Site icon Conservation news

Where there’s cattle ranching and soybean farming, there’s fire, study finds

  • Most of the fires in the Amazon rainforest last year were associated with industrial agriculture, according to a study cross-referencing NASA satellite data with corporate supply chains.
  • Researchers transposed the satellite imagery of fire alerts with the locations of the largest meatpacking plants and soybean silos in the region.
  • Of the 981,000 fire alerts that occurred in Brazil between July and October last year, half were in meatpackers JBS and Marfrig’s “potential buy zones” and in the areas surrounding Bunge and Cargill’s soybean silos.
  • The study doesn’t aim to make a direct link between the companies and the fires, but rather to show the proximity of the fires within the regions in which they work.

Images of the fires burning in the Amazon rainforest last August caught the whole world’s attention. Government leaders, multilateral organizations, environmentalists and celebrities cried out with concern over the planet’s largest tropical rainforest. “The Amazon must be protected,” U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres tweeted. “Our war on nature must end,” climate activist Greta Thunberg said.

But the actual extent of the environmental disaster only became known this past January, when INPE, the Brazilian space agency, released the final count of the fires that had burned in the Amazon: 89,000 alerts over 12 months, a jump of 30% over 2018. The increase is worrisome, experts say, despite that fact that the number is lower than the historical record of 109,000.

At the peak of the crisis, President Jair Bolsonaro blamed NGOs working in the region. Environmental Minister Ricardo Salles pinned it on the dry season, despite stronger rains in 2019 than in the previous year. Researchers of the Amazon biome, however, attribute the fires to other factors.

Fire alerts in Brazil between July and October 2019, based on data from NASA VIIRS. Image courtesy of Google Earth.

Land speculation is one of the main culprits. It’s a high-paying business that involves invading public lands, cutting and removing the most valuable trees, and then clearing the brush with tractors and chains. When the vegetation has dried after a few weeks, what was once forest is burned off, and new pastureland is seeded in expectation of a buyer.

“It’s easy money. Squatters on public lands who spend 1,000 reais [$190] to clear-cut and burn a hectare can sell the same hectare for up to 2,700 reais [$500],” said Raoni Rajão, a researcher and professor in the production engineering department at Minas Gerais Federal University (UFMG). The fires are usually set during the Amazon’s dry season, which lasts from July to October.

The forest is not only burned because of land grabbing. Many landowners burn areas adjacent to their properties or destroy forest inside their own farms to expand the size of pastureland. The Forestry Code requires that 80% of the native forest on properties within the Amazon must be preserved. Some fires are also set by farmers, Indigenous peoples and traditional groups to revitalize pasture or farmland. Though burning on this scale typically has a much smaller impact on the biome, it can sometimes get out of control and lead to the destruction of large areas.

A study carried out by MapBiomas, a project that brings together universities, social organizations and technology companies, quantifies the extent of the criminal burning taking place across the Amazon. By crossing satellite imagery with data from the CAR Rural Environmental Land Registry and official databases, the study indicates that 99% of the deforestation carried out in Brazil last year was illegal. Of the 12,000 square kilometers (4,600 square miles) of native forest destroyed, most were located in the Cerrado and Amazon biomes.

The 10 Brazilian states with the most fire alerts between July and October 2019, based on data from NASA VIIRS.

Fires near meatpacking plants

A recent study carried out by Chain Reaction Research (CRR), an alliance of European and U.S. environmental consulting agencies, sheds further light on the interests behind the fires in the Amazon last year. The researchers crossed imagery of the fires taken by NASA satellites with the locations of the region’s largest meatpacking plants, including those belonging to JBS and Marfrig, and also with large soybean silos controlled by commodities giants like Bunge and Cargill.

The NASA monitoring system detected 417,000 fire alerts inside JBS and Marfrig’s “potential buying zones” — areas within the range in which the companies are likely to source their cattle — between July and October last year, accounting for 42% of the 981,000 fire alerts that occurred in Brazil during that period. The alerts nearby the two companies represent nearly half (47%) of the total detected (885,000) in the regions surrounding the region’s 10 largest meatpacking plants.

The potential buying zones were defined by Imazon, the Institute of People and Environment of the Amazon, in 2017 after interviews with 157 meatpacking operations located inside the Amazon. Among other information, the companies revealed the maximum distance they travel to buy animals for slaughter. The largest meatpackers indicated a radius of 360 kilometers (220 miles) from their facilities, while smaller companies, licensed to work only inside the state, tend to buy cattle within a radius of 153 km (95 mi).

Fire alerts inside JBS’s potential buy zone in Alta Floresta, Mato Grosso state, in 2019, based on data from NASA VIIRS and Imazon. Image courtesy of Google Earth.

In the case of soybean, Chain Reaction Research established a radius of 25 km (15.5 mi) from the silos belonging to the sector’s largest players as the potential region for their supply chain. The study showed that the fire alerts near Bunge and Cargill (39,900 in total) outnumbered the number of alerts reported near the next eight largest traders in the sector.

Fire outbreaks within a 25-kilometer (15.5-mile) radius of the Bunge soybean silo in Bom Jesus do Araguaia, in Brazil’s Mato Grosso state, based on data from NASA VIIRS. Image courtesy of Google Earth.

The study doesn’t blame the conglomerates for the fires. “The goal was to show the occurrence of an enormous quantity of fires in the proximity of these companies, which does not implicate the direct involvement of the companies with these practices. But some questions do need to be answered with respect to their supply chains,” said Marco Túlio Garcia, a researcher at Aidenvironment and one of the authors of the study, which also analyzed fires in Indonesia, where rainforest destruction is closely associated with the expansion of oil palm plantations.

“Deforestation in the Amazon, which is the main cause of the fires, brings risk to these companies,” said Tim Steinweg, coordinator of the Chain Reaction Research study. “International investors have placed these questions at the center of their agendas in recent years. They no longer come up only in debates between environmentalists.”

An example of the changes afoot on the global market came last December, when Nestlé suspended purchases of soybean from Cargill because of suspicions that the product came from deforested areas of the Amazon. A recent report in The Guardian revealed that banks and other financial institutions in the U.K. invested more than $2 billion in Brazil’s biggest beef producers working in the Amazon in recent years. But due to the deforestation issue, they are reconsidering their investments if the companies don’t show progress on supplier accountability.

Studies have calculated that the cattle-farming sector today presents a greater risk to the Amazon than the soybean industry, which is currently a greater threat to the Cerrado biome. Soybean producers have tried to clean up their act with the so-called Soy Moratorium, a pact signed in 2006 with environmental organizations in which companies committed to stop buying the commodity grown in deforested areas of the Amazon. The agreement was later backed by the Brazilian government.

The beef sector is riddled with illegalities. Among them are cattle born in deforested areas blacklisted by IBAMA, Brazil’s federal environmental enforcement agency, which are then sold to small and medium-sized farms. After fattening, they are legally purchased by large meatpackers. The existing control systems have no way of tracking the origins of the cattle.

“It is a very complex supply chain. There isn’t a system for tracking each animal from its origin, and the meatpackers don’t seem interested in implanting this sort of monitoring,” said Ritaumaria Pereira, the CEO of Imazon. “There’s a local saying that shows the reality of the situation: ‘A steer never dies of old age in the Amazon because someone will always buy it, no matter where it comes from.’”

Example of a confirmation image of VIIRS alerts in Jamanxim National Forest, in Brazil’s Pará state, in August 2019, based on data from NASA VIIRS. Image courtesy of Sentinel-2/ESA.

Less forest, less rain

Many experts say the Brazilian government and rural producers lack a strategic vision for the Amazon, the country’s greatest environmental asset. Paulo Moutinho, a senior researcher at IPAM, the Amazon Environmental Research Institute, said the forest works as a sort of pump, circulating the water vapor evapotranspirated from plants through the system of so-called flying rivers that go on to hydrate, through rain clouds, Brazil’s Midwest and South-Central regions. Destruction of the forest places this hydrological system at risk. “When we cut vegetation, it’s as if we have created a leak in this watering system that guarantees the success of a good part of Brazil’s agricultural production,” Moutinho said.

According to a study done by the National Water Agency (ANA) and IBGE, the Brazilian Institute of Geography and Statistics, 92.5% of the water consumed by Brazilian agriculture comes from rainfall.

Scientists say the risks to the Amazon rainforest are real. As of 2017, the biome had already lost 17% of its native vegetation. If this proportion passes 20% or 25%, there is risk of triggering a process of in which the rainforest transforms into savanna, according to a 2018 study by Brazilian researcher Carlos Nobre and U.S. researcher Thomas Lovejoy. During the previous decade, the pair had calculated that tipping point at 40% deforestation, but had to recalculated the numbers in light of the strong links between deforestation, fires and climate change.

Experts interviewed by Mongabay all agreed that agricultural yields could be increased without the need for further deforestation of the Amazon. Recuperating the 12 million hectares (30 million acres) that have already been deforested and abandoned in the Amazon would be enough. “There are many open areas and, with enough incentive, they could be utilized,” said Moutinho from IPAM. Imazon’s Pereira agreed: “In addition to regenerating these areas, we need public policy to encourage increased productivity in cattle farming, which is quite low today — something around one animal per hectare.”

Comparison of a farm in Mato Grosso on Sept. 8, 2019, with a similar-sized area around New York City. The image on the left was processed to highlight the fires burning inside the farm (the farm’s boundaries are in blue and active fires in yellow). Images courtesy of Sentinel-2/ESA.

Companies respond

Reached for comment, JBS said it had not been asked for a response by the authors of the Chain Reaction Research study. The company questioned the technical criteria of the study and said it has adopted a zero-tolerance approach to deforestation throughout its entire supply chain. “All the farms that supply cattle to JBS in the Amazon region are monitored by satellite imagery and georeferenced data on the property,” JBS said. “Therefore, suppliers who have used fire to remove trees from the forest will be detected by the company’s monitoring system and blocked for cattle purchases.”

Marfrig also said it employs “a rigid animal purchasing policy as well as a protocol with criteria and procedures that are prerequisites for ratifying suppliers.” The company said it maintains a platform that monitors all its suppliers through a social and environmental georeferencing and geomonitoring system. The system crosses georeferenced data and farm documentation with official public information to identify potential non-conformity “in order to prevent purchase of any raw material originating from farms that produce beef in deforested or embargoed areas, overlapping conservation areas or indigenous territories, or farms which use ‘slave labor.’”

Number of fire alerts in supply regions of Brazil’s largest meatpackers, based on data from NASA VIIRS and Imazon.

Bunge said it’s committed to a supply chain free of deforestation and that it condemns any use of fire for clear-cutting. “The company maintains rigorous controls over social and environmental criteria in its operations throughout Brazil. Actions include daily checks of public non-conformity lists published by IBAMA and the Ministry of Labor and Employment, in addition to checking of other legal requirements and immediate shutdown of any business negotiations in the case of non-conformity.” Bunge noted it is also a signatory to the Soy Moratorium and to the “Green Grain Protocol, an initiative developed with the Federal Prosecutor’s Office (MPF), which established criteria for business transactions avoiding sale of grain originating in illegally deforested areas.”

Cargill said it’s committed to protecting forests and native vegetation in ways that are economically viable for farmers. “Illegal deforestation and deliberate burning inside the Amazon are unacceptable and, together with other companies from the sector, we will continue to form partnerships with local communities, farmers, governments, nonprofit organizations and our clients to find solutions that preserve this important ecosystem,” it said in a statement. “We have been part of the Soy Moratorium in the Amazon since 2006, when we signed a voluntary accord with industrial and environmental organizations to not buy soybean grown on land that was deforested later than 2008 in this biome. The initiative has contributed to an 80% drop in deforestation in the Amazon over the last decade and was extended indefinitely in 2016.”

Number of fire outbreaks within 25 kilometers (15.5 miles) of silos belonging to Brazil’s largest soybean producers, based on data from NASA VIIRS and Imazon.

Banner image of fires burning on Aug. 10, 2019, the notorious Day of Fire, in Jamanxim National Forest, in Brazil’s Pará state. Image courtesy of Sentinel-2/ESA.

This story was first reported by Mongabay’s Brazil team and published here on our Brazil site on June 29, 2020.