Brazilian slaughterhouses and ranches are being accused in public and in court of contributing to rainforest destruction by producing beef from cattle raised on illegally cleared Amazon land.
This month alone, the federal prosecutor’s office filed a raft of lawsuits against 11 slaughterhouses and 23 cattle ranches; the Greenpeace environmental group issued a high-profile report on the role of slaughterhouses in deforestation; and Brazil’s three biggest supermarket chains announced they would suspend purchases of beef from the 11 slaughterhouses facing suits.
A prominent cause of concern is the Greenpeace report, “Slaughtering the Amazon,” which highlights not only the businesses that process beef raised on illegally cut rainforest land, but also the Brazilian government’s stake in those slaughterhouses and the global companies that buy Amazon beef and leather. Brazil is the world’s leading beef exporter, and the Amazon is the country’s top beef-producing region.
The report draws on a three-year analysis of government documents, satellite images and Greenpeace’s own aerial photos, along with visits to 35 ranches and investigations of six slaughterhouses. “The Greenpeace report provides important new information that shows geo-reference-based links between the illegal cattle ranchers and the slaughterhouses they supply, and between these beef and leather processors and the multinationals buying their products,” says Roberto Smeraldi, director of Friends of the Earth, Brazilian Amazon, a leading green group here. “It’s the best X-ray yet of the Amazon beef and leather supply chain.”
Greenpeace says cattle-ranching drives 80% of Amazon deforestation and 14% of worldwide deforestation, with one hectare (2.47 acres) of Amazon forest being converted to pasture every 18 seconds. Its report traces how cattle grazed on illegally deforested Amazon acreage yield meat for canned convenience foods; hides for shoe and car leather; fat for ingredients in toothpaste, face creams and soap; and gelatin from bones, intestines and ligaments to thicken yogurt and make chewy sweets.
The report names global brands including Adidas, Nike, Gucci, BMW, Honda, Toyota, Ford, Wal-Mart and British-based global supermarket chain Tesco as buyers of these products. It also names three of Brazil’s biggest slaughterhouses—JBS, Marfrig and Bertin—as part of the supply chain linked to illegally cleared Amazon pastureland. And it says the government’s Development Bank (BNDES) spent US$2.65 billion from 2007 to 2009 to buy shares in five big Brazilian slaughterhouses, with most of that money going to JBS, Marfrig and Bertin.
Due largely to slash-and-burn deforestation in the Amazon, Brazil is the world’s fourth biggest emitter of greenhouse gases. “Brazil presents itself as a world leader in fighting Amazon deforestation,” the Greenpeace report says. “[T]he Brazilian government owns $2.65 billion in shares in big Brazilian slaughterhouses that are part of the Amazon cattle industry, the major cause of deforestation in the world.”
BNDES has 27%, 13% and 15% stakes, respectively, in the Bertin, JBS and Marfrig slaughterhouses, the report says. Collectively, those three processors account for 50% of the beef shipped from Brazil.
The bank confirms it owns $2.65 billion in minority stakes in slaughterhouses that include Bertin, JBS and Marfrig. But a spokesman says the bank seeks to stimulate a vital industry and put clauses in contracts with slaughterhouses requiring upgrades of their environmental standards and practices. Bertin, meanwhile, said this month that it “obeys Brazilian labor, environmental and tax laws... and all of our [cattle] suppliers are legal.”
Days after the Greenpeace report was issued, Environment Minister Carlos Minc ordered Ibama, the ministry’s enforcement agency, to inspect all registered Amazon beef processors and asked the BNDES to check its list of slaughterhouses for irregularities before signing contracts. Minc said that in the future, all slaughterhouses requesting BNDES loans should first be investigated by Ibama.
Other developments suggest intensifying concern about the link between slaughterhouse beef purchases and Amazon deforestation.
In May, the International Finance Corporation, the World Bank’s private-sector credit arm, cancelled a contract to help finance Bertin’s expansion in the Amazon region. Karina Manasseh, an IFC spokeswoman, told EcoAméricas: “The decision to cancel the contract with Bertin was based on the IFC holding itself to the highest environmental and social standards and our recognition that the beef sector in Brazil is facing some significant environmental and social challenges.”
Slaughterhouses, ranches sued
And on June 1, the federal prosecutor’s office filed a total of 21 lawsuits against 34 cattle ranches and 11 slaughterhouses in the eastern Amazon state of Pará. Among the slaughterhouses were Bertin, JBS and Marfrig. The suits allege illegal sale and purchase of cattle raised on Amazon land that had been deforested in violation of the law. They claim R$2.1 billion (US$1.05 billion) in damages based on the estimated environmental harm, and they request the damage awards be paid into a federal fund aimed at safeguarding the Amazon.
The three biggest supermarket chains serving Brazil—U.S.-based Wal-Mart, French-controlled Carrefour and the local Pão de Açúcar chain—stepped in on June 15. Besides suspending purchases from 11 slaughterhouses, they said they’d buy no Amazon beef unless slaughterhouses identify the cattle supplier and show documentation from international auditors certifying the beef came from ranches that comply with government deforestation limits.
Experts agree that solutions must take into account land-use patterns outside the Amazon. “Cattle ranchers aren’t pushing into the Amazon just because land is cheap, but because soy farmers and real estate developers are offering them good prices to move from the periphery of the rainforest,” Smeraldi says. “And slaughterhouses, which weren’t in the Amazon until 2004, are following the cattle ranchers there.”
Andre Muggiati, head of the Amazon campaign for Greenpeace in Brazil, says transparency also is crucial: “The government and the cattle industry need, together, to set up a tracing system that shows the origin of Amazon beef and leather so retailers and consumers know they are not the last links in a supply chain destroying the Amazon.”
- Michael Kepp