RIO DE JANEIRO – REUTERS
Two of the industries involved in the infernos consuming the Amazon rainforest and drawing the attention of global powers gathered at the G7 meeting in France are familiar to diners worldwide: soy and beef.
Brazil is the world’s largest exporter of beef, with a record 1.64 million tons sent to its top markets China, Egypt and the European Union in 2018, according to the Brazilian Beef Exporters Association.
The country has seen its production surge over the past two decades, with exports measured in both weight and value increasing by 10 times between 1997 and 2016, led by three behemoth companies: JBS, Minerva and Marfrig.
All this growth has come at the expense of the Amazon.
“Extensive cattle farming is the main driver of deforestation in the Amazon, with just over 65 percent of deforested land in the Amazon now being grazed,” according to Romulo Batista, a researcher at Greenpeace.
Soybeans, a major cash crop for Brazil, were also once a major contributor to deforestation.
The crop saw a dramatic rise in cultivation in the 1970s, fueled by the migration of farmers, the development of new cultivation techniques and the use of pesticides.
Brazil exported a record 83.3 million tons of the crop in 2018, up 22.2 percent from 2017, according to the economy ministry.
The country is the top supplier of soybeans to the United States but sends the most overall to China.
Brazilian soybean exports to China jumped nearly 30 percent last year thanks to the trade dispute with Washington, which pushed Beijing to look for other sources of the crop it uses to feed cattle.
About 6.5 percent of the deforested area in the Amazon is used for agriculture, but the contribution of soybeans to that has decreased over time.
A moratorium on buying soy from newly deforested areas came into force in 2006, and “less than 2 percent of the soy planted in the Amazon comes from deforested areas since 2008,” Batista said.
However, other forests in Brazil such as the tropical savanna cerrado are being cleared for soybean cultivation. In June, Greenpeace denounced Europe’s “addiction” to Brazilian soy used for pig and poultry farms.
Official data released Saturday showed that hundreds of new fires were raging in the Amazon even as thousands of troops were made available to help fight the worst blazes in years.
Official figures show 78,383 forest fires have been recorded in Brazil this year, the highest number of any year since 2013. Experts say the clearing of land during the dry season to make way for crops or grazing, has aggravated the problem.
More than half of the fires are in the massive Amazon basin, where more than 20 million people live. Some 1,663 new fires were ignited between Thursday and Friday, according to Brazil’s National Institute for Space Research (INPE).
The new data came a day after Bolsonaro authorized deployment of the military to fight the fires and crack down on criminal activity. Seven states have requested the army’s help in the Amazon, where more than 43,000 troops are based and available to combat fires, officials said. Firefighters and planes are also being deployed.
U.S. President Donald Trump and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, both attending the G7 summit, have offered their countries’ assistance in fighting the fires.
The blazes have stirred outrage globally, with thousands of people protesting in Brazil and Europe on Friday.
The growing crisis threatens to torpedo a blockbuster trade deal between the European Union and South American countries, including Brazil, that took 20 years to negotiate.
EU Council President Donald Tusk told reporters at the G7 on Saturday that it was hard to imagine European countries ratifying a trade pact with the Mercosur bloc as long as Brazil fails to curb the fires ravaging the Amazon, which is known as the “lungs of the planet” because of its crucial role in mitigating climate change.
French President Emmanuel Macron, who has taken the lead in pressing his Brazilian counterpart over the fires, had earlier accused Bolsonaro of lying to him about Brazil’s stance on climate change.
In an escalating war of words between the two leaders, Bolsonaro denounced what he calls Macron’s “colonialist mentality.”
In a surprise statement on Friday, Macron said he had decided to block the EU-Mercosur deal and accused Bolsonaro of lying in playing down concerns about climate change.
A spokesman for German Chancellor Angela Merkel said not concluding the trade deal with the Mercosur countries — Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay and Paraguay — is “not the appropriate answer to what is happening in Brazil now.”
France has long expressed reservations about the Mercosur deal, with Macron warning in June he would not sign it if Bolsonaro pulled out of the Paris climate accord.
Environmental specialists say the fires are coming amid increasing deforestation in the Amazon region, which in July took place at a rate four times that of the same month in 2018, according to data from INPE.
Bolsonaro has previously attacked the institute, describing its data as lies and engineering the sacking of its head.
On Friday, he insisted that the fires should not be used as an excuse to punish Brazil.
“There are forest fires all over the world, and this cannot be used as a pretext for possible international sanctions,” Bolsonaro said.
Brazil’s powerful agriculture sector — which strongly supports Bolsonaro — has expressed concerns over the president’s rhetoric, fearing boycotts of their products in key markets.
In an editorial Saturday, the respected Folha de S.Paulo newspaper warned that Bolsonaro’s “bravado” had worsened the crisis caused by accelerating deforestation.
“The damage to (Brazil’s) image is done, and it could have important trade repercussions,” it said.
“Nationalistic bravado will not win the game this time.”