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Investigation links meat giant JBS to Amazon deforestation

Cattle at one of the 70,000 suppliers used by JBS, one of Brazil's largest beef producers. Photo courtesy of JBS

Cattle at one of the 70,000 suppliers used by JBS, one of Brazil's largest beef producers. Photo courtesy of JBS

  • An investigation by The Bureau of Investigative Journalism, The Guardian and Reporter Brasil has uncovered evidence that a driver working for the world’s largest meatpacker, JBS, was involved in transporting cattle from a farm that has been fined for forest destruction to another farm that directly supplies JBS.
  • Photographs from the social media account of the truck driver appear to show him in a convoy bearing the JBS logo transporting “skinny” cattle from Fazenda Estrela do Aripuanã, a ranch in the northwest of Mato Grosso state that has previously been fined for illegal deforestation, to another farm that directly supplies JBS.
  • JBS said it was investigating the incident; it added that the driver worked for an “independently-run transport service.”

New evidence appears to show that a driver working for the world’s largest meatpacker, JBS, was involved in transporting cattle from a farm that was sanctioned for illegal deforestation to another farm that directly supplies the company.

Photographs from the social media account of truck driver Alessandro Ale taken in July 2019 and uncovered by The Bureau of Investigative Journalism, The Guardian and Reporter Brasil show him driving a vehicle bearing the JBS logo in a convoy through the south of the Amazon before dropping off about 250 cattle. “Working with good fellas is always a joyful ride,” he captioned a picture on Facebook in Portuguese.

JBS, which sources cattle from the Amazon, has annual revenues of $50 billion and slaughters almost 35,000 cattle a day in Brazil alone. Its beef exports to mainland Europe increased by a fifth in recent years.

Cattle firms in Brazil like JBS, Minerva and Marfrig maintain that they are doing everything they can to ensure their supply chain does not include cattle raised on illegally deforested land. But they add that they cannot monitor indirect suppliers that raise cattle to be sold to direct suppliers for fattening.

While the world’s retailers and food producers have so far accepted these assurances, they may face challenges in light of the new evidence. 

The owner of Fazenda Estrela do Aripuanã, the farm where Ale said he picked up the “skinny” or unfattened cattle, was fined 2.2 million reais ($420,000) for destroying a swath of the Amazon rainforest on land at that ranch. And the cattle he left with, in a truck bearing the JBS logo, were taken to a farm that directly supplies JBS.

JBS said that it would investigate the findings and added that the evidence uncovered “does not reflect its operating standards.” The company said independent audits show none of the cattle in its direct supply chain come from newly cleared rainforest.

JBS began as a family butcher shop in Brazil, but has grown into the world’s largest meat company; its subsidiaries control vast swaths of chicken production in the U.S. and U.K., and its beef is exported around the world. 

That growth has come at a cost. In 2017 JBS’s holding company paid one of the biggest fines in global corporate history, at $3.2 billion, after admitting to bribing hundreds of politicians. The Batista brothers, who took over the family business from their father, have been investigated multiple times.

International pressure

Last week, Amnesty International released a report alleging that JBS had bought cattle illegally reared on the Uru-Eu-Wau-Wau indigenous reserve and the Rio Jacy-Paraná and Rio Ouro Preto extractive reserves in Rondônia state, the epicenter of 2019’s fires in the Amazon.

Deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon surpassed 10,000 square kilometers (3,900 square miles) in 2019, the highest recorded figure since 2008, according to the latest data from Brazil’s national space research institute, INPE.

JBS, like other major beef producers, says that it has a “zero tolerance” approach to illegal deforestation and has introduced sophisticated monitoring systems for its direct suppliers. At every turn, the company has insisted that it is impossible to monitor its indirect suppliers because there are no publicly available records of livestock moving between farms at different stages of the rearing process. 

There is mounting international pressure to close the loophole from global investment firms, some of whom have threatened to divest; large multinational companies; European Union nations; and even former Brazilian finance ministers.

Critics say that the situation – which affects all beef firms sourcing from the Amazon, including JBS’s main rivals, Marfrig and Minerva Foods – enables a form of “cattle laundering”  in which livestock from “dirty” farms linked to deforestation can end up being moved and mixed in with cattle from “clean” farms. 

Publicly both the Brazilian meat industry and its critics agree that tackling cattle traceability is key to preserving the rainforest.

But the story of Ale’s convoy shows how quickly supposedly untraceable cattle from farms directly tied to illegal destruction of the Amazon can arrive at farms feeding into JBS’s global supply chain.

Ale and his colleagues were trucking cattle through the rainforest from Fazenda Estrela do Aripuanã, a ranch in the northwest of Mato Grosso state, to a farm further south.

Fazenda Estrela do Aripuanã, the first farm from which Ale picked up the cattle, is operated by Ronaldo Venceslau Rodrigues da Cunha, a businessman who breeds cattle and has one of the biggest beef enterprises in Brazil. 

His company boasts of 102,000 cattle bred and fattened across 16 ranches spanning some 72,000 hectares (178,000 acres) of pasture. Its website tells the colorful story of how Cunha’s cattle empire grew from humble beginnings, complete with details of various family tragedies and the highs and lows of cattle trading.      

What it fails to mention is that his farm, Fazenda Estrela do Aripuanã, was previously fined 2.2 million Brazillian reais for deforestation of rainforest on land at Aripuanã. Records published by Brazil’s environment agency, Ibama, clearly show 1,455 hectares (3,600 acres) of land placed under an official embargo — which prohibits cattle grazing — as a result of the deforestation. Embargoes are imposed for environmental violations and serve both as a punishment and protective measure to allow land to recover.     

The website also fails to mention that the Aripuanã ranch was ravaged by at least four separate forest fires between 2018 and 2019.

While there is no suggestion that these fires were started deliberately to clear further forest for pasture, they show how deforested land can be vulnerable to fires.

Three-legged journeys      

Ale and his fellow JBS drivers appear to have driven the Aripuanã cattle to a second farm also run by a Cunha company, Fazenda Estrela do Sangue, some 300 kilometers (186 miles) away. Sangue, unlike Aripuanã, has no embargoes owing to deforestation and so would be regarded as a “clean” supplier. 

Although Ale’s Facebook post showed him making that journey just once, the investigation established that cattle are regularly transported from the Aripuanã farm to Sangue farm. 

Cattle movement records show that from June 2018 to August 2019, at least 7,000 animals were dispatched from the first farm to the second. Separate records show that the Sangue farm sent some 7,000 cattle to JBS abattoirs between November 2018 and November 2019.

Cunha did not respond to a request for comment from the Bureau. 

Although it is impossible to track the exact movements and destinations of individual cattle, the regularity of livestock movements between the farms – and the sizeable number of animals from the second ranch ending up in JBS meat plants – provides some of the strongest evidence yet suggesting the manner in which cattle laundering may occur in practice.               

The reporters found evidence of JBS repeatedly promoting its own trucks for transporting cattle between indirect suppliers and direct suppliers. JBS executives promote the routes as “three-legged journeys”: picking up “skinny” cattle at one farm, exchanging them for fattened cows at a second, and ending the journey at an abattoir. Ale’s Facebook posts tell a similar story, appearing to show him trucking cattle between different farms on at least one other trip.

The revelation, campaigners said, puts pressure on businesses around the world to review their ties with JBS if they wish to avoid being linked to concerns about the destruction of the Amazon.

“Time after time JBS has been caught red-handed profiting from Amazon destruction,” John Sauven, the head of Greenpeace UK, told the Bureau. 

“We are now facing a climate and nature breakdown and JBS bears a significant weight of responsibility. With meat products from JBS ending up in supermarkets and fast food restaurants globally, there can be no more excuses. Retailers must stop trading with all JBS-owned companies while we still have enough of the Amazon left to fight for.”

The cattle reared and slaughtered in Brazil become beef sold around the world. 

Last year, a study by Trase, a supply-chain initiative run by the Stockholm Environment Institute and NGO Global Canopy, revealed that JBS’s global beef exports were linked to up to 300 km2 (115 mi2) of deforestation annually in Brazil. (The exports of the other two meat giants, Minerva Foods and Marfrig, were each linked to about 100 km2, or 38 mi2, of forest loss annually.)   

JBS told the Bureau it had investigated the evidence and found that “the collection farm was not shown to be within any embargoed area,” according to the company’s system. JBS said it introduced a new system on July 1 that it “expected to make a significant impact in the reduction of cattle laundering … We are working towards a completely transparent supply chain.”

The company added that it “does not purchase cattle from farms involved in irregularities” and that it “takes an unequivocal zero deforestation approach.” A spokesperson said: “JBS has always been at the forefront of industry initiatives to combat so-called ‘cattle laundering.’”

JBS added that its trucking operation ensures “livestock are transported according to the highest standards of animal welfare” and that their operations “reduce the environmental impact of transporting cattle by optimising the truck fleet.”


Banner image: Cattle at one of the 70,000 suppliers used by JBS, one of Brazil’s largest beef producers. Photo courtesy of JBS.

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