefit.

The Amazon plays a major role in regulating the global climate. It acts as a vital carbon sink, oxygen producer, and rainmaker. Deforestation endangers all of these functions and thus will have worldwide long-term consequences.

According to Bolsonaro and his supporters, protections for the Amazon impede economic development to the point that it would be detrimental to Brazil to continue current regulations. Bolsonaro seems to be sacrificing long-term environmental stability for short-term economic gains. Again, his presidential campaign saw much support from agribusiness, so he is logically making it up to his supporters.

Bolsonaro is already acting on these plans. On January 2nd, he issued an executive order shifting control over indigenous peoples’ lands to the Agriculture Ministry. These lands almost always coincide with areas reserved for environmental protection. Previously protected areas of the Amazon are now at the mercy of agricultural lobbies and interests. A new Brazilian forest code, which deprotects 15 million hectares of the Amazon, materializes this reality.

Despite an outcry from Brazil’s scientific community and other concerned groups, Bolsonaro is not budging. To him, the opportunity for economic gain and gravity of his political promises are too great to pass up. This may seem like an internal Brazilian issue at first, but U.S. foreign policy has been blamed for having a part in the growing problem.

Thanks to tariffs between the U.S. and China, agricultural exports from the U.S. have been heavily reduced. Soybeans are particularly affected; U.S. soybean production is blocked from the Chinese market due to tariffs. China must turn to other sources to fuel its massive demand, and Brazil — the world’s largest soy exporter — now has one less competitor. Soybean supply will largely be under Brazilian control, therefore allowing the country to command the global soy market to its advantage. This opportunity has been demonstrated in soaring premiums for Brazilian beans. The uncertainty of how long the trade war with China will last means Brazil may be able to influence the market for years to come, which could be a death sentence for U.S. producers.

The same dynamic is being applied to the U.S. meat market. Beijing has imposed tariffs cutting off U.S. meat exports from the Chinese market. In response, Australia and South America are now filling the void. The futility of tariffs is demonstrated here, as Chinese demand is still present. China is seeing a rise in general affluence, specifically with a growing middle class. As a result, citizens are can now afford to participate in increased meat consumption. Much of Chinese pork and beef imports came from the U.S. prior to current tariffs. The timing of the tariffs with this increasing taste for meat again offers another trade opportunity for Brazil. Subsequent expansions in livestock capacity will not only clear tracts of the Amazon but also increase methane output. Both activities will contribute to the greenhouse effect and further climate change-related consequences.

Perhaps if competition in these sectors still included U.S. sources, Brazilian agribusiness would not be as willing or encouraged to cut into the Amazon to expand farming and ranching operations. As the trade war rages on, however, climate-change related consequences of the expansion of Brazil’s agricultural sector may be unavoidable.

The U.S. is not invulnerable from climate change issues. With a continuation of the greenhouse effect, sea levels will rise and inundate coastal areas. Weather changes will make the Midwest arider, endangering the agricultural heart of the U.S. Any threat to the global environment, such as decreased Amazon coverage, will have a direct impact on the stability of the U.S.

The U.S. has recently begun to realize and act on the true threat this issue poses. The Fourth National Climate Assessment, released on November 23, detailed the aforementioned consequences. Additionally, there is a bipartisan effort to implement a greenhouse tax to encourage cleaner practices from the private sector, showing that concern over climate change transcends party lines. Despite this, President Donald Trump has denied the assessment and is expected to reject the tax. He and members of his administration do not see the reality of climate change and environmental malpractice. Legislation that directly answers environmental issues won’t pass in an administration that arguably doesn’t have an environmental policy at all.

Changing trade policy may be the answer. It has been demonstrated that directly calling for environmental solutions goes ignored or disregarded. Lessening or removing tariffs is often seen solely as economic and trade policy — nothing to do with the environment. However, recent trade deals, like the Trans-Pacific Partnership, have started to include standards and considerations for environmental protection. If the situation is painted as a way to help stop Brazilian monopolization and bring the U.S. back into the competition over international agribusiness, trade policy might pass that saves the Amazon.

To get environmental remedies, perhaps we need to go around the issue and start talking business. Maybe then governments would finally be interested in the conversation.

Categories: Environment

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