Take Amazon destruction off my plate! How leading Brazilian slaughterhouses cut its ties to deforestation in the Amazon rainforest

Areas of the National Forest of Jamanxim on the BR-163 highway have been burnt illegally to make space for cattle breeding. © Rodrigo Baleia/Greenpeace

Six years ago, on the first of June, 2009, I was speaking with well-known companies about the problems cattle-ranching in Brazil is causing to the Amazon rainforest. I told them about how they contribute to rainforest destruction in the Amazon region and called on them to act against this. That same day, Greenpeace activists took action at the headquarters of the German sports clothing company, Adidas in Bavaria. They handed over a groundbreaking report linking forest destruction caused by cattle ranching to the leather producers where Adidas was buying their leather for shoes. That Greenpeace report, Slaughtering the Amazon, was the result of years of research and it linked the ongoing deforestation of the Amazon rainforest with the international market for beef and leather.

Similar talks with companies such as Clarks, Geox, Gucci, Nike and Timberland and protests for the protection of the Amazon rainforest by Greenpeace activists happened around the world. These actions, and the supporting public campaign by Greenpeace, were not ignored. The companies named in the report took the issue seriously and started to talk with slaughterhouses in Brazil. It had an effect. Just four months later the leading slaughterhouses in Brazil signed a public commitment not to buy cattle from farms within the Amazon rainforest that were complicit in clearing the Amazon, using slave labor, or were occupying indigenous lands or conservation areas.

Today, the three largest slaughterhouses in Brazil who signed the Cattle Agreement – JBS, Marfrig and Minerva – published a second independent audit report about their supply chain systems proving that the cattle they buy from its suppliers are not threatening the Amazon rainforest. They showed that the supply control systems of the slaughterhouses are working and that the Cattle Agreement helps to reduce deforestation. Yesterday’s publication of the audit is an important step for more transparency and greater social control of cattle production in the Brazilian Amazon rainforest.

The three slaughterhouses have shown again that they are successfully avoiding deforestation in their direct cattle supply chains. In the past years they made a big step by banning those farmers who continue to destroy the rainforest or those who invade protected areas.

Cattle raising in deforested and burned-over land in the city of Brasnorte, Mato Grosso, in the midwest of Brazil. The livestock is still a leading force of deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon. © Chico Batata/Greenpeace

Raising cattle is still a leading force of deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon. Cattle today occupy more than 60 % of the areas deforested. After destroying the rainforest – often by clear-cutting and burning – cattle are quickly moved into the newly deforested areas to feed on the fast-growing grass. Due to the drought in the south-eastern part of Brazil – caused, in part, by the deforestation – more and more of the 223 million heads of cattle are grazing today within the boundaries of the Amazon rainforest where rain is abundant. The south of the country simply gets too dry.

According to the report auditors, BDO and DNV, the three slaughterhouses are effective in cutting off trade with farms that are continuing to deforest and put the Amazon at risk. In over 99% of purchasing cases, these three slaughterhouses were buying from farms that were no longer cutting down the Amazon.

A recent study by assistant Professor H. Gibbs at the University of Wisconsin – published in the Conservation Letters – came to the conclusion that the Cattle Agreement has helped to decrease deforestation and that farmers are responding to the purchasing criteria of the slaughterhouses with reduced deforestation. Professor Gibbs argues that a remaining problem is the laundering of cattle, which needs to be addressed. “Laundering” refers to the supply of cattle from farmers not respecting the Cattle Agreement to those who do and who sell cattle to the three large slaughterhouses. This needs immediate attention.

A cattle farm on indigenous land is seen from the air, in the state of Mato Grosso. © Paulo Pereira/Greenpeace

It is now up to the other large slaughterhouses and supermarkets to ban deforestation in its supply chain too. The members of the Brazilian Beef Associations (ABIEC and ABRAFRIFGO) and the Brazilian Association of the Supermarkets (ABRAS) must join the Cattle Agreement and send a clear message to the market that they support zero deforestation. They have no excuse. The three slaughterhouses have shown that it is possible to remove deforestation from their direct supply chain.

The survival of the Amazon rainforest is not only fundamental for the survival of many indigenous people who depend on healthy forests, but also for numerous plant and animal species, many of them yet undiscovered. We are losing around 100 species every day due to habitat loss. The forest is vital far beyond its borders. Thanks to the rain patterns of the Amazon rainforest it´s possible to ensure a good quality of life for the millions of people who live miles away from the rainforest. Also, tackling the destruction of the last intact forests is one of the quickest and cheapest ways to reduce the annual emissions of greenhouse gases.

Oliver Salge is an international amazon campaign coordinator with Greenpeace Brazil

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