Clearing land for cattle is responsible for 80 per cent of rainforest loss in the Brazilian Amazon. But with Amazon ranching now a multi-billion dollar business, corporate buyers of beef and leather, including Wal-Mart, are starting to demand that the destruction of the forest be halted.
In the Brazilian Amazon, 80 million head of cattle - nearly as many as exist in all of the United States - now graze on land that once was tropical rainforest or the biologically rich, wooded grassland known as cerrado. An area larger than France is given over to the cattle, making ranching by far the biggest driver of deforestation in Brazil’s Amazon, responsible for more than three-quarters of forest loss.
Environmental groups have warned for years that cattle production is gobbling up huge chunks of the world’s largest rainforest, but their campaigns have had no discernable impact on deforestation. Forest clearing remains stubbornly high while beef production has continued to expand, enabling the industry to become an economic and political juggernaut, seemingly unstoppable.
But in catering to conglomerates serving an international market - part of a broader trend over the past 20 years in which industrial corporations have replaced poor farmers as the primary agents of deforestation - producers have left themselves exposed to consumer backlash. It’s tough for an environmental group to target a subsistence farmer who’s clearing land to feed his family; it’s much easier to go after a multinational enterprise. So ironically, in its strength, the multibillion-dollar Brazilian cattle industry developed an Achilles’ heel.
In June, Greenpeace leveraged this vulnerability. The green group issued “Slaughtering the Amazon”, a report linking prominent global corporations - including Wal-Mart, Nike, and the French-based Carrefour grocery store chain - to cattle operations that are illegally clearing the Amazon rainforest. The fallout was immediate and substantial, and now a number of important players are moving to build on the report’s momentum by enlisting retailing giants to purchase Amazon beef and leather derived from more sustainable sources.
Those seeking to slow the deforestation of the Brazilian Amazon face daunting challenges in a region where lawlessness, intimidation, and violence have often ruled. But the publication of the Greenpeace report has jump-started overnight a market for certified beef and leather, with the world’s biggest buyers now interested in creating a supply chain through which meat and hides can be traced to ranches that have stopped razing the forest and employ sound environmental practices. Some ranchers, corporations, and conservation groups are considering using sophisticated techniques - including reliance on satellite photography and the implantation of tiny electronic identification tags in cattle - to create a strong system of certification.
Greenpeace’s report, based on a three-year investigation, said that the Brazilian government had invested $2.65 billion in three major beef and leather processing companies that have been key players in driving deforestation. Greenpeace identified a host of brand-name international firms doing business with the three companies, including the shoe manufacturers Nike, Adidas, Reebok, and Timberland. The report highlighted the extent to which Brazilian cattle products end up in a wide array of consumer goods, from supermarket hamburgers to Nike Airs.
After the Greenpeace report was released, Brazil’s biggest beef customers - including Wal-Mart and Carrefour - announced they would suspend contracts with suppliers involved in Amazon deforestation. Nike and the Timberland shoe company did the same. The World Bank’s International Finance Corporation withdrew a $90 million loan commitment from Bertin, the world’s second-largest beef exporter. Brazilian investigators raided the offices of JBS, the world’s largest beef processor, and other firms, arresting executives for corruption, fraud, and collusion.
And a Brazilian federal prosecutor filed a billion-dollar lawsuit against the cattle industry for environmental damage, warning that firms found to be marketing meat raised on illegally cleared Amazon land would be subject to fines of 500 reais ($260) per kilo. Marfrig, the world’s fourth-largest beef trader, said it would institute a moratorium on buying cattle raised in newly deforested areas within the Brazilian Amazon. BNDES, the development bank that accounts for most financing for the agricultural sector in Brazil, announced it would reform its lending policies, making loans contingent on environmental performance.
But while the Greenpeace report effectively turned the Brazilian beef and leather industry upside down, it was short on solutions. Banning cattle production in the Amazon is unlikely given the growing global beef demand, due largely to the surging middle-class appetite for meat in the emerging economies of Brazil, China, India, and Russia.
In the aftermath of the beef scandal, concerned parties have turned to an unlikely figure: a Texas rancher named John Cain Carter. Working in partnership with the Instituto de Pesquisa Ambiental da Amazônia (a Brazilian NGO), the Woods Hole Research Institute, and other groups, Carter’s organisation, Aliança da Terra, has devised a unique approach to promoting land stewardship in the Amazon, one that could eventually be applied to commodity production in ecologically sensitive areas around the world.
Carter is not a conventional Brazilian or Texas rancher. After serving in the first Gulf War, he married a Brazilian and ended up in the Amazon state of Mato Grosso. At that time, eastern Mato Grosso was a frontier in the truest sense of the word - a region without governance, where armed land invasion was rife, conflict between Indian tribes and outsiders raged, and disputes were settled in blood. The circumstances perpetuated a forest-clearing bonanza, and Carter moved to the Amazon during what was perhaps the greatest spasm of forest destruction ever. Some 79,000 square miles were destroyed between 1995 and 2004 - an area larger than Nebraska.