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A Partnership to Protect the Amazon

China surpassed the United States as Brazil’s largest trading partner in 2009. In the region’s largest economy, the U.S. took a backseat. Geopolitical competition led the U.S. to pursue a softer policy towards Brazil, as a harder tone might push Brasília right into the hands of Beijing. One of the consequences of this approach is the U.S. reluctance to effectively pressure the Brazilian government to curb the ever-increasing deforestation of the Amazon. The region is one of the world’s largest sources of CO2 emissions.

The U.S. should have a radically different policy to protect the Amazon. Instead of treating the Amazon as part of a geopolitical competition with China, both countries should cooperate.

Environmental sustainability is one of the few issue areas where China and the U.S. seem to agree. The protection of the Amazon is essential for the world to achieve its sustainable development targets. Only the concerted effort of China and the U.S. can steer the current Brazilian government to adopt robust efforts to protect this vital resource. It is time for a partnership to protect the Amazon.

The Amazonian biome is responsible for removing over a trillion tons of CO2 emissions from the atmosphere annually. Deforestation has a devastating impact on the ability of vegetation to absorb CO2. By allowing deforestation in the Amazon to run unchecked, all the advances achieved in the Paris Agreement would be negated by this sudden increase of CO2 and other greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.

One of the most effective ways to control deforestation in the Amazon is to monitor the advancement of cattle grazing and soybean farming. From 2004 through 2019, the amount of deforestation due to human activity had been steadily decreasing. This happened because previous Brazilian governments increased the power of IBAMA, Brazil’s environmental protection agency, and enacted stricter environmental regulations and penalties. Additionally, pressure from the U.S., Europe, and China forced Brazil’s agribusiness sector to have more sustainable farming processes.

China, for instance, is Brazil’s largest buyer of soybeans and beef products.

In the past year, however, the amount of deforested land in the Amazon has increased by 57%. The actions of Jair Bolsonaro’s government are largely responsible. He seems to subscribe to the theory that economic development and progress are incompatible with environmental protection. Some officials in his government consider climate change nothing more than a conspiracy theory and an “overblown” crisis. They have rolled back environmental protections set forth by previous governments.

Given this scenario, an appropriate strategy to reduce deforestation is for the U.S. and China to exert joint pressure on Brazil. The practical way to exert this pressure would be for both China and the U.S. to embargo some beef and soybean products that come from deforested areas in the Amazon.

This strategy would be effective, given the clout the agribusiness sector has with the current government. This important sector of the Brazilian economy will not enjoy seeing profits decrease because of environmental concerns. Key companies will be compelled to adopt more sustainable methods. Moreover, they will pressure the government to enforce environmental legislation.

China’s pressure is essential, given its position in the Brazilian agricultural market.

Some skeptics would argue that China’s commitment to climate change is disingenuous. Eventually, China would choose Brazil’s commodities over the environment. Although that might have been a fair criticism in the past, Beijing sees climate change as a cornerstone of its international ascension.