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World’s biggest meatpackers buying cattle from deforesters in Amazon

  • JBS, Marfrig and Frigol, among the world’s biggest meat producers, have been buying cattle from ranches associated with illegal deforestation and slave labor, an investigation by Repórter Brasil has found.
  • The ranches in question are located in southern Pará state, the epicenter of the fires currently ravaging the Amazon, providing further evidence of the link between deforestation for cattle pasture and forest fires.
  • The three companies say the information that would have flagged the ranches as problematic were not publicly available at the time they made their purchase, and point to their commitments to not source from ranches linked to environmental crimes.
  • But a lack of animal traceability allows ranchers to use legalized farms to conceal sales of cattle raised in illegal areas through false declarations of origin, in a practice known as “cattle washing.”

This story was produced via a co-publishing partnership between Mongabay and Repórter Brasil and can be read in Portuguese here.

Brazilian meatpacking giants JBS, Marfrig and Frigol bought cattle from ranches associated with illegal practices, including deforestation and slave labor, an investigation by Repórter Brasil has found.

The ranches in question are located in Brazil’s Pará state, the epicenter of the ongoing fires ravaging the Amazon, providing further evidence of the link between deforestation for cattle pasture and burning.

In February, Marfrig, the world’s second-biggest beef producer, received cattle at its slaughterhouse in Tucumã, Pará, from the ranch of Adriano José de Mattos, Repórter Brasil discovered from control documents. Frigol, another major player in the industry, also purchased cattle from Mattos between March and July this year.

But in January this year, 26 days before Marfrig’s purchase, inspectors from IBAMA, the Brazilian environmental agency, found cattle from Mattos’s ranch grazing in a 106-hectare (262-acre) illegally deforested area inside the Triunfo do Xingu Environmental Protection Area (EPA). The site had already been embargoed three years earlier for illegal deforestation. According to the inspectors, Mattos’s Limeira Ranch, located 3 kilometers (1.9 miles) away, served as the operational base for encroaching into the area.

Marfrig told Repórter Brasil that information about the charges and embargoes against Mattos had not yet been made publicly available at the time of its purchase. “We depend on information from IBAMA’s website. This should happen in real time,” said Paulo Pianez, the company’s sustainability director. Marfrig says it is committed to zero deforestation in the Amazon, to monitoring all suppliers via satellite, and to not purchasing cattle from areas embargoed for environmental crimes (see Marfrig’s full statement).

But according to the IBAMA website, the embargo against Mattos was entered into the public list of embargoed areas on Jan. 29 — before Marfrig’s purchase. Repórter Brasil contacted IBAMA for comment about Marfrig’s statement, but received no response as of the time this article was published. Frigol, in turn, told reporters that it adopts “all necessary controls to prevent any purchase of animals that are not in conformity with standards from being slaughtered in its industrial plants” and that there are no illegalities in its purchase of cattle from Adriano Mattos (see Frigol’s full statement). Mattos could not be reached for comment.

The Triunfo do Xingu EPA was the conservation unit with the largest number of forest fires this year. The two municipalities that it straddles, São Félix do Xingu and Altamira, rank first and third in the number of fires respectively. São Félix do Xingu is also home to the largest cattle population in Brazil, at 2.2 million heads, according to 2017 data from the Brazilian Institute of Geography and Statistics (IBGE).

Fire is commonly used to clear land for cattle pasture, which is the biggest cause of deforestation in the Amazon. “Those are forest burnings to make pastures,” said Pará Governor Helder Barbalho about the recent fires in his state. Nine out of 10 fires in agribusiness areas occur on cattle pastures, according to a Greenpeace analysis of data from Brazil’s National Institute for Space Research (INPE).

Fire in the state of Pará. Image by Agencia Pará/Press Release.

‘Dirty list’

JBS, the world’s largest meatpacking company, also operates in the southeastern Amazonian region that includes the Triunfo do Xingu EPA. One of its cattle suppliers there is José Ronan Martins da Cunha, who was fined by IBAMA in April this year for destroying 50 hectares (124 acres) of native vegetation within the conservation area. He was also charged with preventing the natural regeneration of the forest in an area previously embargoed for illegal deforestation.

In July 2019, JBS’s unit in Tucumã purchased cattle from Cunha. Repórter Brasil found that the animals came from a property, the Barro Branco Ranch, located outside the EPA. What makes the purchase problematic, however, is that, in 2016, a Ministry of Labor inspection charged Cunha with using slave labor at his JK Farm in São Félix do Xingu. That landed him on the federal government’s “dirty list” of slave labor — a public registry that names and shames employers engaged in any form of forced or indentured labor. They remain on the list for two years and are removed if there is no recurrence of slave labor.

Several companies, including JBS, have publicly pledged not to source from producers on the “dirty list.” Cunha was on the registry until April 2019, which means the JBS purchases found by Repórter Brasil occurred after he had been removed from the list.

Reached for comment, JBS said it does not buy animals from farms involved in deforestation or invasion of indigenous lands, embargoed by IBAMA, or using child labor or slavery-like conditions. The company also said that “it maintains one of the largest private monitoring systems for suppliers in the world, which covers about 450,000 km² by analyzing satellite images of the properties.”

Rangers engaged in illegal deforestation sell their cattle to other ranchers who specialize in the final pre-slaughter fattening, thus obscuring the provenance of the cattle purchased by the major meatpackers. Image by Marcio Isensee e Sá/Repórter Brasil.

Lack of control

JBS and Marfrig are the world’s two biggest meat producers. In addition to dozens of slaughterhouses in Brazil, they also have plants in North America, Europe and Australia. Their global expansion gained momentum during administrations led by the Workers’ Party, through multimillion-dollar loans provided by the Brazilian Development Bank (BNDES). The Brazilian government is one of the main shareholders in both companies.

Frigol, in turn, is Brazil’s fourth-largest meatpacking company, with slaughterhouses in the states of Pará, Goiás and São Paulo. The company says it exports to more than 60 countries.

All three companies say they have adopted policies to ensure their purchases are free of so-called pirate cattle — livestock from areas that have been illegally deforested. However, there are challenges to achieving this goal. Lack of animal traceability allows ranchers to use legalized farms to conceal sales of cattle raised in illegal areas through false declarations of origin, a practice is known as “cattle washing.”

In addition, ranchers who deforest can sell their cattle to other ranchers who specialize in the final pre-slaughter fattening. Meatpacking companies do not have effective mechanisms in place to ascertain where such producers have purchased their animals. In the state of Pará, JBS and Frigol have signed an agreement with federal prosecutors pledging to observe a series of criteria to avoid cattle from areas with illegal deforestation, slave labor, invasions of public lands or traditional communities. The latest audit on the deal, published by the prosecutors, found evidence of irregularities in 19 percent of JBS’s purchases and 31 percent of Frigol’s. Marfrig did not sign the agreement and therefore did not undergo such an audit. The company, however, said that other external audits ensure its practices conform with its sustainability commitments.

Banner image: An analysis by Greenpeace based on data from INPE, Brazil’s National Institute for Space Research, found that nine out of 10 fires in agribusiness areas occurred on cattle pastures. Image by Marcio Isensee e Sá/Repórter Brasil.