Amazon Rainforests Pay the Price as Demand for Beef Soars
Inquiry highlights concerns over ranching in heartland of Brazil
Four-year old Daniel Santos da Silva and his older brother Diego
Mota dos Santos, 10, heard their first gunshots in April. Their father
was shot in a dispute over land on a cattle ranch near the Brazilian
town of El Dorado, in the Amazonian state of Para. The boys heard he
was taken to hospital, but they have not seen him since.
ranch is called Espirito Santo, holy spirit, though goodwill to all men
is hard to find there. Heavily armed guards protect the thousands of
cattle that roam its lush pastures and the hacienda-style complex built
on a hill at the farm's centre, complete with swimming pool.
and Diego live on the muddy fringe of the farm in a hastily erected
collection of palm frond-roofed huts to shield them and a hundred-odd
other families from regular tropical downpours. They are squatters, but
squatters rights are rarely observed in Para.
Espirito Santo and
thousands of farms like it raise cattle on Amazonian pasture that was
once rainforest. The farms are huge, and so is their impact. The cattle
business is expanding rapidly in the Amazon, and now poses the biggest
threat to the 80% of the original forest that still stands. Where
loggers have made inroads to the edge of the forest in the states of
Para and Mato Grosso, farmers have followed.
A report today from
Greenpeace details a three-year investigation into these cattle farms
and the global trade in their products, many of which end up on sale in
Britain and Europe. Meat from the cattle is canned, packaged and
processed into convenience foods. Hides become leather for shoes and
trainers. Fat stripped from the carcasses is rendered and used to make
toothpaste, face creams and soap. Gelatin squeezed from bones,
intestines and ligaments thickens yoghurt and makes chewy sweets.
Greenpeace says it has lifted the lid on this trade to expose the "laundering" of cattle raised on illegally deforested land.
environment campaign group wants Brazilian companies that buy cattle to
boycott farms that have chopped down forest after an agreed date. To
get the industry onside, it is seeking pressure from multinational
brands that source their products in Brazil,
and, ultimately, from their customers. Three years ago, a similar
exposure of the trade in illegally grown Brazilian soya brought a rapid
response from the industry, and a moratorium on soya from newly
deforested farms that still holds.
Last month, the Guardian joined Greenpeace on an undercover visit to the cattle farming
heartland around the town of Maraba, deep inside the Amazon region.
While saving the rainforest is a fashionable cause in faraway developed
countries such as Britain, in Maraba it is a provocative and even
Many people in Maraba work at the
slaughterhouse perched on a hill that overlooks the town. The facility
is owned by the Brazilian firm Bertin, one of the companies targeted by
Greenpeace for buying cattle from farms linked to illegal deforestation.
After slaughter, Greenpeace says Bertin ships the meat, hides and other
products to an export facility in Lins, near Sao Paolo. From there,
they are shipped all over the world. The firm is Brazil's second
largest beef exporter and the largest leather exporter. It is also the
country's largest supplier of rawhide dog chews.
taking cattle from Amazon farms associated with deforestation. The
company says it "makes permanent investments in initiatives that
minimise impacts resulting from its activities" and that it seeks "to
be a reference in the sector". It says it has already blacklisted 138
suppliers for "irregularities".
Brazilian government records
obtained by Greenpeace show that 76 cattle were shipped to the Bertin
slaughterhouse in Maraba from Espirito Santo farm in May 2008. Another
380 were received in January this year.
Standing on Espirito Santo's shady veranda, Oscar Bollir, the farm manager, insists they do nothing wrong.
Brazilian law, such farms inside the Amazon region must retain 80% of
the original forest within their legal boundary. So why is there
pasture for as far as the eye can see? The farm is very big, Bollir
says, and most of the required forest is on the other side of some
low-slung hills in the distance.
The squatters on the farm, part
of a political movement to settle landless people on illegally snatched
farmland, are troublemakers, he says. "They don't want land they just
want trouble. They want to take all the farms." Earlier that day, he
says, he and his men had been forced to visit a neighbouring farm where
squatters had killed cattle. Unlike the previous incident on Espirito
Santo, when Daniel and Diego's father was shot alongside several
others, Bollir says, this time there had been no trouble.
He adds that he is aware of environmental concerns, but that his priority is to produce food and jobs. "Why are these other countries looking at Brazil and telling us what to do?"
next day, Greenpeace investigators flew over Espirito Santo - the group
has a single-engined plane donated by an anonymous British benefactor.
Bollir's promised bonanza of forest was not there. GPS data combined
with satellite images show that just 20% to 30% of the farm is
forested. A local lawyer also reported that during the nearby dispute
over the killed cattle, three squatters had been shot and injured.
Greenpeace report identifies dozens of farms like Espirito Santo that
it says break the rules across Para and Mato Grosso to supply Bertin
and other slaughter companies. Campaigners say there are probably
hundreds or even thousands more.
Cheap pasture from clearing and
seeding rainforest is very attractive to farmers without easy access to
the expensive agrichemicals and intensive land management techniques
used in more developed countries. Within a few years, the planted
pasture becomes overrun with native grass, unsuitable for cattle. Many
farmers then take the cheap option and knock down adjoining forest to
start again, leaving swaths of unproductive deforested land in their
Andre Muggiati, a campaigner with Greenpeace Brazil based
in the Amazon town of Manaus, says efforts to protect the forest in
frontier regions such as Para are crippled by a lack of effective
governance. Government inspections are inadequate and many farms are
not even registered so checks cannot be carried out. Casual violence
and intimidation are common. "It's totally unregulated and many people
behave as if the law does not apply to them. It's like the old US wild
west," he says.
Illegal deforestation is not the only problem:
farms are regularly exposed as using slave labour, and, like many
tropical forest regions, there are regular and violent clashes over
The problem is clear a three-hour flight across
the patchy forest from Maraba, where a clearing on the side of the
river is home to a few hundred Parakana people, a tribe with no contact
with the outside world until 1985.
Greenpeace can only reach the
village because its plane is equipped to land on the sluggish water,
but cattle farmers are steadily intruding. Hundreds of farms have been
set up in the surrounding reserve, and they are not welcome.
the invaders arrived there have been many problems," says Itanya, the
village chief. Food is harder to find, he says, and discontent is
growing. "If the government don't find a solution we will solve it
ourselves. We know how to make poison arrows and we are ready to kill
people." It is not an idle threat: in 2003 the bodies of three farmers
were discovered in the jungle not far from the village. Itanya says it
was the work of a neighbouring group.
"We asked them many times
to stay away," Kokoa, the chief of the neighbouring group, told the
Guardian through an interpreter. "They wouldn't, so one time we said to
them that you will never go back and you will stay here forever. We
killed them. We are proud that we defended our land."
Food for thought
How much of the Amazon rainforest has been lost and how quickly?
the 1970s, when satellite mapping of the region became available,
around a fifth of the rainforest has been destroyed, an area the size
of California. Greenpeace US estimates that, between 2007 and 2008,
another 3m acres (1.2m hectares) have been destroyed.
What is driving the destruction?
cattle farming and soy plantations are key, plus the increased
construction of dams and road, and shifting patterns of farming for
local people and mining (for diamonds, bauxite, manganese, iron, tin,
copper, lead and gold). These factors are often interlinked - trees are
cut down for timber and the cleared land can be used for grazing
cattle. Soybeans are then cultivated on the same land. Land is also
cleared for biofuel crops. According to Greenpeace, around 80% of the
area deforested in Brazil is now cattle pasture. Brazil's biggest
export markets for beef are Europe, the Middle East and Russia. Friends
of the Earth Brazil estimate that cattle farming in Brazil has been
responsible for 9bn-12bn tonnes of CO² emissions in the past decade,
almost equivalent to two years worth from the US. Infrastructure
projects such as hydroelectric dams also threaten the forests
because they cause large areas to be flooded. Currently, the biggest
planned project is the Tocantins River basin hydroelectric dam, the
effects of which stretch over a distance of 1,200 miles.
Why are cattle a particular problem?
2006, the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation found that the livestock
industry, from farm to fork, was responsible for 18% of all
anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions. In addition, livestock-rearing
can use up to 200 times more water a kilogram of meat compared to a
kilo of grain. Furthermore, global meat consumption is on the rise,
having increased by more than two and half times since 1970.
Who is trying to stop the destruction?
this year's climate change negotiations in Copenhagen, governments will
consider the "Redd" mechanism. This is the idea that richer countries
could offset their carbon emissions by paying to maintain forests in
tropical regions. The idea has roots in the 2006 review of the
economics of climate change by Nicholas Stern, who said £2.5bn a year
could be enough to prevent deforestation in the eight most important
countries. But Friends of the Earth says the proposals seem to be aimed
at setting up a way to profit from forests, rather than stop climate
change, and fail to protect the rights of those living in the forests.
2007, Greenpeace also came up with a plan to stop deforestation in the
Amazon by 2015. It included creating financial incentives to promote
forest protection; and increased support for agencies to monitor,
control, and inspect commercial activities. So far, only some of these
proposals have been taken up by the Brazilian government.