US-China Trade Wars and the Cerrado

Recently, Nature published a paper stating that the trade wars between China and the US could hurt the Amazon rainforest.

This is an interesting train of thought which I’ve been addressing for a while during trade shows. Soybean farmers in Brazil have been enthusiastic since the start of these trade wars, precisely because China is the main customer of Brazil’s yearly yield of soybeans.

With a Chinese middle class of over 400 million people eager to adopt the Western diet, there is a huge demand for high protein animal feed, and that’s where soybeans come in.

China has growing, widespread hydric problems and is clearly importing a crop it can’t afford to grow enough of in its own soil. Unsurprisingly, there is no mention of soybean as a means of virtual water flow in the Nature paper: it would debunk a few of its suggestions for mitigating this and future trade wars, particularly growing crops locally in an increasingly water-stressed global scenario. 


Until the trade wars, the Chinese soybean demand was torn between the US and Brazil. Now, with China focusing its attention on Brazilian soybeans, there is a perfect excuse to increase production in a very short amount of time. Brazil, after all, is going through the biggest economic crisis in its history; it could use a boost from the agribusiness. Is there a simpler, cheaper and faster way to vacate the land for this than deforesting?

Mainstream media, however, still believes Amazonia to be a stand-alone biome, not realizing that it is fed by other environments as much as it feeds them.

Enter the Cerrado.

For the last 20 years, most of the deforestation in Brazil has been happening in the Cerrado, but now it has been making a comeback onto the Amazon rainforest – in fact, wherever water tables are abundant, as soybean crops are incredibly water intensive.

With the demand for soybeans, such intensiveness brings two main problems: the virtual water flow associated with them and deforestation to make room for them. The first is essentially moving water, now contained in soybeans, from Brazil to China. The latter is what makes Cerrado water a non-renewable resource.

The Amazon rainforest and the Cerrado are co-dependent, as they share their water cycle. Cerrado trees form a deep root network sitting on a high altitude plateau in the heart of the continent. This makes the area act as a water tower for over a third of the rainforest and the bottom half of South America. Those deep roots make the soil porous, allowing rainfall to recharge water tables that become major South American rivers.


When rainfall comes from the Atlantic Ocean onto the Amazon rainforest, it reaches critical mass and becomes a phenomenon called “flying rivers” – a continuous dense mass of rainclouds flowing southwest, that is contained by the Andes and bounces east towards the Cerrado. A large chunk of this water then flows back north, making up 1/3 of the rainforest water mass through the Tapajós, Xingu, Araguaia and Tocantins rivers.

The deep root network responsible for this flow is called the “inverted forest“, as the native vegetation is frequently 1/3 above ground and 2/3 underground. It goes without saying that because of this, the Cerrado is a major carbon sink in the planet as well. Hence, deforesting for exporting soybeans is adding insult to injury, releasing carbon in the atmosphere, exporting virtual water, and making sure aquifers and streams will not replenish by getting rid of the only way they can recharge, amongst other nefarious effects.

The intense deforestation of the Cerrado savanna is quite worrying, as the Amazon rainforest is suffering from a phenomenon called “self-amplified forest loss“. It is happening precisely at the Amazon-Cerrado border, where water stress is growing due to Cerrado deforestation. A few recent studies point out a considerable portion of rainforest will become grassland, due to the lack of critical water mass for its trees.


The critical water mass we speak of is, of course, dependant on both water streams and rainfall. Trees not only fix water into the soil but through transpiration, return water to the atmosphere and allow for regular, less violent rainfall. Without it, droughts become more intense, and rainfall abrupt, destructive and useless due to the gradual compacting of the soil.

It is worth mentioning again that this massive soybean production is based on the very area it is dependant for water. Lax protection due to undermined public institutions and legislation, plus the current Bolsonaro office, makes for a perfect storm.

Thus, the loss of the “inverted forest” would, in a not so distant future, induce the partial collapse of the Brazilian breadbasket due to water stress, with considerable consequences to the international markets. A possible collapse of the Amazon rainforest could also entail a further partial collapse of the US breadbasket due to climate disruption.

The simultaneous failure of both agricultural powerhouses could mean a global, widespread shortage of meat and other food products in not so many years. We can only speculate on the effect of this climate shift in international markets and ultimately, the global balance of power.

Brazil, however, depends heavily on its agricultural production and shows no political will to diversify its economy anytime soon. Both Cerrado and Amazonia are being held hostage with dire implications to the global economy, but will the world pay attention soon enough?

Shand Santos is the founder of Baru Baron.