Dr. Oliveira presents his research at the China Agricultural University

How Soybeans (Dis)Connect the US, China and Brazil

Dr. Gustavo de L. T. Oliveira

Visiting Assistant Professor, College of Urban and Environmental Sciences, Peking University

Assistant Professor, Department of Global and International Studies, UC Irvine

May 16, 2019

12:30p.m. – 13:30p.m.

China Agricultural University, East Campus, Democracy Building 240

Soybeans were first domesticated in China thousands of years ago, and they became a truly global commodity through US geopolitical hegemony during the 20th century. But now Brazil surpassed the US to become the largest exporter of this agricultural commodity, which has in China its largest market. So when the US initiated a trade war in 2018, and China responded by raising counter-tariffs on soybeans imported from the US, Brazilian soy exports to China gained even greater geopolitical importance. These connections between China, Brazil, and the US through soy trade are usually treated as a “natural” result of the limited farmland in China in relation to its large population, the abundance of natural resources in Brazil, and the technological advancement of US agribusiness. In this paper, I adopt a political ecology framework to challenge this mainstream view. I reveal the political drivers and ecological contradictions of the global agroindustrial restructuring that connects and disconnects China, Brazil, and the United States through soybeans – and argue that instead of seeing these problems as simple geopolitical struggle between countries, and calling for smoother international soy trade among them, we should shift debate to the underlying class politics and ecological contradictions of transnational soybean agribusiness, which foreclose agroecological alternatives that can strengthen food sovereignty in Brazil, the US, and China alike.

Contact: Fu Chuchu, WeChat ID: wxid_0isvkzb64em522


Dr. Oliveira published in Idéias

Dr. Oliveira’s article “The resistance to Chinese land grabs in Brazil since 2008: Lessons and agroecological alternatives” has just been published in a special issue on Brazil-China Relations in the journal Idéias.

ABSTRACT: The goal of this article is to describe and theorize the recent history of resistance to Chinese acquisitions of farmland in Brazil in order to enable a clear and useful discussion of the victories and challenges of the resistance to foreignization of land and the advancement of transnational and domestic agribusiness; and also to allow for the development of agroecological alternatives for Brazil-China relations. Employing theories of narratives in the articulation of social movements and methods of global ethnography, based upon 27 months of fieldwork in Brazil and China, I argue an alliance of convenience between certain agribusiness sectors and social movements were able to effectively dismantle the largest attempts at acquiring farmland by Chinese agribusinesses in Brazil. On the other hand, since these efforts maintained focus on direct acquisitions of farmland, this resistance was unable to affect the indirect incorporation of Brazilian land by Chinese agribusinesses that acquired operational companies in Brazil. Moreover, the role of Chinese capital in what has been called “foreignization of land” in Brazil has been relatively small. Therefore, I conclude that the strong focus on Chinese capital and on direct acquisitions of rural property did not target the main dynamics of foreignization of land, even if they effectively dismantled the main Chinese attempts to grab land in Brazil. Yet there are great opportunities for the development of agroecological initiatives between Brazil and China that could orient investments and partnerships in South-South solidarity, strengthening national and food sovereignty in both countries against the advancement of transnational agribusiness.

KEYWORDS: Brazil, China, foreignization of land, social movements, networks, narratives

Idéias is an interdisciplinary journal published by the Institute of Philosophy and Humanities of the University of Campinas (UNICAMP). It distinguishes itself among academic journals in Brazil for publishing cutting-edge research and interdisciplinary special issues on hotly debated current events, resulting in high-impact factors in the disciplines of humanities, urban and regional planning, law, philosophy, history, sociology, anthropology, and political science, among others.

For the full-length article (in Portuguese), see:


DOI: https://doi.org/10.20396/ideias.v9i2.8655285

Dr. Oliveira presents his research at the University of York

Dr. Oliveira was invited to participate in the International and Interdisciplinary Workshop on “Promoting Effective Sustainability Governance in Soy Global Supply Chains”. The event was organized by the IKnowFood and N8 Agrifood research networks, and hosted by the University of York, UK. The workshop took place on March 25, 2019, and “brought together some of the world’s leading scholars, alongside soy food systems stakeholders, to share state-of-the-art (predominantly social) scientific research, civil society and industry perspectives.”

Dr. Oliveira presented his research on “Brazil, China, US, and the Underlying Class Politics of Global Soybeans.”

For further information on the workshop and this Soy Governance Research Initiative, contact: Dr. Tony Heron, tony.heron@york.ac.uk


Dr. Oliveira presents his research at the UCI International Studies Public Forum

The Political Ecology and Geopolitics of Chinese Investments in Brazilian Agribusiness

Dr. Gustavo de L. T. Oliveira

Assistant Professor, Department of Global and International Studies, UCI

February 7, 2019

5:00p.m. – 6:20p.m.

Social Science Plaza A, Room 1100

The global geography and political economy of food and farming are shifting dramatically. US and European companies dominated international markets during the 20th century, but now a new world order is emerging with growing exports from Brazil and mushrooming imports from China. These new trade flows are intimately associated with transformations in local environments and global politics, and they have been driving high-profile Chinese investments in Brazilian agribusiness during the past decade. During this period, a powerful discourse emerged that China is the leading “land grabber” in Brazil, which in turn empowered a far-right movement against Chinese investments and the Brazilian leftist governments that cultivated closer Brazil-China political relations. In this lecture, Oliveira discusses how we should understand these political, economic, and ecological processes that connect China and Brazil, and transform global relations. Most narratives highlight the abundance of natural resources in Brazil, and the scarcity of land in China, as a natural basis for the “comparative advantage” that drives such trade and investments. Oliveira argues this “naturalizes” a new and radically fabricated agro-ecological arrangement of people, plants, animals and industries in Brazil, China and elsewhere; and in fact, they do not identify the fundamental drivers of this global agro-industrial restructuring. As he explains, China’s massive imports from Brazil stem from its rapid urbanization and a shortage of rural labor, while Brazilian exports do not result from an abundance of land and natural resources, but rather from the forced dispossession of peasants from their land and the wholesale sacrifice of vulnerable ecosystems. Moreover, Chinese investments in farmland largely failed to materialize, and linger far behind land grabs by investors from the US, EU, Japan, and even Latin America itself. Instead, successful Chinese investments in Brazilian agribusiness have focused on trading infrastructure, which places them as a component of China’s attempt to reorganize global trade and geopolitics through its New Silk Road projects.

Contact: Jessica Cañas-Castañeda, jcanas@uci.edu

Sponsor: Department of Global and International Studies

Dr. Oliveira published in Territory, Politics, Governance

Dr. Oliveira’s article Boosters, brokers, bureaucrats and businessmen: assembling Chinese capital with Brazilian agribusiness” has just been published a special issue on “Grounding China’s Global Integration” in the journal Territory, Politics, Governance.

ABSTRACT: My purpose in this paper is to deepen the literature on Chinese foreign investments (particularly in Brazilian agribusiness), and the formation of a transnational capitalist class, by utilizing practices of global ethnography and the conceptual apparatus of ‘assemblages’ emerging in human geography. I trace the genealogy of the Chinese-owned Brazilian company BBCA Brazil and its agroindustrial project in Mato Grosso do Sul state, since it is illustrative of the conditions of possibility for Chinese direct investments in agribusiness in Brazil and Brazil–China agroindustrial partnerships more generally. I argue the central characters of this story aptly illustrate the transnational class of boosters, brokers, bureaucrats and businessmen who rise by assembling Chinese capital with Brazilian (agri)business expertise, labour and land. It is the particular work of assemblage and set of skills of these characters, especially those operating at the ‘middle levels’ of state and corporate governance, that both enables the successful implementation of transnational investments, and also explains why such projects propel them while marginalizing others, increasing social inequality, and aggravating environmental degradation.

KEYWORDS: ChinaBrazilforeign direct investmentsglobalizationtransnational corporationstransnational capitalist classglobal ethnographyassemblage


Territory, Politics, Governance is an interdisciplinary journal from the Regional Studies Association. It is “committed to the development of theory and research in territorial politics and the governance of space,” emphasizing publications on globalization, territorial identities and politics, and multi-level governance, among other topics.

SCMP: China needs a new strategy to deal with Brazil’s new right-wing president

Dr. Oliveira writes for the South China Morning Post.

While the newly elected Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro campaigned on an anti-China platform, Beijing still has reasons, many of them trade-related, to maintain good relations.

To aid the return to more China-friendly administrations in Brazil, China’s government will deal pragmatically with the new administration, but the Communist Party should strengthen ties with the Brazilian left.

For the full length column, see: https://www.scmp.com/news/china/diplomacy/article/2181854/china-needs-new-strategy-deal-brazils-new-right-wing-president

Dr. Oliveira interviewed by the South China Morning Post

Why the China-US trade war truce could be a raw deal for Brazil’s soybean farmers

Keegan Elmer, South China Morning Post, Dec. 4, 2018


US President Donald Drumpf and his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping agreed on the weekend to halt any further increases in tariffs for 90 days to try to hammer out trade differences between the two countries. China also promised to buy more US agricultural products, sending down prices for soybeans from Brazil and other sources around the world.

“Instead of being a boon for the Brazilian farmers, [the deal] would be a total bane,” said Gustavo Oliveira, assistant professor of global studies at the University of California, Irvine.


A deal between Beijing and Washington could turn that bumper harvest into a soybean glut.

Oliveira said Brazilian farmers also faced higher input costs this year, like transport, and planted their crops in expectation of high prices, he added.  In the meantime, the depletion of Brazilian soybean supplies meant that China would likely soon have to return to buying the US crop, he said.


Oliveira said continued uncertainty in the China-US relationship and the trade war would cause headaches for farmers around the world. “Farmers are used to dealing with the uncertainty of the weather, and some uncertainty in international markets is expected, but 25 per cent up or down on the price of one of the world’s two largest producers is really dramatic uncertainty. And the possibility that this could be removed, exactly as Brazilian crops go on the market, that’s what’s frustrating for everyone,” he said.

For the full report, see: https://www.scmp.com/news/china/diplomacy/article/2176373/why-china-us-trade-war-truce-could-be-raw-deal-brazils-soybean

Dr. Oliveira published in the Journal of Latin American Geography

Dr. Oliveira’s article “The Battle of the Beans: How Direct Brazil-China Soybean Trade Was Stillborn in 2004” has just been published in a special issue on “New Geographies of China and Latin America Relations” in the Journal of Latin American Geography.

ABSTRACT: In 2004, Brazilian soybean cooperatives in Rio Grande do Sul state and the Chinese state-owned agroindustrial commodity trading company Chinatex orchestrated the first direct soybean shipments between both countries. By that moment, China had flipped from a net soybean exporter in the previous decade to the world’s leading importer of this commodity, and Brazilian exports were mushrooming to attend this demand. However, powerful trading corporations from the US and western Europe dominated this international trade. Thus, the attempt to establish direct shipments between Brazilian producers to China was integral to efforts by agribusinesses in these emerging economies to wrest control over the profits and flows of this burgeoning and strategic sector. However, this first partnership for direct soybean trade became embroiled in a convoluted crisis involving the legalization of transgenic soybeans in Brazil, widespread contamination of shipments with pesticide-covered seeds, record volatility in soybean prices, and the ensuing collapse and foreign take-over of the Chinese soybean trade and processing industry—dubbed the “Battle of the Beans” in Chinese media. Drawing on extended interviews with the key protagonists of this decisive moment in the restructuring of international agribusiness markets, I describe how direct Brazil-China soybean trade was spectacularly stillborn, consolidating the oligopoly of agribusiness trading companies from the Global North over international soybean markets for another decade. I argue this particular moment was one of the most important events in the construction of the new geography of Brazil-China relations, and we can only understand how its specific convergences and divergences emerged through grounded, transnational, and ethno-graphically-nuanced analysis. Thus, my investigation provides unprecedented insight into the political and economic conjuncture in which South-South cooperation is pursued between China and its largest commercial partner in Latin America, even while it reproduces agroindustrial production and trade relations that benefit transnational elites at the expense of the majority of peasants, workers, and the environment in both China and Latin America.
KEYWORDS: Brazil, China, global ethnography, soy, international trade

The Journal of Latin American Geography is published by the Conference of Latin American Geography (est. 1970) and distributed by the University of Texas Press. According to Google Scholar, it is the sixth highest ranked journal of Latin American studies.

For the full length article, see: http://muse.jhu.edu/article/701025


Dr. Oliveira interviewed by Brasil de Fato

Entenda como a guerra comercial entre EUA e China afeta os agricultores brasileiros

Júlia Dolce, Brasil de Fato, July 31, 2018

Excerpts translated by Gustavo Oliveira.


The geographer and assistant professor of Global and International Studies at the University of California, Irvine, Gustavo Oliveira, however, points out that all these perspectives do not take into account benefits or losses for small farmers and the Brazilian working class.

“The big problem in the way this subject is being talked about in the media is to treat countries as if they were a single bloc with unique interests. In the short term, the fact that there are two major soy exporters: Brazil and the US, and one biggest buyer, China, which is failing to buy from the US, has raised the price of domestic soybeans [in Brazil], but this is not necessarily good for people who are not in the soy sector,” he says.

Oliveira researches political ecology, agribusiness and trade relations between Brazil and China, and will hold a visiting professor position at Beijing University later this year. In an interview with Brazil de Fato, he stressed that the potential trade crisis should lead to an in-depth analysis of the form of production and foreign relations that the country has been maintaining.

“In fact, if this moment of crisis led Brazil to start dismantling this dependence on soy and agribusiness, then this could be a positive thing, it could lead to new relations, independent not only of the US, but of the form of production that links us to global capitalism, whether from the USA or from elsewhere,” he says.


For the full interview in Portuguese, see: https://www.brasildefato.com.br/2018/07/31/entenda-como-a-guerra-comercial-entre-eua-e-china-afeta-os-agricultores-brasileiros

Dr. Oliveira interviewed by BBC Brazil on the impacts of the US-China trade war on Brazil

Como a guerra comercial entre EUA e China pode afetar o Brasil

(How the trade war between the US and China may affect Brazil)

Excerpts translated by Gustavo de L. T. Oliveira


Gustavo Oliveira (…) believes that the two countries should reach agreement on these tariff issues in months. “What is happening is a realignment, in which you have less US exports to China and more exports from Brazil and other countries to China.”


Gustavo Oliveira explains that China can not count on Brazilian soybeans to replace the American, since Brazil directs much of the national production (43 million tons) to feed the domestic market. Brazilian exports suffer from political instability, as demonstrated by the recent national truck drivers strike. In addition, China imports almost two-thirds of the world’s soy production. “Brazil and the US each export more than a third, and all other countries added account for less than a third. Taking the US or Brazil out of the equation basically means having to get all the soy from the rest of the world and all the Brazil to serve the Chinese market. All importers other than China would have to import exclusively from the US. This is an unrealistic situation due to various logistical, market and contract issues,” says the researcher.


For Oliveira (…) to think about the impact of the commercial war with an analysis restricted to agribusiness is to assume that everything that favors the sector is good for the country. “It’s not that simple,” he says. “This is a conversation that has taken place within a framework that treats Brazilian agribusiness, steelmaking and mining as the equivalent of Brazil’s interest.” Yet a major crisis for Brazilian agribusiness can be a good thing for thousands of landless families, for millions of small farmers, and for many other sectors of Brazilian society that have a different view of agribusiness development,” Oliveira said in Beijing.

The friction between China and the US shows how vulnerable Brazil is, being a major exporter of agricultural products and minerals. “It is very exposed to the advances and setbacks of negotiations between Beijing and Washington, in which Brazilian companies and state do not even have any weight. Brazil is hostage to a neocolonial model.”

For the full length report in Portuguese, see: https://noticias.r7.com/economia/como-a-guerra-comercial-entre-eua-e-china-pode-afetar-o-brasil-07072018