Sen. Ron Wyden speaks during a hearing

Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) speaks during a February 8, 2022 hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C.

(Photo: Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

Wyden Asks US Corporation About Possible Ties to Amazon Deforestation, Forced Labor

As part of his ongoing effort to rid auto supply chains of human rights and environmental abuses, the Oregon Democrat wants leather car seat manufacturer Lear to explain its sourcing practices.

U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden on Monday asked the Lear Corporation, the world's largest manufacturer of leather car seats, to answer questions about its transnational supply chain, which has "potential links" to illegal deforestation and forced labor in the Brazilian Amazon.

In his letter to Lear CEO Ray Scott, Wyden (D-Ore.), chair of the Senate Finance Committee, said the information he is seeking will aid the panel's ongoing probe of the effectiveness of current policies aimed at combating human rights and environmental abuses in the supply chains of products sold in the United States.

"Lear sources 70% of its leather supply from Brazil," Wyden wrote, citing a recent report from the Environmental Investigation Agency, a U.S.-based nonprofit. "There, Lear predominantly does business with JBS S.A., Vancouros Comercio de Couros LTDA, and Viposa S.A., hide producers known to source cattle from areas of the Amazon that have been illegally used for cattle production and which receive weak oversight from the Brazilian government."

"A 2021 New York Times exposé revealed that Lear's major direct suppliers each source cattle from illegally deforested ranches in protected areas of the Amazon," Wyden continued. "These ranches evade supply chain monitoring by moving cattle repeatedly over their lifetimes from illegal to legal ranches in a process known as 'cattle laundering.' In addition to encouraging deforestation, illegal ranching in the Amazon drives violent land grabs and human rights abuses subject to weak oversight by Brazilian law enforcement, which often fails to enforce environmental and human rights laws."

According to Wyden: "Such abuses include the prevalent use of slave labor to deforest ranching areas. Since 1995, more than 1,300 laborers have been discovered working in slavery conditions to clear forest, and this number is likely a significant underestimate due to laborers' fears of retaliation, including murder. In 2022, the United States Department of Labor Bureau of International Affairs listed cattle as one of the products Brazil is producing by forced labor or child labor."

Over the past two years, Wyden has been investigating the relationship between cattle ranching and deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon.

"This investigation is focused on the business practices of JBS S.A., which has allowed illegal deforestation to enter its cattle supply chain through indirect suppliers who engage in cattle laundering," the senator explained. "By complicating their supply chains, JBS's indirect suppliers are able to source cattle from ranches that engage in illegal land occupation and deforestation. In June 2023, the Finance Committee held a hearing on this investigation and pushed multinational beef producer JBS to stop turning a blind eye as parts of its supply chains burn down the Amazon, push the world toward climate catastrophe, and undercut American ranchers who play by the rules on international trade."

The reports and articles Wyden cited in his letter were published in 2022 and earlier, when Brazil was governed by Jair Bolsonaro. Illegal deforestation soared under the far-right former president, who turned a blind eye to the violence that logging, mining, and agribusiness companies used to repress environmental defenders.

Deforestation has fallen since leftist Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva took office in January and quickly restored efforts to crack down on clear-cutting and resumed the formal recognition of Indigenous lands, which has been shown to improve forest outcomes.

However, Lula still faces immense challenges, including strong opposition from corporate interests and right-wing Brazilian lawmakers. In addition, Bolsonaro's funding cuts weakened monitoring and enforcement to such a degree that organized crime groups are now deeply entrenched in the Amazon.

In the U.S., Section 307 of the Tariff Act of 1930 prohibits the importation of goods produced using forced labor. In 2016, U.S. Customs and Border Patrol's authority to prevent forced labor from entering the nation's supply chains was strengthened when Wyden worked with Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) to pass an amendment to the Trade Facilitation and Trade Enforcement Act.

Alluding to that legislation, Wyden asked Lear to answer a series of questions about its leather supply chains so that the Senate Finance Committee can better evaluate existing attempts to curb forced labor, including:

  • Does Lear conduct its own leather supply chain mapping and analysis of cattle production, beginning at birth and following transportation to all facilities at which the cow is held, through slaughter, processing, and finishing to determine whether any aspect of the supply chain is linked to forced labor?
  • Does Lear conduct analysis to determine whether its suppliers source cattle from ranches that were illegally occupied at the time of their transaction under Brazilian environmental laws, or from ranches that received amnesty grants following illegal occupation?
  • Does Lear require suppliers to perform due diligence analysis of their own sourcing to detect forced labor in their own supply chains? If so, how does Lear evaluate the validity of suppliers' due diligence methodology?

Wyden asked the Michigan-headquartered company to provide the requested information by August 7 at the latest.

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