New Film Shines Light on Cattle Industry Link to Amazon Deforestation
By Anna Sophie Gross
"The cow is the worst environmental problem in the Amazon, and in the world," says Greenpeace's Paulo Adario, speaking out in a new documentary which this April won the One Hour prize at the Film Research and Sustainable Development Festival ((FReDD) earlier this month.
In his ground-breaking documentary, Grazing the Amazon, Director Marcio Isensee e Sa alerts audiences to the fact that approximately one fifth of the Amazon has already been cut down, and attests that nearly 80 percent of this deforestation is attributable to the cattle industry. The film traces the history of the Amazon's invasion by entrepreneurial ranchers, and examines the responsibility of all major actors in the supply chain, including livestock growers, slaughterhouses and government.
Documentary director, Marcio Isensee e Sá in action aboard an IBAMA environmental agency helicopter during a federal operation to crack down on illegal deforestation inside Jamanxim National Forest, Novo Progresso municipality, Pará state. Bernardo Camara
Throughout the documentary, Amazonian ranchers operating in deforestation hotspots voice a recurring theme: a sense of entitled impunity which flies in the face of government land use restrictions and imposed environmental fines. According to analysts, ranchers' flaunting of the law is largely facilitated by the bancada ruralista, the agribusiness lobby which has a huge influence on Brazilian politics—this powerful caucus includes just under half of all deputies in the lower house of congress, dominates policymaking by the Temer administration, and often panders to ranchers' interests.
In perhaps the most explosive revelation of the film, which documents this marriage between agribusiness and politics, former Minister for the Environment, José Sarney Filho, tells the filmmakers that he has advance knowledge of the impending Carne Fria (Cold Flesh) sting operation, which took place in March 2017, and saw huge meatpacking companies penalized for deforestation taking place within their supply chain.
This interview takes place mere days before Sarney Filho released a video directed at key agricultural sector players, apologizing for the untimely nature of the federal operation, and claiming that he had not been warned in advance by Brazil's environmental agency that the sting was going to take place.
Cattle Ranching Long Linked to Deforestation
The documentary provides considerable historical background as to how ranching originally came to drive Amazon deforestation. Using interviews and archive footage, Sa shows how the Brazilian government began incentivizing occupation of the then largely untouched Amazon by entrepreneurs and ranchers in the 1960s, looking to colonize the land before foreigners did. Nationally funded roads were cut through the rainforest throughout the 1970s, and would-be ranchers were encouraged to transform public land into pasture. The incentive: If the ranchers did not deforest at least 50 percent of the property they were working, they were not awarded a land title by the government.
Often, the tree cutting was accomplished by manual labor working in conditions analogous to slavery. One rancher tells how he and a neighbor coerced 200 men into felling trees on their parcel of land in 1994.
"We rented a big shed, hired and set up a cook inside and gave plenty of cachaça [an alcoholic drink made from sugarcane] to these men. We went to every brothel, hotel and street corner and picked up men, paying their bills and leading them inside the shed. Two gunmen stayed at the front door and two at the back so no one could flee. Kind of held there against their will, right? We wouldn't let them leave."
He tells how the police supported the operation, marching the captive men single file from the shack to a ferry so that they could not escape. Upon landing, they were force marched through 15 kilometers (9 miles) of forest and told to begin cutting down trees.
"Was this forced labor?" he asks, laughing. "Perhaps it was, but there really wasn't an alternative. That was the reality of that world."
It wasn't until the 1990s that environmental NGOs got wind of the alarming rates of deforestation taking place in the Amazon. In 2004, news that a forest area had been lost equivalent in size to Belgium resulted in international pressure being placed on slaughterhouses to stop buying meat from ranchers who had illegally deforested their land.
In 2009, the three major Brazilian slaughterhouses operating in the Amazon—JBS, Marfrig and Minerva—signed zero-deforestation agreements with Greenpeace and the Brazilian government in which they vowed to only buy cattle from ranchers who had behaved within the law.
Documentary director, Marcio Isensee e Sá filming illegal cattle pasture in Jamanxim National Forest, a protected area located in Novo Progresso municipality, Pará state.Bernardo Camara
According to the Brazilian Forest Code, landowners in the Amazon can only legally cultivate 20 percent of their property; the rest must be preserved as native vegetation. However, in the historical context of governmental support for deforestation, along with current official lenience regarding enforcement of the law, many ranchers remain reluctant to comply with the forest code, seeing little benefit in it for them, and seeking loopholes by which they can transform their land from unprofitable forest to lucrative pastureland.
Many interviewees in the film are strikingly candid concerning their self-interest. One rancher explains that it is simply much more profitable to raise cattle on land in the Amazon than it is to produce anything else: "I'll never stop raising cattle. Never. As long as I'm still blinking my eyelids, I'll keep struggling on," he says. This man claims that his fellow ranchers find ways to keep on illegally selling livestock to slaughterhouses, even after being caught deforesting.
One technique: continue fattening cattle on illegally deforested land, then transfer the stock to a friend's legally cleared pasture just days before the animals go to the slaughterhouse, concealing their true origin. Or the ranchers may falsify records, putting portions of the land they own and graze under other family members' names. These techniques are known collectively as "cattle-washing," and are rife in the Brazilian Amazon, say experts.
Recent research, published in January of this year, corroborates the stories told in the film, offering evidence that the zero-deforestation cattle agreements made with slaughterhouses are having little to no effect on ranchers' behavior. The researchers cross-checked data compiled regarding the locations of cattle vaccinations, and found that hundreds of thousands of cattle continue to graze on areas in Southwest Pará state which were meant to be excluded from the beef supply chain, per the terms of slaughterhouse cattle agreements.
A key problem: the lack of transparency in the nation's beef supply chain. The major meat companies in Brazil operate through a complex supply chain; livestock owners are constantly buying, selling, and reselling cattle, moving them from ranch to ranch, which makes it exceedingly difficult to determine the origin of each head of cattle. While meat companies JBS, Marfrig and Minerva have achieved good oversight of their direct suppliers, they have little to no insight into their indirect suppliers—and that, say experts, is where the grand majority of cattle washing occurs.
Smoke signals the use of fire, a primitive but effective tool used to clear away forest in Marcelândia, Mato Grosso. Marcio Isensee
Sustainable Beef Offers Hope for Forests
Not all the news is bad for forests. The documentary strikes a hopeful tone when it focuses on sustainable cattle ranching, practiced by a few Amazonian landowners. One interviewee describes how he makes grazing on already degraded land 14 times more efficient than that achieved by other ranchers: he divides up his land into quadrants, plants lots of grass everywhere, then rotates his cattle from one grassy segment to the next.
"We wanted to include people [in the documentary] that are more progressive and are trying to do the right thing," explained Paulo Barreto, a senior researcher at Imazon who worked on the documentary. "We knew that these people existed and it's good to have them saying in their own words that we don't need to deforest anymore."
The challenge faced by environmentalists: how to scale up these rarely practiced, but viable, sustainable ranching techniques.
"These methods are pretty straightforward. However, they require some skill and lots of investment to work, which are both conditions that are rarely met by Amazonian farmers," said Eduardo Pegurier, professor at PUC University in Rio de Janeiro, editor of the ((O)) eco news service in Brazil, and one of the co-creators of Grazing the Amazon.
Government laxness regarding cattle-driven deforestation, and a failure by the state to offer incentives to encourage sustainable ranching, are partly to blame. There are at present few promising initiatives aimed at improving pasture productivity, and at accurately monitoring the deforestation that occurs along the indirect and direct supply chain leading to slaughterhouses.
One existing sustainability program is run by Pecsa, a ranch-management firm based in Mato Grosso state which helps farmers transform highly degraded land into productive pasture, thereby reducing new deforestation. Pecsa takes over ranches for between six to eight years, and has a record of making the properties it supervises roughly seven times more productive, while also tracking indirect and direct cattle suppliers. The firm, which currently manages 10,000 hectares (25,000 acres), receives external funding from The European Investment Fund, which means that contracting ranchers pay nothing for the service.
"We intend to expand in our region of Mato Grosso," the firm's creator, Laurent Micol, told Mongabay. "Once it reaches an adequate scale, we'll be ready to replicate it elsewhere in the Amazon."
However, Barrreto warns, the success of such sustainability schemes rests heavily on a swift response from the market. Amazon deforestation is currently very profitable for cattle ranchers, and that needs to change if sustainable livestock raising is to have a chance.
Many argue that in order to sever the link between deforestation and cattle, the government needs to put financial deforestation disincentives in place. Ranchers must either face substantial fines or prison terms for breaking the law, and be prevented from supplying to the national and global market when they deforest.
Barreto believes that the government's current lack of enforcement capacity, and its unwillingness to severely punish environmental offenders, indicates the need for a new approach. International and national beef producers, he says, should enforce strict rules regarding who slaughterhouses are buying from, and who they are funding.
Recently deforested land in the Brazilian Amazon being used to raise cattle, Novo Progresso municipality, Pará state. Marcio Isensee
Putting Added State Pressure on Slaughterhouses
Many environmental activists advocate for the application of increased legal pressure on slaughterhouses who buy beef from inside Legal Amazonia. They note that just 110 slaughterhouses are responsible for the processing of 93 percent of all cattle in the Brazilian Amazon. With state pressure, supply chain transparency could be increased among these meat processors, allowing them to trace all of the meat they purchase, including that coming from indirect suppliers, the source of most of the deforestation.
At the moment, none of the three major slaughterhouses have such monitoring programs.
Barreto emphasized the critical role that Brazil's independent Federal Prosecutor Offices could play in investigating slaughterhouses and holding them accountable for failing to monitor their supply chains. In fact, many Amazonian federal prosecutors have recently called on slaughterhouses to submit supplier audits.
Pará state became the first to release this type of detailed data last month. Meatpacking companies were asked to answer questions relating to the cattle they purchased in 2016 and, according to the data, more than 146,000 head of cattle were acquired from deforested land. JBS performed worst in comparison to other audited companies. The firm accounted for 84,420 head of cattle, 57 percent of livestock that had come from illegally deforested areas that year, and it received a 19 percent non-compliance score. The MasterBoi company raised the second highest livestock count on deforested land, at 28,231 head, with Frigol the third highest at 8,290 head and Aliança the fourth highest at 7,530 head.
In what is deemed a disappointing response by environmentalists, the Federal Prosecutors' Office in Pará chose not to adopt sanctions against the slaughterhouses who performed badly in the cattle deforestation audits. According to Attorney General Daniel Azeredo, who has been at the helm of zero-deforestation agreements since 2009, it is now up to the market to reward the companies with the best audit results, something few experts expect to happen.
The Mato Grosso state Prosecutors' Office has yet to release the results of the livestock/deforestation audits it has received from slaughterhouses. The Attorney General of Mato Grosso told Mongabay that no date for the release of this data has been set, because prosecutors have been unable to overcome the slaughterhouses' data protection policies.
One of the cattle producers interviewed for Grazing the Amazon summarized the current situation: "The law is weak, it punishes nobody."
For now, with the government actively employing neither stick nor carrot, it seems little will happen to change the status quo or to end illegal deforestation due to cattle ranching in the Amazon. It is conceivable, though analysts say unlikely, that the situation could change with October's Brazilian elections.
Following the Money
Barreto believes that there are other things that could be done to solve the problem besides penalizing those who buy cattle fattened on newly deforested land. Banks have historically been major funders of big meat processing conglomerates in Brazil, and these financial institutions could bring pressure to bear on slaughterhouses with known connections to illegal deforestation within their supply chains.
For example, Brazil's gigantic national development bank, BNDES, has a 21 percent stake in JBS, and so could put economic pressure on the meatpacker. In fact, the government-run Norwegian Oil Fund, which invested $144,000 in JBS, came under fire earlier this month for failing to call into question proven deforestation in the meatpacking company's supply chain.
Perhaps as importantly, the public needs to be made aware of the alarming extent of rainforest destruction occurring at the hands of the cattle industry. Which is where Grazing the Amazon comes in, a film produced by ((O)) eco and Imazon, and sponsored by the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation and the Norwegian Agency for Development Cooperation (Norad). It offers invaluable insight into the environmental damage caused by ranchers, and provides a model for a sustainable and economically lucrative alternative.
The ultimate practical solution is clear: Academic researchers and environmentalists agree that there is already a wealth of degraded land in the Amazon which could be profitably utilized by cattle ranchers; there is simply no need to deforest further. All that is required is the will, the sanctions and the market incentives, to bring positive change into being.
Reposted with permission from our media associate Mongabay.
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By Zahida Sherman
Cooking has always intimidated me. As a child, I would anxiously peer into the kitchen as my mother prepared Christmas dinner for our family.
Falling in Love With Food All Over Again<p>Slowly, through my most intimate relationships with friends and partners, I began to see the beauty — and rewards — of cooking.</p><p>I got tired of giving in to defeat and always bringing chips or paper products to social gatherings. I started asking my mom to send me her Christmas and Thanksgiving recipes. I even volunteered to host Thanksgiving dinner at my place.</p><p>Each time I heard my loved ones sing the praises of the foods I prepared for them, I felt a tinge more confident that I could carry out our traditions my way.</p><p>In reaching out to other relatives for their favorite recipes, I learned that they had a little help of their own. They didn't rely solely on their ancestral cooking instincts. They turned to Black chefs for guidance.</p><p>These 7 cookbooks by Black chefs have inspired my family and fed us in nutrients, joy, and spiritual sustenance. They're also helping me overcome my personal fears of cooking.</p>
Get CookingWhether you're in recovery from cooking fears like me, or are just looking to expand your culinary confidence with dishes honoring Black heritage, these Black chefs are here to support you on your journey.Turn on some music, give yourself permission to make mistakes, and throw down for yourself or your loved ones. Glorious flavors await you.
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By Tara Lohan
The conclusion to decades of work to remove a dam on the Middle Fork Nooksack River east of Bellingham, Washington began with a bang yesterday as crews breached the dam with a carefully planned detonation. This explosive denouement is also a beginning.
The History<p>The Middle Fork Nooksack drains glacier-fed headwater streams that run off the icy summit of 10,778-foot Mt. Baker. The Middle Fork joins the North Fork and then the mainstem of the Nooksack River, which travels to Bellingham Bay and Puget Sound. The entire Nooksack watershed stretches 830 square miles across Washington and into British Columbia.</p>
A Plan Comes Together<p>The Middle Fork dam is not a pool dam built for water storage. Much of the time, water flows over the top until dam operators drop a floodgate to divert water to new locations. That water travels about 14 miles through tunnel and pipeline to Mirror Lake, then Anderson Creek, and to Lake Whatcom before finally being delivered to residents' taps.</p><p>Before removing the dam, engineers had to move the water intake 700 feet upstream and situate it at an elevation that still enabled city water withdrawals throughout the year, regardless of flow conditions.</p><p>They also needed to make sure that the rushing water didn't sweep up fish and accidentally send them through the water-supply system.</p><p>"The solution required a fairly complex design in the intake structure, including a fish exit pipe out of that structure to put fish back into the river in a way that meets current environmental permit standards," explains LaCroix.</p>
Project layout for the removal of the Middle Fork Nooksack diversion dam and rebuilding of water intake. City of Bellingham<p>Despite the cost and the work, she says, being able to continue to meet their municipal water obligations while opening up habitat for threatened species has been a win-win.</p><p>"I think there's a lot of benefits to having a dam removal versus fish passage — the main one being that you get a free-flowing river that can be a dynamic ecosystem and change over time," she says. "A static fish ladder just can't provide that same level of ecosystem benefit."</p>
Restoration Success<p>Despite local authorities' championing dam removal on the Middle Fork, the project has largely flown under the radar, overshadowed in the Pacific Northwest by heated discussions about a much larger potential project — removing <a href="https://www.seattletimes.com/seattle-news/feds-reject-removal-of-4-snake-river-dams-in-key-report/" target="_blank">four federal hydroelectric dams on the lower Snake River</a>, a major tributary of the Columbia River.</p><p>Proponents of dam removal there see it as the best chance for recovering threatened salmon populations, including Chinook, which could help starving Southern Resident killer whales. Those dams also provide irrigation water, barge navigation and hydropower, so there's been more pushback against removal efforts.</p><p>Previous dam removals around the country, however, have proved successful at aiding fish recovery and river restoration.</p><p>Most notably the 1999 demolition of <a href="https://therevelator.org/edwards-dam-removal/" target="_blank">Edwards Dam on Maine's Kennebec River</a> restored the annual run of alewives, a type of herring essential to the food web. The fish run has gone from zero to 5 million in the two decades since dam removal. Blueback herring, striped bass, sturgeon and shad have also extended their reach. And the resurgence has brought back osprey, bald eagles and other wildlife, too.</p><p>The overwhelming success of river restoration on the Kennebec helped to spur a nationwide dam removal movement that's now seen 1,200 dams come down since 1999. Last year a record <a href="https://www.americanrivers.org/conservation-resource/a-record-26-states-removed-dams-in-2019/" target="_blank">90 dams</a> were removed in 26 states, including <a href="https://therevelator.org/cleveland-forest-dam-removal/" target="_blank">20 dams in California's Cleveland National Forest</a>.</p>
Spider excavators remove on dam on San Juan Creek in California's Cleveland National Forest. Julie Donnell, USFS<p>The results have been seen in the Pacific Northwest, as well, which boasts the largest dam removal thus far in the country. In 2011 and 2014, the demolition of <a href="https://therevelator.org/elwha-dam-removal/" target="_blank">two dams</a> on Elwha River, which runs through Washington's Olympic National Park, opened up 70 miles of habitat that had been blocked for a century. Scientists have started seeing all five species of salmon native to the river coming back, particularly Chinook and coho. Bull trout, they've observed, have increased in size since the dams were removal.</p>
Benefits on the Middle Fork Nooksack<p>McEwan hopes to see a similar outcome on the Middle Fork.</p><p>Like the Elwha the Middle Fork Nooksack is a relatively pristine river with little development, and dam removal is expected to provide a big boost to fish. The additional miles of spawning habitat are important, but so is the temperature of that water.</p><p>The dam removal will open access to cold upstream waters, which are ideal for salmon and getting harder to come by as climate change warms waters and reduces mountain runoff.</p><p>"This is really great for the climate change resiliency for these species," says McEwan.</p><p>Steelhead will get back 45% of their historic habitat in the river, and scientists expect Chinook populations to increase in abundance by 31%.</p><p>That <em>could</em> help Southern Resident killer whales.</p><p>"When you get to the ocean, it's a little bit of a black box in terms of what you can model and say definitively is going to help, but more fish is better for orcas," McEwan says.</p><p>Upstream habitat will see benefits, too.</p><p>Oceangoing fish like salmon enrich their bodies with carbon and nitrogen while at sea. When they return to their natal rivers to spawn and die, the marine-derived nutrients they carry back upriver become important food and fertilizer for both riverine and terrestrial ecosystems — aiding everything from trees to birds to bears.</p><p>"Once the fish start making their way back, it will start changing the whole ecological system," says Delgado.</p><p><span></span>But any ecological benefit from salmon restoration, either in the ocean or the upper watershed, won't be immediate.<br></p><p>"The population of salmon on the Middle Fork is so low that we expect it's going to take quite a while to rebound," she says. "But the big picture is that what's good for salmon is good for the region — our history and our destiny are intricately intertwined."</p><p>After decades of work, that process of restoration has finally begun.</p>
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A new tool called The Food Systems Dashboard aims to save decision makers time and energy by painting a complete picture of a country's food system. Created by the Johns Hopkins' Alliance for a Healthier World, the Global Alliance for Improved Nutrition (GAIN), and the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), the Dashboard compiles food systems data from over 35 sources and offers it as a public good.
By Manuela Callari
It can grow to a maximum of six inches (16 centimeters), change color depending on mood and habitat, and, like all seahorses, the White's seahorse male gestates its young. But this tiny snouted fish is under threat.
Building an Ocean Seahorse Destination<p>Seahorses are found in tropical and temperate coastal water worldwide, but are most abundant around Australia, China and the Philippines. </p><p>Trade in the tiny creatures is strictly regulated because of their use in traditional medicine, aquariums and their sale as dried curios. But because they are poor swimmers and cannot easily move elsewhere, habitat loss is a particular threat for these curious animals. </p><p>Seahorses wrap their tails around seagrass and corals to avoid being carried away on currents. They use the habitat to spawn and hide from predators such as crabs, while also feeding on riches of plankton and small crustaceans living in the reef.</p><p><span></span>Where corals aren't available, <a href="https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1002/aqc.1217" target="_blank">scientists</a> found seahorses taking up residence in fishing nets and old crab traps abandoned at the bottom of the ocean. </p>
Mixing With the Locals<p>Baby seahorse mortality is high in the wild because they are easily caught, so those bred in the protected environment of the aquarium weren't ready to be released into the wild until early May.</p><p>The team released 90 new arrivals into Sydney Harbor, placing some directly into the purpose-built hotels, and others onto a net that wild seahorses had already settled on.</p><p>Before setting them free, the researchers marked each young seahorse with a fluorescent tag with unique IDs inserted just beneath the skin to track how they get on in the different environments. </p><p>"The most exciting part was being able to put these animals into the wild and then go back a month later and still see them surviving and growing," said McCracken. </p><p>The seahorses will be old enough to mate and reproduce around October or November 2020. And researchers hope that by then, they will be able to breed with the wild population. </p>
Building a Global Seahorse Hotel Chain<p>With seahorses everywhere facing the loss of their coral reef homes, similar projects have sprung up in places like Greece and South Africa, home to the world's most endangered seahorse, the Knysna seahorse. </p><p>"The endangered South African seahorse is benefiting from something quite similar, even though it wasn't intentional," said Peter Teske, professor at the Department of Zoology, University of Johannesburg.</p><p>In the South African <a href="https://www.researchgate.net/publication/322649251_An_endangered_seahorse_selectively_chooses_an_artificial_structure" target="_blank">case</a>, seahorses have bedded down in "Reno mattresses" — wire cages filled with rocks — that were used to build a new marina. Researchers from NGO Knysna Basin Project found the structures acted as a refuge for the animals.<span></span></p><p><span></span>While Teske describes the seahorse hotels as "a positive news story" and a great way to create public awareness of conservation, he added that establishing artificial habitats in some areas will only prevent the extinction of local populations.</p><p>"For a complete recovery, it is necessary to give the natural habitat a chance to regenerate," said the seahorse expert. </p>
Underwater Mascot<p>In Australia, the researchers hope the project could provide an opportunity to raise awareness not only of the plight of the Sydney seahorses but the other animals with which it shares its ocean habitat.</p><p>The waters around Sydney and the east coast are rich in biodiversity and include several threatened species like the weedy seadragon — a relative of the seahorse — and the grey nurse shark. Like the seahorse, they're also under pressure from pollution, ocean traffic and habitat loss through storms and coastal construction. </p><p>"It's a good thing to get people's support and interest. The seahorses are a useful vehicle to get people concerned if the harbor is in trouble," said David Booth, professor of marine ecology at the University of Technology Sydney who is also working on the project. </p><p>The hotels have become an attraction for divers hoping to catch a glimpse of these small but near mythical creatures. </p><p>"Everyone loves seahorses," added Booth, "they are so popular." </p>
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