Written by Adrian H. Hearn.

The slowdown of the global mining boom has seen agriculture become more prominent in Latin America’s trade and investment relations with China, with implications for land use in both regions. For Brazil, the sustained growth of exports to China (from US$1 billion in 2000 to US$35 billion in 2016) has come to rely on the expansion of soybean production. Demand for Brazilian soy correlates with the implementation of China’s New-Type Urbanisation Plan, whose attempt to increase the nation’s urban population to 860 million has unleashed middle-class consumption of pork sustained by soy-based animal feed. A new wave of industrialisation is thus transforming the geographies of production and consumption in both countries, generating new challenges for urban food systems in the process.

Chinese state-owned enterprises and financial institutions, which together conduct the vast majority of Chinese trade and investment transactions in Brazil, are well placed to support small-scale sustainable food production in Brazil’s peri-urban zones. This would provide a much welcomed balance to the large industrial operations of Chinese, US, European and domestic firms in the soy sector. As discussed below, the evolution of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) to promote environmentally responsible infrastructure provides Chinese firms with an opportunity to engage in such projects. Investing in the sustainability and diversity of food systems would generate long-term benefits for Chinese and Brazilian producers and consumers. This would improve the image of Chinese firms overseas and pave the way to a genuine ‘community of shared future for China and Latin America’ as articulated by Chinese President Xi at the 2014 Summit of CELAC (Community of Latin American and Caribbean States).

Road to development?

The demand for metals, energy and food generated by China’s growing cities has sustained South America through the global economic turbulence of the past two decades. Brazilian agribusiness, in particular, has attracted the interest of governments around the world interested in deepening their trade with China, but it is also generating problems on both sides of the Pacific which have not been seen with mining, gas, oil and other extractive activities. Supply-side objections to the loss of crop diversity in rural and peri-urban zones, intensification of chemical inputs, and associated environmental impacts are intertwined with demand-side suspicion of safety standards, unhealthy processed foods, and personal disconnection with the productive process.

Brazil is not the only Latin American nation – and agriculture is not the only sector – to witness the environmental impacts of deepening trade and investment relations with China. A recent study of Chinese infrastructure projects in the region finds that Chinese firms ‘do not usually seek the highest labour, safety, and environmental standards’. In Ecuador, Chinese investors are backing six major energy production projects, but only one of these is a wind project, representing just 1.2% of total Chinese financing for national energy projects. The agriculture sector is equally contentious, with China identified in an Argentine study as ‘the only major export destination for which emissions intensity is growing … as Chinese demand continues to grow in the soy and energy sectors, Argentine authorities will need to strengthen efforts to maximize the benefits and mitigate the environmental risk’.

There is no single pathway for Chinese enterprises to establish themselves as environmentally responsible actors in Latin America, but the Belt and Road Initiative provides an opportunity. The Special Declaration on the Belt and Road Initiative produced by the 2nd CELAC–China Forum states that ‘Latin American and Caribbean countries are part of the natural extension of the Maritime Silk Route and are indispensable participants in international cooperation of the Belt and Road’.  BRI will likely engage with a wide range of infrastructure projects in the region, not least agriculture, which the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC) views as an opportunity for environmentally responsible Chinese investment in Brazil.

BRI’s statement of ‘Vision and Proposed Actions’ commits to ‘conserving eco-environment, protecting biodiversity, and tackling climate change’. An important step in doing this will be to develop guidelines for investors, potentially drawing on the Ministry of Commerce and Ministry of Environment 2013 Joint Declaration on the Responsibilities of Chinese Enterprises Overseas. The Environment and Social Framework developed by the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB ) to assist partner countries to fulfil their commitments under the Paris Agreement provides further precedent. Uncertainty about BRI’s environmental impact will persist until such guidelines are formulated and become evident on the ground. As the subtitle of a recent article in China Dialogue asks, ‘Will the Belt and Road Initiative bring environmental devastation or a new era of Chinese global resource stewardship?’

Seventy countries have signed Belt and Road Cooperation Agreements, four of which are in Latin America. Brazil has yet to sign such an agreement, but it is well placed to design strategies for environmental engagement with BRI given its prior collaboration with Chinese environmental initiatives and its leadership of the 1992 Earth Summit, the resulting Agenda 21 action plan, and Rio+20. The China-Brazil Earth Resources Satellite (CBERS) project to monitor Amazonian deforestation was 30% financed by Brazil and 70% by China. Similarly, the China-Brazil Center for Climate Change and Energy Technology Innovation has focused on the wind turbine and biofuel sectors. Brazilian agriculture is relevant to both projects and provides a platform for deeper cooperation on food system sustainability. Chinese vertical greenhouse technology, developed by the Centre for Protected Agriculture and Environmental Engineering, and the Liuzhou Forest City initiative are good examples of smart infrastructure innovations relevant to Brazil. To integrate these and other projects into BRI would require Chinese enterprises to build relationships not only with Latin American national governments, but also with partners at the provincial and municipal levels. Sub-national actors are generally more attuned to local environmental concerns, and working with them could help Chinese enterprises to stay abreast of public preferences and opinions.

Food system innovations in organic production, waste reduction, employment, land protection and ecological sustainability are typically led by divisions within local governments. Rio’s municipal government, for instance, has overseen the installation of more than 40 organic food gardens since 2006 in some of the city’s most marginalised neighbourhoods through the Hortas Cariocas programme. Such projects would benefit from linkages with China’s expanding organic food movement, in which protagonists like the Shared Harvest project in Beijing are establishing international networks. Facilitating technical exchange to improve the operational dynamics of such projects could extend these networks to Brazil and build BRI’s reputation as an environmentally and socially engaged actor in Latin America.

Conclusion

Although Brazil maintains enviable annual trade surpluses with China (US$12 billion in 2016), the growth of export-oriented agribusiness has incurred environmental and social consequences. These consequences, also evident among Brazil’s soy-exporting neighbours, include deforestation, contamination of waterways with pesticides, loss of peri-urban family farms, unsustainable rural-urban migration, and an increasingly industrialised food system whose health impacts are becoming evident.

The consequences of industrial food production and consumption are generating distrust in industrial agriculture and pressure to balance the effects of commodity farming. While the soybean industry clearly has a role to play in feeding the world’s growing cities, particularly as pork consumption increases among China’s emerging middle class, it raises the challenge of ensuring crop diversity and safeguarding human health. Macroeconomic growth requires international trade, but frameworks are needed to protect small and medium-sized farms that produce fresh food for local consumption. Small farmers equipped with the knowledge and resources for organic production are well placed to resist territorial takeovers by commodity planters and real estate developers as urban demand grows.

City governments, municipal planners and community leaders are finding that the strategies they formulate to improve urban food systems require social innovation as much as technical expertise. Targeted government interventions that promote cooperation between producers and consumers are critical. This balance is possible when government inputs like land titles, equipment and staff subsidies support community values around food safety, livelihood, and connection with the productive process.

From the disappearance of peri-urban fresh food farms to public anxiety about toxic pesticides, the side effects of industrial food are biting home. Urban farming innovations can diminish these consequences, but systemic improvements will require agricultural trade and investment policies that are more responsive to local concerns. BRI could pave the way to more sustainable infrastructure collaboration between China, Brazil and Latin America more broadly. As a 2016 report from the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences concludes, China can use BRI to assist developing countries to build their environmental protection capacities. This will require the design and implementation of clear guidelines for BRI investors, and a disposition to cooperate not only with national governments but also with the municipal and community actors most affected by the resulting projects.

Adrian H. Hearn (University of Melbourne) is an anthropologist who researches urban multiculturalism and food systems.  He is currently studying how trust affects localised food production in Beijing, Melbourne, Havana and São Paulo. Funded by the Australian Research Council (ARC), the Commonwealth Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT), and the São Paulo Research Foundation (FAPESP), his work brings together international teams to compare challenges, share success stories and formulate solutions. Adrian’s books include Diaspora and Trust and Cuba: Religion, Social Capital, and Development (Duke University Press 2016 and 2008), and (as editor) The Changing Currents of Transpacific Integration and China Engages Latin America (Lynne Rienner 2016 and 2011). Image Credit: CC by Senado Federal/Flickr.

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