New Film Shines Light on Cattle Industry Link to Amazon Deforestation


Cows grazing illegally on recently deforested rainforest land within Jamanxim National Forest, a federally protected area in the state of Pará, Brazil. Marcio Isensee

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

Cattle Washing

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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