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Agri-food Trade: Latin America at the Crossroads of Climate Change

We must consider how to carry out the transition without harming subsistence economies or the income derived from the export of extensive agricultural production.

There is no doubt that climate change, especially associated with the emission of greenhouse gases and the abrupt degradation of biodiversity, is the cause of the climatic catastrophes and unpredictable epidemics that the world is witnessing. According to scientific consensus, both calamities derive from the production conditions prevailing on a global scale.

The models questioned include both survival models and extensive crops generated at the cost of the depredation of natural resources destined for export.  This is the case of Latin American countries immersed in the productive matrix imposed by structural dependence. This is the model of international insertion consolidated in the course of the long and painful history of colonial and neocolonial plundering and degradation.

On the one hand, in many Latin American countries this productive matrix and the importance for their economies of commodity exports to third countries persists and, in some cases, is consolidated. This is confirmed by recent research by Rosario Campos and Romina Gayá in a joint FAO-IDB study published this year under a title that sounds pretentious: “Opportunities to promote intra-regional agrifood trade in Latin America and the Caribbean”.

On the other hand, paradoxically, the inhibitions and obstacles imposed precisely by the central countries for access to their markets for goods obtained at the expense of environmental sustainability are multiplying. 

The subsidiarity argument

This is the core of a narrative repeatedly used by the EU when invoking the impossibility of complying with the precept set out in the 1992 Rio Declaration on Environment and Development, according to which “Trade policy measures for environmental purposes should not constitute a means of arbitrary or unjustifiable discrimination or a disguised restriction on international trade…. Measures to address transboundary or global environmental problems should, as far as possible, be based on international consensus”.

In the face of this directive, the EU claims to be the guardian of a global public good. This is stated, for example, in the explanatory memorandum to the Proposal for a Regulation of the European Parliament and of the Council establishing a Border Carbon Adjustment Mechanism: “Climate change is by its very nature a trans-boundary challenge that cannot be solved by national or local measures alone. Coordinated EU action can effectively supplement and reinforce national and local action and enhance climate action. Coordination of climate action is necessary at European and, where possible, at global level, and EU action is justified on the grounds of subsidiarity”.

Trade barriers to combat deforestation

The subsidiarity principle claimed by the EU also underpins Regulation 2023/1115 of the European Parliament and of the Council of 31 May 2023 “concerning the placing on the EU market and the export from the EU of certain commodities and products associated with deforestation and forest degradation”.

Having initially foreseen that the bulk of the provisions should be in force before July of this year, the magnitude and relevance of their coverage can be assessed by simply reviewing some of the items contemplated in the starting point: cattle and beef; cocoa and chocolate; coffee; soybeans and soybean meal; wood, paper, and furniture.  

For access to the EU market for raw materials and derivatives considered relevant by the EU, traceability certifications will be required regarding the absence of deforestation in the course of the respective production processes. The certifications must include geo-localizations of the raw material extraction areas, as well as deforestation risk assessments that could totally or partially affect the export prospects of the country where the risky productions are located.

In addition, this year the Commission should also evaluate the possibility of extending, through further legislative reforms, the same form of protection against the degradation of other ecosystems such as grasslands, peatlands, and wetlands.

Such attempts to apply Community legislation extraterritorial were challenged in a letter sent in September 2023 by eleven Latin American and Caribbean countries, three Asian countries, and two African countries to the European Council, the Commission, and the Pro-Tempore Presidency of the Council.

The letter was distributed in particular through the Ministry of Trade, Industry and Commerce of the Government of Colombia. In principle, the signatory countries cited the excessive administrative burden and costs of meeting requirements such as geo-localization and traceability, which would ultimately have to be absorbed by producers. But the most striking objection was that the measures would be counterproductive in terms of promoting sustainable crops, since small rural producers would be excluded from value chains, not because they deforested their land, but because they were unable to comply with the regulations.

The letter does not expand on the secular reasons for the inequality between farmers settled in central societies and those in the peripheries. But no one ignores that, in the case of Latin American rural reality, the productive structure is the result of a lethal combination induced by colonial and neocolonial processes. On the one hand, the disproportionate exploitation of immense territories and, on the other, the fragile subsistence economies of the poorest and most destitute social strata.  

Although the impact of unsustainable agricultural production on greenhouse gas emissions was well known, the issue was only addressed at the Dubai Climate Summit (COP 28). There, at least one hundred and thirty-four countries signed an ostentatious Declaration signed by delegates from the United States, China, the EU and numerous peripheral countries such as all Central and South American countries with the exception of Bolivia, Guyana, and Paraguay. The Declaration on Sustainable Agriculture, Resilient Food Systems, and Climate Action is a first but not yet binding commitment to include food systems and agricultural production in national climate change plans.

How to make the transition? The silence that stuns

Once the need to transform the living conditions of the majority of the population in the peripheries has been recognized, the question arises as to how to make the transition without affecting the already very painful subsistence economies and simultaneously the income earned from the export of extensive agricultural production on which the public finances of these countries depend.

Should countries trapped between endemic internal social exclusion and asymmetrical terms of international trade also take charge of their own productive transformation? 

In the central countries, individuals are obtaining jurisdictional recognition of their right to environmental protection with regard to the states where they reside. The most recent case is that decided by the European Court of Human Rights when it ruled on the responsibility of the Swiss government, whose inadequate measures to repair the damage attributed to climate change were considered to be an infringement of human rights.

It is therefore worth recalling the EU’s own doctrine: climate change is truly a global public good. The nation-states that are raising the banner of the green economy and the preservation of biodiversity are the same colonial powers that promoted that overseas plundering and are now sounding the alarm bells. Then, should they assume greater responsibility for the enormous costs of any remedial initiative beyond their borders?

Multilateral coordination of programs for the reconversion of production structures and food systems seems a long way off. Meanwhile, the peripheral exporting countries should be provided with technical and financial assistance to enable them to comply with the environmental measures adopted by the central countries in their capacity as importers.


Otros artículos del autor

Sociólogo. Doctor por la Univ. Nacional de Córdoba (Argentina). Consultor de organismos internacionales de integración y cooperación. Investigador y docente en el Instituto de Integración Latinoamericana de la Univ. Nacional de La Plata.


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