I have a theory about the Amazon rainforest fires. It could only have come, I admit, from prolonged observation of agribusiness and real estate developers in the San Joaquin Valley. My theory is that Donald Trump’s insanity, Chinese pride, and the Brazilian soy-bean boom have conspired to create a perfect storm.
At the moment, China has announced that on September 1, it will add 5% to the 25% tariff it has slapped on US soybeans in retaliation for Trump’s tariffs on a variety of Chinese goods. That is, unless China decides to continue a policy announced several months ago of not accepting any American soybeans.
American journalists seek in vain for an explanation for this, reiterating as they go that “China plans 20, 30, 50 years or a century in advance.” In fact, China’s reasons for standing up to the bellowing, babbling paper tiger in the White House probably has much more to do with its 300-year struggle with the belligerent English Speaking People, especially with the organized opium smuggling that enriched the East India Company as much as it debilitated the Chinese.
Brazilian agribusiness enterprises, which certainly include the involvement of the three largest grain traders in the world, all based in the US, are clearing land in a concerted attempt to completely supplant US soybean production. Already, in the 2018-2019 season, Brazil has grabbed 75% of the Chinese market against 11`% from the US. In the immediately preceding season, Brazil had a 47% share vs. US at 46%. In the three earlier years, the US share of the Chinese soybean market was between a third more and double the size of the Brazilian share.
Everyone I read and talk to agrees that China has been historically slow to open up its markets in the first place, and in the second, is not likely to immediately start buying Midwest soybeans again even under a new US president fluent in Mandarin and devoted to Peaceful Trade if one can be found.
The Brazilians? Well, one can certainly see the authoritarian tendencies of the new president, Jair Bolsonaro, a retired military officer from Rio de Janeiro. He is the latest product of the reactionaries who ousted Lula da Silva and Dilma Rousseff from their progressive presidencies, a Trump em Portugues.
But behind the current Left-Right argument lies the entire history of the first truly agribusiness power in the world, Brazil, starting with its slave-worked sugar plantations and continuing right through the booms and busts of the coffee market, in which it remains the largest producer and has reaped all the awards and suffered all the consequences of massive monocultural agribusiness markets. If you add its mining industry, all Brazil knows is boom-bust economies.
It reminds you of the California Central Valley and adjoining Sierra Foothills.
Today, Brazil sees the possibility, actually the likelihood that it can come close to cornering the constantly expanding Chinese market for soybeans.
And so, while the nation-state and special economic interest sophistries fill the air in a stage production with complaints, pleadings, threats and Twitter ravings (in the case of The Donald), the Amazon burns and the cause of the Common Good has no defender strong enough to stop the madness of the Flaming Middle Finger of the Free Market of Agribusiness.
China remains firmly committed to the ideology of revanche against the imperial powers that picked the bones of the decadent Ming Dynasty and set the stage for a half a century of slaughter before the Communists triumphed and rebuilt the country.
And the Donald can’t back down. He would lose face.
Meanwhile the Brazilians and their enablers, American grain companies like Cargill, ADM, and Bunge, plunge fiercely forward through the rainforest, torches in hand, clearing land that will start losing its fertility the moment the equatorial sun begins to fry its humous content.
Yes, that’s another grim factor: tropical soils, “reclaimed from rainforests” do not long remain fertile, are expensive to farm sustainably, and, like the clear cut lands logged in temperate climates, are difficult and expensive to replant with trees. If one looks, for example, at California forest land, where it has been clear cut or burned off by forest fire, it doesn’t naturally return to redwoods or firs and pines, it goes to Manzanita and it is decades if ever before trees begin to poke through. And because logging companies replant it in even-age stands, we now live in fear of catastrophic wildfires every year.
Somehow we feel the soybean planters, their enablers and the rightwing regime will leave those expenses for a later, less exploitive government to pick up.
While this is all dismally familiar market madness, what is new is that the US is not even trying to create the illusion it is acting for the Common Good. It is an abstract political concept clearly beyond the grasp of the stupid paper tiger in the White House.
Having abdicated any pretense of moral authority by electing Trump, Americans must now look to the European Union to muster the leadership and economic force to compel South America’s Mercosur to take action to stop the fires.
I refer you to a recent article in The Guardian.
G7 leaders to hold emergency talks over Amazon wildfires crisis
Julian Borger in Biarritz, Jonathan Watts, and Tom Phillips in Mexico City