An in-depth investigation has exposed that meat tycoons from Brazil’s burgeoning beef sector are eating into the world’s most important rainforest by ranching cattle illegally on embargoed land and destroying hundreds of thousands of hectares of forest annually.
An investigation by the Swedish NGO Trase, which campaigns for greater transparency in agricultural supply chains, has revealed that the growing global demand for beef is accelerating deforestation in areas that are already vulnerable and where forests are already depleted.
The so-called “agricultural frontier” in the Amazon – where farming is literally eating into the rain forest is one such area.
Data gathered by Trase shows that deforestation of the Amazon has been on the rise since 2012. The year between August 2017 and July 2018 saw 7,900 sq km destroyed, while on average the Trase investigation found that 5,800 sq km of forest is being chopped down every year and then converted into pasture for cattle farming.
One such farm in Brazil’s “agricultural frontier” is Lagoa do Trifuno. The ranch is more than 600km from the regional capital Para and is owned by a huge company called AgroSB, known locally simply as Santa Barbara.
AgroSB supplies cattle to JBS, the biggest meat packing company in the world, with 350,000 customers in more than 150 countries.
A separate investigation than the one carried out by Trase, done by the Guardian, the Bureau of Investigative Journalism and Reporter Brazil found that Lagoa do Trifuno supplied hundreds of heads of cattle to other farms owned by AgroSB for fattening up, which were then sent on to slaughter in JBS abattoirs.
This is where the problem lies, as it is extremely difficult for officials to enforce Brazil’s environmental laws if they do not really know where the meat arriving in abattoirs comes from. Particularly whether it is from cattle grazed on land that has been deforested illegally or not.
Embargoed Land Used for Cattle Grazing
Much of the land which farms like Lagoa do Trifuno use to graze cattle, has been embargoed by Brazil’s environment agency, Ibama, which means that the land is not allowed to be deforested.
On the Lagoa do Trifuno farm 12 areas of land were embargoed between 2010 and 2013 and its parent company AgroSB was fined more than USD$18m by Ibama.
A spokesman for AgroSB told the Guardian in emailed comments that any deforestation at Lagoa do Trifuno had occurred before it brought the farm in 2008.
“AgroSB does not carry out deforestation in order to increase its area, but rather it recovers degraded areas. This brings social and environmental progress for all because in the same area it is possible to produce more, without deforestation, with respect to the environment,” the spokesman said.
However, this is not what a farm worker at Lagoa do Trifuno said. Reporters found land on the farm that had clearly been marked on the Brazilian government website as embargoed had cattle grazing on it. A farm worker told reporters that cattle were allowed to roam in areas that they knew were embargoed. “You can’t cut down the vegetation. The vegetation grows and we work the cattle inside,” he said.
In 2017, JBS was also fined USD$7.7m for buying cattle from farms using embargoed areas.
However, a spokesman for JBS told reporters from the Guardian and Reporter Brazil that “the facts pointed out do not correspond to the standards and processes adopted by the company.” They then referred to a 2018 audit that concluded that “more than 99.9% of JBS’s cattle purchases meet the company’s socio-environmental criteria and the ‘Public Livestock Commitment’”. This refers to a deal signed between the big cattle companies and Greenpeace in 2009, which is supposed to stop them buying from farms in embargoed areas.
A Loophole in the Law
The investigation found that JBS has made impressive progress in refusing to buy cattle from farms that have been embargoed by Ibama, but that loopholes still remain. Indirect suppliers of cattle, who first supply animals to other farms, which later truck the same cattle to abattoirs for slaughter, may still be from embargoed land, yet JBS would be unaware of this.
A JBS audit seen by the reporters involved in the investigation admitted that “JBS has not yet managed to adopt auditable procedures for its indirect suppliers.”
The lead researcher at Trase, Erasmus zu Ermgassen, said that while some slaughterhouses monitor their direct suppliers, none have any information on their indirect suppliers, meaning there is an enormous potential for meat grazed on embargoed land to be sold freely on the market.