How the U.S.-China trade war is fueling the fires burning down the Amazon

By Irina Ivanova

/ MoneyWatch

Brazil rejects G-7 aid for Amazon fires

The wildfires charring huge swaths of the Amazon rainforest might seem an ocean away from the raging trade war between the U.S. and China. But that conflict — specifically China's hunger for soybeans — is fueling what many see as an emerging ecological disaster.

The Amazon has been under pressure from ranchers, timber companies and other interests for decades, while Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro more recently vowed to open formerly protected areas to development. The rate of deforestation in the area, after having stayed flat for roughly a decade, has surged. In 2018 alone, Amazon deforestation resulted in a loss of roughly 3,000 square miles — nearly equivalent to the size of Puerto Rico.

Although the reason behind this environmental calamity are complex, including local politics and industrial-scale plundering for profit, the U.S. also gave Brazil commercial incentives to raze parts of the Amazon when the Trump administration last year jacked up tariffs on Chinese imports. China, the world's largest soybean buyer, subsequently stopped its purchases of American soybeans. U.S. farmers put their crop in storage, while China was forced to look elsewhere for 30 million to 40 million tons of seeds.

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That place turned out to be Brazil, which went from exporting soybeans to China for half the year to selling them year-round. From May 2018 through this April, China imported 71 million tons of soybeans from Brazil — an amount equal to all Chinese soybean imports five years ago, according to Bloomberg.

"Brazil is in a unique position in that they're the one big supplier that is left in the game, and, if you see it from the market's perspective, they have the flexibility to ramp up production quite quickly," said Richard Fuchs, a senior research fellow at the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology in Germany. Fuchs co-authored an article in Nature in March warning that the trade war would spur massive deforestation in the Amazon.

Amazon rainforest fires could devastate the fight against climate change

Since Brazil began growing soybeans in the 1990s, their production has increased by a factor of 20. This year, Brazil surpassed the U.S. to become the world's largest producer of soybeans.

Of course, that requires land. During the peak of Amazon deforestation in the early 2000s, a quarter of the land across the region, including in other countries, was being cleared to grow soybeans. Since then, the amount of acreage used for soy production in Brazil has grown about 250 million acres every year — an area twice the size of Delaware.

Today, areas being converted into cropland in Brazil are more likely to be pasture land — forest that was cleared years ago and that is now used to graze cattle. (Brazil is one of the world's biggest exporters, and consumers, of beef.) A few years of grazing increases the nutrient content of the soil, making it better able to support soybeans or corn, another major Brazilian export.

At the same time, the destruction of vast numbers of trees releases carbon into the atmosphere and shifts the Amazon's rain patterns, while the cultivation of cattle increases emissions of methane, a potent heat-trapping gas. Meanwhile, squeezing cattle out of pastureland means making space for them somewhere else — often, that means cleared rainforest.

"The overall pressures of pasture land conversion into cropland have continued," said Joseph Glauber, senior research fellow at the International Food Policy Research Institute. "Indirectly, it does have the effect of putting pressure on forest."

Fires in Brazil's Amazon blamed on deforestation

Fuchs believes the best thing for the Amazon would be for the U.S. and China to swiftly reach a trade agreement. But even then, it could take years for the situation to stabilize — and that's even if Brazil is willing to dial back its commodity exports.

Jill Caviglia-Harris, a professor of economics at Maryland's Salisbury University who has been studying the region for 20 years, believes more deforestation is imminent, with Bolsonaro a catalyst.

"The scary part is he's encouraging people to move into indigenous and protected areas," which would have a "devastating impact," she said. "It's going to reverse years of protection, and it's going to cause indigenous violence."

Added Fuchs, "Trade flows can shift overnight, but if it affects the land surface it becomes dangerous. Those fluctuations have a tremendous effect on our land and on our planet."

First published on August 27, 2019 / 12:17 PM

© 2019 CBS Interactive Inc.. All Rights Reserved.

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