Study Links Most Amazon Deforestation to 128 Slaughterhouses
By Eduardo Pegurier, Translated by Bruno Moraes
Satellites are mechanical reporters of the Amazon deforestation process. By documenting the degradation and gaps created by the clear-cutting process over the years, they deliver the verdict: Two-thirds of the Amazon's deforested area has been turned into pastures.
From the ground, the cattle count reveals that the Amazon is home to more cattle than people. By 2016, the region's cattle numbers amounted to 85 million head, compared to a human population of 25 million—more than three cows per person. In the city of São Félix do Xingu, which contains the largest herd in Brazil, this proportion reaches 18 cows to 1 person.
The Brazilian Amazon covers 61 percent of the nation's territory and harbors 40 percent of the national herd. Cattle are kept on about 400,000 farms and ranches there, ranging in size from a few to tens of thousands of hectares.
The Imazon study linked most Amazon deforestation to just 128 slaughterhouses.Rhett A. Butler / Mongabay
So it was that when the NGO Imazon finished a new and detailed survey on the region's slaughterhouses, they received a major surprise: finding that a small number, just 128 active slaughterhouses belonging to 99 companies, are responsible for 93 percent of the annual slaughter—close to 12 million head.
The fact that slaughterhouses represent a bottleneck in the livestock breeding chain was already known. But Imazon's survey breaks new ground because it clearly reveals the geography of livestock production in the Brazilian Amazon, documenting the area of influence—the amount of pasture required to fulfill the supply demands of each of the 128 slaughterhouses.
To put things in perspective, fulfilling the annual processing capacity of a single large meat processing plant requires almost 600 thousand hectares (2,317 square miles) of pasture, an area more than seven times larger than New York City. The set of slaughterhouses analyzed in the study, operating at full capacity, would require a pasture area of 68 million hectares (262,559 square miles, or roughly the size of Texas). Importantly, this amount exceeds the total pasture area available in the region today, indicating that in the near future cattle ranching will generate more Amazon deforestation.
Imazon's study results reinforce the correctness of the satellite record, documenting an ongoing Amazon deforestation process linked to the cattle industry.
With this reality in mind, the Federal Public Ministry (MPF), the independent federal prosecutor's office, has pressured the region's slaughterhouses to sign the so-called Beef Agreement since 2009, starting in the state of Pará. This contract, made between the MPF and each signing slaughterhouse, commits the firms to inspections of the pasture land where acquired animals originated, in order to ban cattle pasture expansions resulting in deforestation.
Paulo Barreto, the Imazon study lead researcher, explains the practicality of the processing plant contracts: "It was like having two options to address this issue: gathering managers for each of these 100 slaughterhouse firms in a conference room or, alternatively, filling five huge soccer stadiums with all the farmers involved in cattle ranching."
Fulfilling the annual processing capacity of a single large meat processing plant in the Amazon requires almost 600 thousand hectares (2,317 square miles) of pasture, an area more than seven times larger than New York City. The need for so much pasture has resulted in significant deforestation.Rhett A. Butler / Mongabay
The analysis detailing the influence of so few slaughterhouses on almost the entire Amazon cattle industry involved detective work and geo-processing technology.
The first step was to obtain the addresses of every large meatpacking plant and certify them by using high-definition satellite images to look for typical facilities, such as corrals and wastewater treatment systems. From there, researchers wanted to answer two questions: What was the potential cattle supply range for each slaughterhouse? And, how do these potential pasture supply zones relate to already deforested areas and to those that are at higher risk of deforestation in the near future?
The researchers determined the maximum distance between each slaughterhouse and its suppliers by interviewing local managers by phone, then crossing data. There were extreme cases at both ends of the spectrum, including one plant in the state of Acre which did not buy cattle raised any farther away than 20 kilometers (12.4 miles) from their door. On the other extreme, a slaughterhouse in the state of Amazonas acquired animals from more than 1,000 kilometers (621 miles) away to compensate for a local livestock shortage during the dry season.
The study dealt with two slaughterhouse categories: those with a state license, which allows them to sell meat within their states; and those with a federal license, allowing the firms to sell country-wide and for export. On average, meatpacking plants with state licenses have the capacity to slaughter 180 animals per day, and buy from farms that can be up to 153 kilometers (95 miles) away. Plants with national licenses can slaughter 700 animals per day, brought from up to 360 kilometers (223 miles) away.
The next step in the analysis process, based on the maximum pasture to meat processing plant distances, was to establish the potential area that supplied each slaughterhouse—a goal accomplished with geospatial technology.
Satellite image of the JBS slaughterhouse in Santana do Araguaia, in the state of Pará, Brazil. Google Earth
"Imazon has an extensive database of formal and informal roads in the Amazon, which has been updated since 2008," said Amintas Brandão Jr., a study co-author. "We ran a spatial analysis in which you insert the coordinates of the slaughterhouse in the software and its maximum buying distance, say 100 kilometers. Then the software automatically goes through all the roads and navigable rivers accessible to that slaughterhouse up to those 100 kilometers distant. Thus, we have been able to delineate a potential supply zone." According to Brandão, this was the study's novelty: it establishes each slaughterhouse's area of influence using the infrastructure network—the systems of roads and navigable rivers through which cattle can be transported.
Importantly, the total pasture zone of influence corresponding to all 128 analyzed slaughterhouses covers almost the entirety of areas embargoed due to deforestation by Ibama, the federal agency that polices environmental offenses. It also matches 88 percent of all deforestation that occurred in the Amazon between 2010 and 2015.
Also importantly, the study generated a forecast of the most likely future deforested areas in the Brazilian Amazon.
Again, the researchers utilized geospatial analysis software. They divided the entire region into a grid of 1 kilometer-wide squares. The probability of future deforestation was estimated for each square based on the presence of factors that stimulate forest destruction, such as available roads or rivers for transportation, distance to markets and land production potential. Using this data, they created a map of deforestation probability for the entire Brazilian Amazon. Then the researchers used the deforested area for the three previous years—1.7 million hectares (17,000 square kilometers; 6,564 square miles)—as an estimate of total forest loss that can happen in the three year period between 2016 to 2018. Based on this probability map, they determined the areas under higher risk of new deforestation. The last step was to overlap these projections and the slaughterhouses' zones of potential supply. The match between the two was 90 percent.
In other words, if the current deforestation rates are repeated between 2016 and 2018, 90 percent of new forest loss will occur within the estimated cattle supply zone of 128 slaughterhouses.
If the Amazon's current deforestation rate is repeated between 2016 and 2018, then 90 percent of new forest loss will occur within the estimated cattle supply zone of the 128 slaughterhouses.Rhett A. Butler / Mongabay
Consequences and Solutions
"From the surveillance point of view, this work can help control deforestation by showing where its hot spots are," said Brandão.
According to Barreto, "it is impressive how small is the number of slaughterhouse firms that sit at the end of a [cattle supply] chain that involves almost 400,000 ranchers." For him, this confirms that the best way to reduce forest loss due to livestock is to involve the slaughterhouses in the deforestation surveillance, as the MPF agreements require.
But Barreto also points out problems with this approach: 30 percent of the slaughters are done by meat processing firms that have not signed the Beef Agreement. That means that these firms do not inspect the place of origin of their cattle. Worse, these slaughterhouses are located in the same area of activity as those who have signed the agreement, thus becoming alternatives for the sale of cattle raised in illegally opened pastures.
Imazon's study created a detailed picture of the influence that slaughterhouses can have on deforestation. "We already have a map, and the technologies are available to trace cattle from the ranches where they are bred all the way to intermediate fattening ranches, and to the slaughter sites," said Barreto. "Now, we need consistent legal pressure and punishment for breeders and meatpackers who condone environmental crimes."
The new study forecasts that serious Amazon deforestation will likely continue to occur unless effective enforcement policies are adopted to monitor and control the pasture usage of the region's slaughterhouses. Rhett A. Butler / Mongabay
This sort of pressure, he said, came from the market itself in the case of foot-and-mouth disease, when the cattle industry realized that it would lose global markets if an effective vaccination program wasn't implemented. The pinch from the market led farmers to organize themselves and to partner with the government to effectively control foot-and-mouth disease, which was quite a feat.
Likewise, if the government and slaughterhouses have the will, he says, then they can work together to end ranching activities that bring down forests. For Barreto, a good starting point for reducing deforestation would be the creation of a new round of beef sector law enforcement pressure administered by the MPF and Ibama. Such a move would be a huge step toward achieving zero deforestation in the Amazon.
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Democrats in the House and Senate have introduced legislation to ban some of the most toxic pesticides currently in use in the U.S. D-Keine / E+ / Getty Images
By Jake Johnson
Democrats in the House and Senate on Tuesday introduced sweeping legislation that would ban some of the most toxic pesticides currently in use in the U.S. and institute stronger protections for farmworkers and communities that have been exposed to damaging chemicals by the agriculture industry.
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The Australian government has announced a A$190 million (US$130 million) investment in the nation's first Recycling Modernization Fund, with the aim of transforming the country's waste and recycling industry. The hope is that as many as 10,000 jobs can be created in what is being called a "once in a generation" opportunity to remodel the way Australia deals with its waste.
Waste Mountain<p>The need for a dramatic increase in Australia's recycling capacity pre-dates the COVID-19 pandemic. <a href="https://www.abc.net.au/news/2019-12-27/where-does-all-australias-waste-go/11755424" target="_blank">Australians create approximately 67 million tons of waste a year</a>, and like in many wealthy countries, much of that was sent overseas. That all changed when China announced it was <a href="https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2017/10/china-has-banned-foreign-waste-so-whats-the-future-of-world-recycling" target="_blank">banning the import of a huge range of foreign waste</a> and recyclables. Soon <a href="https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2019/05/malaysia-flooded-with-plastic-waste-to-send-back-some-scrap-to-source" target="_blank">other countries followed suit</a>, and Australia was forced to look for alternative solutions.</p>
Biggest exporters of plastic. Statista
Waste Export Ban<p>Australia has adopted a strategy of taking responsibility for its own waste. Starting in January 2021, it is phasing in <a href="http://www.environment.gov.au/protection/waste-resource-recovery/waste-export-ban" target="_blank">bans on the export of different forms of waste</a>. By mid 2024, Australia's home-grown recycling industry will have to deal with an extra 650,000 tons of waste plastic, paper, glass and tires.</p><p>"As we cease shipping our waste overseas, the waste and recycling transformation will reshape our domestic waste industry, driving job creation and putting valuable materials back into the economy," federal environment minister Sussan Ley said in a <a href="https://uk.reuters.com/article/us-australia-waste/australia-to-set-up-132-million-fund-to-boost-recycling-following-export-curbs-idUKKBN247060" target="_blank">statement to Reuters</a>.</p>
Timeline for Australia's waste export ban. Australian Government
Trash Into Treasure<p>The benefits to the environment of boosting recycling rates are well known – less landfill, less plastic in our ocean, reduced need for virgin materials, and lower carbon emissions. The Recycling Modernization Fund initiative aims to divert more than 10 million tons of waste from landfill, part of an <a href="http://www.environment.gov.au/protection/waste-resource-recovery/publications/national-waste-policy-action-plan" target="_blank">overall strategy to reduce the total waste generated per person by 10%</a>, and push <a href="https://www.environment.gov.au/system/files/resources/7381c1de-31d0-429b-912c-91a6dbc83af7/files/national-waste-report-2018.pdf" target="_blank">Australia's total resource recovery rate from 58% in 2017</a> to 80% by 2030.</p><p>But like many countries, Australia is focusing on the economic benefits of better waste management as well.</p><p>"This will mean Australia converts more waste into higher valued resources ready for reuse locally by manufacturers and brands in their packaging and products," Rose Read, CEO of the National Waste and Recycling Industry Council, <a href="https://uk.reuters.com/article/us-australia-waste/australia-to-set-up-132-million-fund-to-boost-recycling-following-export-curbs-idUKKBN247060" target="_blank">told Reuters</a>.</p>
Green Jobs<p>The great potential of the circular economy to create green jobs is being recognized across the world.</p><p>In the UK, the Waste and Resources Action Program has launched a <a href="https://wrap.org.uk/buildbackbetter" target="_blank">six-point plan which it claims could add $90 billion to the economy, and create 500,000 new jobs</a>. Investment in the circular economy forms a significant part of the <a href="https://www.nytimes.com/2020/07/14/us/politics/biden-climate-plan.html" target="_blank">$2 trillion climate plan that Democratic candidate Joe Biden</a> is taking into November's US presidential election. And the <a href="https://ec.europa.eu/commission/presscorner/detail/en/ip_20_940" target="_blank">European Union has put its Green New Deal at the heart of its plans for recovery</a> from the economic shock of COVID-19.</p><p>The World Economic Forum's <a href="http://www3.weforum.org/docs/WEF_The_Future_Of_Nature_And_Business_2020.pdf" target="_blank">Future of Nature and Business</a> report identifies 15 systemic transitions with annual business opportunities worth $10 billion a year that could create 395 million jobs by 2030.</p><p>As is the case with Australia's Recycling Modernization Fund, a combination of private enterprise and government investment can offer ways to get people back to work by building a more environmentally sustainable economy.</p>
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The Great American Outdoors Act is now the law of the land.
<div id="e0008" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="ffc07febbf5d2d585ad06d3f43e2be56"><blockquote class="twitter-tweet twitter-custom-tweet" data-twitter-tweet-id="1290667833999929344" data-partner="rebelmouse"><div style="margin:1em 0">🚨Breaking News: The President has just signed the bipartisan #GreatAmericanOutdoorsAct. It will help: 🏗️ Restore… https://t.co/RPefKPMn7S</div> — Fix Our Parks (@Fix Our Parks)<a href="https://twitter.com/FixOurParksUS/statuses/1290667833999929344">1596554165.0</a></blockquote></div>
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By Andrew J. Whelton and Caitlin R. Proctor
In recent years wildfires have entered urban areas, causing breathtaking destruction.
Survivors left everything to flee the Camp Fire's path. Andrew Whelton / Purdue University
Wildfires and Water<p>Both the Tubbs and Camp fires destroyed fire hydrants, water pipes and meter boxes. Water leaks and ruptured hydrants were common. The Camp Fire inferno spread at a speed of one football field per second, chasing everyone – including water system operators – out of town.</p><p>After the fires passed, testing ultimately revealed widespread hazardous drinking water contamination. Evidence suggests that the toxic chemicals originated from a combination of <a href="https://doi.org/10.1002/aws2.1183" target="_blank">burning vegetation, structures and plastic materials</a>.</p>
Pipes, water meters and meter covers after wildfires destroyed them. Caitlin Proctor, Amisha Shah, David Yu, and Andrew Whelton/Purdue University
Dangerous Contamination Levels<p>Benzene was found at concentrations of 40,000 parts per billion (ppb) in drinking water after the Tubbs Fire and at more than 2,217 ppb after the Camp Fire. According to the California Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment, children exposed to benzene for a single day can suffer <a href="https://engineering.purdue.edu/PlumbingSafety/resources/Benzene-Levels-in-Water.pdf" target="_blank">harm at levels as low as 26 ppb</a>.</p><p>The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency recommends limiting children's short-term acute exposure to <a href="https://www.epa.gov/sites/production/files/2018-03/documents/dwtable2018.pdf" target="_blank">200 ppb</a>, and long-term exposure to less than <a href="https://www.epa.gov/ground-water-and-drinking-water/national-primary-drinking-water-regulations" target="_blank">5 ppb</a>. The EPA regulatory level for what constitutes a hazardous waste is <a href="https://19january2017snapshot.epa.gov/sites/production/files/2015-06/documents/tclp.pdf" target="_blank">500 ppb</a>.</p><p>In early 2019, California conducted contaminated water testing on humans by taking contaminated water from the Paradise Irrigation District and asking persons to smell it. The state found that even when people smelled contaminated water that had less than 200 ppb benzene, <a href="https://engineering.purdue.edu/PlumbingSafety/resources/Dissipatiion-of-Burn-Related-VOC-From-Water.pdf" target="_blank">at least one person reported nausea and throat irritation</a>. The test also showed that water contained a variety of other benzene-like compounds that first responders had not sampled for.</p><p>The officials who carried out this small-scale test did not appear to realize the significance of what they had done, until we asked whether they had had their action approved in advance by an institutional review board. In response, they asserted that such a review was not needed.</p><p>In our view, this episode is telling for two reasons. First, one subject reported an adverse health effect after being exposed to water that contained benzene at a level below the EPA's recommended one-day limit for children. Second, doing this kind of test without proper oversight suggests that officials greatly underestimated the potential for serious contamination of local water supplies and public harm. After the Camp Fire, together with the EPA, we estimated that some plastic pipes needed <a href="https://engineering.purdue.edu/PlumbingSafety/opinions/Final-HDPE-Service-Line-Decontamination-2019-03-18.pdf" target="_blank">more than 280 days</a> of flushing to make them safe again.</p>
Plastic pipes can be damaged by heat and fire contact. Andrew Whelton / Purdue University
Building Codes Could Make Areas Disaster-Ready<p>Our research underscores that community building codes are inadequate to prevent wildfire-caused pollution of drinking water and homes.</p><p>Installing one-way valves, called backflow prevention devices, at each water meter can prevent contamination rushing out of the damaged building from flowing into the larger buried pipe network.</p><p>Adopting codes that required builders to install fire-resistant meter boxes and place them farther from vegetation would help prevent infrastructure from burning so readily in wildfires. Concrete meter boxes and water meters with minimal plastic components would be less likely to ignite. Some plastics may be practically impossible to make safe again, since all types are susceptible to fire and heat.</p><p>Water main shutoff valves and water sampling taps should exist at every water meter box. Sample taps can help responders quickly determine water safety.</p>
<span style="display:block;position:relative;padding-top:56.25%;" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="9540d7e271306ed417112042a3efc9a4"><iframe lazy-loadable="true" src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/GnlrzI1wdAI?rel=0" width="100%" height="auto" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" style="position:absolute;top:0;left:0;width:100%;height:100%;"></iframe></span>
The Smell Test Doesn’t Work<p>Under no circumstance should people be told to <a href="https://www.waterboards.ca.gov/press_room/press_releases/2018/pr122418_voc.pdf" target="_blank">smell the water</a> to determine its safety, as was recommended for months after the Camp Fire. Many chemicals have no odor when they are harmful. Only testing can determine safety.</p><p>Ordering people to boil their water will not make it safe if it contains toxic chemicals that enter the air. Boiling just transmits those substances into the air faster. "Do not use" orders can keep people safe until agencies can test the water. Before such advisories are lifted or modified, regulators should be required to carry out a full chemical screen of the water systems. Yet, <a href="https://doi.org/10.1002/aws2.1183" target="_blank">disaster</a> after <a href="https://pubs.rsc.org/en/content/articlehtml/2017/ew/c5ew00294j" target="_blank">disaster</a>, government agencies have failed to take this step.</p><p>Buildings should be tested to find contamination. <a href="https://www.purdue.edu/newsroom/releases/2020/Q1/study-your-homes-water-quality-could-vary-by-the-room-and-the-season.html" target="_blank">Home drinking water quality can differ from room to room</a>, so reliable testing should sample both cold and hot water at many locations within each building.</p><p>While infrastructure is being repaired, survivors need a safe water supply. Water treatment devices sold for home use, such as refrigerator and faucet water filters, are not approved for extremely contaminated water, although product sales representatives and government officials may <a href="https://undark.org/2019/09/19/camp-fire-california-drinking-water-carcinogens/" target="_blank">mistakenly think</a> the devices can be used for that purpose.</p><p>To avoid this kind of confusion, external technical experts should be called in assist local public health departments, which can quickly become overwhelmed after disasters.</p>
<div id="71cf9" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="e059d199e8368d282a31601e372e4dda"><blockquote class="twitter-tweet twitter-custom-tweet" data-twitter-tweet-id="1204068265980547075" data-partner="rebelmouse"><div style="margin:1em 0">The Los Angeles City Council's Planning and Land Use Committee signed off on an effort to expand the city's fire-re… https://t.co/fP8Z8mUq7R</div> — IntlCodeCouncil (@IntlCodeCouncil)<a href="https://twitter.com/IntlCodeCouncil/statuses/1204068265980547075">1575907219.0</a></blockquote></div>
Preparing for Future Fires<p>The damage that the Tubbs and Camp fires caused to local water systems was preventable. We believe that urban and rural communities, as well as state legislatures, should establish codes and lists of authorized construction materials for high-risk areas. They also should establish rapid methods to assess health, prepare for water testing and decontamination, and set aside emergency water supplies.</p><p>Wildfires are coming to urban areas. Protecting drinking water systems, buried underground or in buildings, is one thing communities can do to prepare for that reality.</p>
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"We don't have a definition of life," says Kevin Peter Hand, one early California morning when we speak via video. "We don't actually know what life is."