Conservation news

JBS, other Brazil meatpackers linked to devastating Pantanal fires, Greenpeace says

The Panthera team working together to fight a fire in the Pantanal. Image by Fernando Tortato / Panthera.

  • A new report by Greenpeace says that JBS, Marfrig and Minerva sourced cattle from ranches in the Pantanal where fires were illegally set last year.
  • A Denmark-sized area of the Pantanal — 4.5 million hectares — burned between July and December in what researchers described as an “unprecedented disaster.”
  • Of 15 ranches where satellite data showed fire activity, 13 were operated by “tier-one” suppliers to the three companies.

In a new report, Greenpeace has linked major Brazilian meat processors JBS, Marfrig and Minerva to cattle ranchers that satellite data indicate were responsible for setting fires in Brazil’s Pantanal region last year.

Beginning in July and August, around 30% of the Pantanal, the world’s largest wetlands, burned in what researchers have described as an “unprecedented disaster.” According to Greenpeace, some of the fires may have originated on ranches that supply cattle to slaughterhouses operated by the meatpacking giants.

“The industrial beef sector is a liability,” said Daniela Montalto, forests campaigner with Greenpeace. “While promising to maybe someday save the Amazon, JBS and the other leading beef processors seem willing to butcher the Pantanal today, making mincemeat of their sustainability pledges.”

While fires in the Amazon captured the world’s attention last year, the lesser-known Pantanal saw nearly 4.5 million hectares (11 million acres) — an area the size of Denmark — go up in flames, displacing Indigenous communities and tearing through Pantanal Matogrossense National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Home to some of Brazil’s most concentrated wildlife populations, including the second-largest group of jaguars in the country, the Pantanal plays an important role in regulating water flows in the region and stores an immense amount of carbon underground in its peat soils.

For years, cattle ranchers living in the Pantanal have set fires to clear away unwanted brush and create new grazing pastures for their herds. But last year, a near-unprecedented drought that scientists say was linked to climate change in the region turned the swampy grasslands into a tinderbox.

“It’s basically the same story everywhere in Brazil,” said Vivian Ribeiro, a researcher with the supply chain transparency initiative Trase. “What we have is people using fire to clean the pasture, it’s an old process that they use to remove dry matter that the animals aren’t eating anymore and to remove species with less nutritional value.”

As much as 90% of the Pantanal is claimed by private landowners, mostly for cattle ranching. Anticipating that the unusually dry climate posed a fire hazard, state authorities in Mato Grosso do Sul state, which encompasses much of the Pantanal, as well as Brazil’s federal government issued a ban on burning beginning in mid-July. Some ranchers appear to have ignored the fire bans, with Brazilian authorities saying that 98% of last year’s catastrophic fires were caused by humans.

According to Greenpeace’s research, 15 current or recent suppliers of JBS, Marfrig and Minerva were among those who illegally set fires on their Pantanal ranches last year. The group said it used satellite data from NASA, Brazil’s National Institute for Space Research (INPE), and the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro to analyze burn scars and fire hotspots from ranches owned by those suppliers.

Of those 15 suppliers, 13 were “tier-one,” meaning they’d been approved to sell cattle directly to one or more of the companies rather than indirectly through middlemen. Greenpeace said these suppliers typically moved cattle from the fire-linked properties to another ranch they owned prior to their arrival at slaughterhouses owned by the companies.

One of those properties is owned by a supplier implicated in a 2017 bribery scandal involving JBS and a former governor of the Brazilian state of Mato Grosso do Sul. According to news reports, as of last September federal police in Brazil were investigating that supplier for violating the fire ban.

Firefighters battle out-of-control blazes in the Pantanal last year. Image courtesy of PrevFogo.

In a statement posted to its website, JBS said Greenpeace’s research was based on a “superficial analysis” that “turned out to be mistaken.” The purchases of cattle linking it to the suppliers named in the report had occurred prior to the 2020 fires, the company said, adding that it “defies logic” to imply it was culpable in last year’s disaster.

JBS also questioned the source of Greenpeace’s data showing that cattle it bought had originated in burned properties.

“As is public knowledge, no animal protein processing company has access to the animal transportations records (GTAs, Guia de Trânsito Animal) of all the links in its chain, which could indicate who are the suppliers of their suppliers. This information is protected by legal secrecy, which prevents us from accessing these document bases without the supplier’s proper authorization,” it wrote.

But researchers say that’s precisely the problem. Because cattle in South America are often shuffled through a chain of ranches before ending up in the hands of large processers, it is often nearly impossible to fully trace their origin, giving companies like JBS wide leeway to claim ignorance of supplier practices. And while those companies have inked deals with local authorities to prevent deforestation in the Amazon, in other regions their approach is less scrutinized, particularly when it comes to fires.

Ribeiro said it’s unlikely that JBS and the others even have tracking systems to monitor the connection between their suppliers and illegal fires.

“In the moment when we’re asking companies to be more responsible about the products they buy, we should expect them not to buy from properties associated with burning,” she said. “But as far as I know they don’t have that information embedded in their system, so I wouldn’t be surprised to see that JBS doesn’t monitor it, because they are still struggling with deforestation.”

In an email to Mongabay, Montalto said this year’s dry season is fast approaching, and it’s not enough for the companies to claim they aren’t responsible for what happens in their supply chains.

“JBS, as well as any other commodity trader, should immediately end trade relationships with rogue ranchers linked to ecosystem destruction or human rights violations wherever they operate,” she said. “By ignoring this destruction, JBS and the other leading meat processors, Marfrig and Minerva, are all but handing out the matches for this year’s fires.”

According to Ribeiro, the problem is being worsened by budget cuts to environmental agencies and lackluster enforcement of fire bans by the administration of President Jair Bolsonaro, which has been infamously hostile to conservation and Indigenous rights. Critics say the Brazilian federal government was slow to deploy resources to fight the Pantanal fires last year, increasing the damage caused by them.

Satellite data show huge areas of tree cover loss in Pantanal Matogrossense National Park following last year’s fires.

Rather than demonizing ranchers, many of whom are coping with razor-thin profit margins and struggling to keep their herds alive in the midst of drought and climate change, Ribeiro said concerted government intervention is needed to support them so there’s less incentive to start the fires.

“They are probably struggling a lot. And it’s probably much worse in Pantanal than in the Amazon or Cerrado because of the dry seasons,” she said. “It’s difficult to make money with cattle if you’re not speculating on land.”

But even with that support, she said they aren’t likely to stop setting fires unless their biggest customers take a tougher stance.

“I don’t think they will change their behavior without motivation from buyers like JBS,” she said. “It’s different layers of the same problem. We need the country to worry more about the situation, we need the companies to track their supply chains and ask for better practices, and the cattle ranchers also need more access to technical support so they can struggle less with the climate.”

Banner image: Conservationists with Panthera look out at a blaze in the Pantanal last year. Image courtesy of Fernando Tortato/Panthera.

Note: At Vivian Ribeiro’s request, a quote was amended to clarify which vegetation is targeted for burning by ranchers.