Friday, June 19, 2020

"In the Brazilian Amazon, China is buyer, trader, lender, builder – to potentially devastating effect"

In a strange coincidence, when I babble on about one of China's options being to cause Hong Kong to become nothing more than an overbuilt colonial backwater it is Fordlandia I think of.

A major piece from the South China Morning Post, June 14:
In 1928, Henry Ford decided he would develop the Amazon. The American industrialist needed a cheaper and more reliable source of rubber for the millions of tyres produced by his namesake Ford Motor Company near Detroit, and the South American jungle’s trees held promise.

Ford had long believed he manu­factured more than cars. He believed his factories built character, that they civilised the common man. He had tried to launch a project to carry out this vision in Alabama, but faced opposition.

He soon dis­patched American managers who, together with local labourers, cleared land along a tributary of the Amazon River some 700km inland from the Atlantic coast. The site they proposed would support as many as 10,000 workers. Construction started, and Fordlândia was born.

The venture was a disaster. The rubber tree, though native to Brazil, refused to flourish in Fordlândia. The remote location made export to the United States difficult. People died from yellow fever. They died of malaria. More than once, jaguars ate employees’ children.

Ford supported Prohibition, so he forbade alcohol. He promoted square dancing to Brazilian staff as baffled by that as the hamburgers served for dinner. At a particularly low point, workers revolted, smashing property and chanting, “Brazil for Brazilians! Kill all the Americans!” By 1934, the Americans had abandoned Fordlândia.
Almost a century later, the Amazon basin is the epi­centre of new industrial demand, this time for soy and beef. Where one of the great American business magnates failed, China now seeks to satisfy its insatiable hunger, spurring Brazilian prospectors to open up territory to farming and cattle grazing. Beijing may even help build a railroad to better transport the two commodities out of this remote region  China produces and consumes half the world’s pork, from pigs fed on soy imported from the US and Brazil. (Despite the domestic prevalence of soy products such as tofu, soy milk and soy sauce, 80 per cent of the grain in China goes to animal feed.) A bitter trade war with Washington has meant a pivot to Brazil, where 80 per cent of all soy exports now go to fatten up hogs in the People’s Republic.
China buys most of Brazil’s beef exports, too. Its ever-growing middle class  eats 30 per cent more beef than a decade ago, and 2018’s swine flu, which ravaged the country’s pig population, has led to more demand for beef as a replacement.

As with every economic activity in the world, Covid-19  threatens to disrupt these trends, but Chinese President Xi Jinping  has celebrated how “the two sides have conducted win-win, fruitful cooperation” that will bring “our two countries more closely together”. For now, soy exports continue apace, and have increased from the same period last year.
Much of Brazil’s soy and beef production is in the Amazonian states of Mato Grosso and Pará. With Beijing as its top trading partner, the environmental future of this patch of the planet – roughly half the size of the continental United States – depends on the stewardship of far-flung China, and the all-too-near vagaries of Brazilian politics.

The world’s largest rainforest plays a critical part in the fight against climate change. Its vegetation is capable of absorbing massive amounts of carbon emissions and its size helps to curb the rise in the Earth’s temperature. However, neither the federal government, the local gover­nors nor the farmers themselves prioritise environmental protection for the international good, even after last year’s sweeping wildfires. Instead, they see immediate local benefits from deforestation and development.
Xi has a welcome partner in Brazil’s President Jair Bolsonaro, who views the Amazon as an economic engine for the country and its settlement as part of the nation’s manifest destiny. “I am fulfilling a mission from God,” Bolsonaro has said.

The “Trump of the Tropics” is open about his nostalgia for Brazil’s 1960s military dictatorship, when pioneers took on the jungle under the government slogan, “A land without men for men without land.” The military encouraged this migration, hacking roads through the forest, including the 4,000km east-west Trans-Amazonian Highway and the 4,500km north-south BR-163. These new roads allowed gold and iron ore miners, loggers and ranchers to colonise the territory, in much the same way as American settlers travelled west in the 19th century.
As with the US, the Brazilian government’s call appealed to those beyond its borders, and immigrants from Europe showed up in search of prosperity. From 1960 to 2000, the region experienced a tenfold increase in inhabitants, to 20 million. Like homesteaders in America, those in Brazil encountered hostile indigenous tribes. Unlike the subju­gation of Native Americans in the US, however, conflicts in Brazil are ongoing, with Bolsonaro lamenting “the Brazilian cavalry hadn’t been as efficient as the American one, which exterminated the Indians”.
Satellite images show the town of Novo Progresso sitting between the green part of the Amazon basin and ecru patches of cleared farmland – between a lush jungle past and a commercially conquered future. Drunken gold prospectors in cowboy hats, flannel shirts and raggedy jeans stumble aimlessly along dirt streets, past weather­board structures reminiscent of the American West of the 1840s. An indigenous family clutches the sides of a truck as it bounces over potholes. A bigger truck rolls by, struggling under the weight of freshly logged tree trunks.
The sound of sermon and song drifts from Pentecostal churches. The vice-to-virtue ratio, however, favours brothels over churches two-to-one, and men find it easy enough to procure the sins of the flesh before crossing the street to the pews for penance.....