- A decade after signing agreements to ban deforestation caused by the beef industry, cattle ranching continues to be the leading cause of deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon.
- A study reveals disparities between ranchers and meatpackers that make it difficult for the industry to comply with the agreements and that allow deforestation to persist.
- Only 100 out of 160 meatpacking plants in the study area, in southeast Pará state, have signed zero-deforestation agreements; of these, only 56 have been audited for their compliance.
- Among ranches, bigger ones have the financial resources and access to technology to boost productivity without clearing forest for new pasture, while smaller ones tend not even to be formally registered, depriving them of incentives to aim for compliance.
In Brazil’s beef industry, meatpackers or slaughterhouses that are monitored and audited to comply with zero-deforestation purchasing criteria compete against facilities that flout the rules. Ranches with the space and resources to increase productivity without cutting down trees exist alongside smaller operations that aren’t even listed on the Rural Environmental Registry (CAR). For the latter, the only way to maximize profits is to clear new areas of pasture in the forest. There are ranchers who are aware of environmental issues and those who have social ties that reinforce their decision to raise cattle without deforestation. But there are also those isolated farmers who have no access to roads or any incentives to make, much less comply with, any environmental commitments.
Inequality, a major issue across Brazilian society, also explains deforestation in the Amazon — or, at least, illustrates the difficulty of enforcing the zero-deforestation policy imposed on meatpacking plants since 2009 by the Federal Prosecution Service (MPF) through a sectoral agreement called the Public Livestock Commitment (CPP).
“A decade later, the implementation of meat chain agreements is still incomplete, and concerns about the impact of cattle ranching in deforestation still remain,” says a study published last September in the journal Tropical Conservation Science.
Some of the commitments included in the pacts were abandoned over the past decade. Greenpeace terminated its involvement in the CPP in 2017 because of companies’ reluctance to comply with the zero-deforestation goal. In 2019, federal prosecutor Daniel Azeredo said that despite MPF audits concluding that more than 90% of meatpackers’ purchases met the minimum requirements, no company operating in the Amazon could say “it has no cattle coming from deforestation in its productive activity.”
Last year, Brazil’s largest meatpackers, JBS and Marfrig, publicly admitted that they had failed. Both managed to implement rigorous monitoring of their direct suppliers, but have not extended that oversight further down toward the supply chain’s early stages — a large-scale issue in an industry where an animal can move through a dozen farms before arriving at the one where it will be slaughtered.
The 2020 study, led by Brazilian agronomist Ritaumaria Pereira, adds something new to this well-known landscape: the testimony of 131 cattle ranchers and managers of seven slaughterhouses in the southeast region of Pará state. They spoke about the problems and demands of the sector.
“I have been researching the meat chain since 2005, and for the first time I was able to get into all the slaughterhouses; nobody slammed the door on my face, they all wanted to talk,” Pereira said. “At that moment, they were very open.”
The study covered 10 municipalities running from São Félix do Xingu and Marabá, where 30% of the state’s cattle — and 10% of all cattle in the Amazon — are concentrated. Pará was the first state where slaughterhouses signed on to deferred prosecution agreements offered by the MPF, known as MPF-TAC or simply the Meat TAC. Under the terms of the TAC, the slaughterhouses committed to not buy cattle grazed on deforested land, in return for the forestalling of charges linking them to acts of illegal deforestation. The policy has since been adopted in nearly all the states in the Brazilian Amazon, to varying degrees of effectiveness.
‘Easy to circumvent’
For their study, Pereira and her colleagues heard “candid testimonies” from those in the ranching and meatpacking industries about “how easy it is to circumvent the requirements” of the CPP and the Meat TAC. This is done by deceiving inspectors, through what’s known as cattle laundering — where animals grazed on deforested land are moved to legal ranches to mask their provenance — or simply selling cattle to slaughterhouses that haven’t signed on to the agreements. The practice is so common that the Mato Grosso state’s prosecutor’s office had to include slaughterhouses in the neighboring state of Tocantins into its TAC; the Tocantins prosecution service doesn’t enforce the deferred prosecution agreement as rigidly, according to Pereira.
One cattle breeder told the researchers that “many animals leave Pará without the Animal Transit Permit to be laundered in other states. The municipalities in the southwest send cattle to Mato Grosso, and those in the south supply the states of Tocantins and Goiás.”
The states of Roraima and Amapá have no slaughterhouses under monitoring by their respective state MPFs. And while the Public Livestock Commitment applies across the entirety of the Brazilian Amazon, it’s only for the top three meatpackers: JBS, Marfrig and Minerva.
Data from the project Boi na Linha, a partnership between the sustainable development NGO Imaflora and the MPF to monitor the effectiveness of the TAC implementation, show uneven results. In 2016, 160 meatpacking plants were mapped in the Amazon, but only 100 have signed a TAC.
Of these, only 56 are regularly audited for their compliance with practices agreed on in industry pacts. This means that while some slaughterhouses face a high level of scrutiny, far more continue to slip beneath the radar of the authorities.
“When we put it on the map, we see that it’s a very unfair competition,” Pereira said. “Ten years after the agreements were launched, we should have all the slaughterhouses aligned.”
The companies that signed the agreement need to create internal systems for monitoring their purchases and can respond in court if there are problems. “But the slaughterhouse that haven’t signed any agreement pay the same for the cattle, which encourages ranchers not to seek to adjust to the zero-deforestation parameters,” Pereira said.
While the study and its survey were conducted in 2013 and 2014, the authors say the data “describe structural challenges that continue to be faced by farmers,” as well as strategies they “continue to use to avoid compliance with the agreements.”
Little forest remaining
Another obstacle to the effectiveness of zero-deforestation agreements in the Amazon is the difference between the various ranches. Pereira’s study found ranches ranging in size from 29 hectares (72 acres) — the same as London’s Greenwich Park — to 57,000 hectares (141,000 acres) — larger than California’s Redwood National Park. This significant difference is a factor in how the ranchers do business.
Indirect suppliers tend to have smaller ranches, operate off the radar, and are the weakest link in the supply chain in terms of their compliance with zero-deforestation commitments. Almost 70% are not recorded on the Rural Environmental Registry (CAR), a self-declaratory form that undergirds Brazil’s agrarian policy.
“Indirect suppliers said they didn’t register because they only sell calves or animals for fattening on intermediaries’ farms, and these actions didn’t require them to have CARs,” the researchers said.
Without a CAR number, the supplier is effectively invisible in the inspection process. But they also miss out on any stimulus benefits, such as access to credit or development initiatives, making it unlikely they’ll see any improvement to their economic welfare.
Farms with access to technology and information on best agricultural practices are seven times more productive than those without access, according to Pereira’s study. Three in four of the study respondents said they wanted to invest in pasture recuperation, but faced high costs and difficult access to technology. Investing in pasture improvement techniques cost an average of $752 per hectare ($304 per acre) in 2009; cutting down forest for new pasture, meanwhile, could be done for just over $400 per hectare ($162 per acre).
Of Pereira’s respondents, all who managed to invest in pasture recuperation were direct suppliers. “The small farm breeder doesn’t have this [opportunity], because he doesn’t even have land to do farming or improve the pasture by rotating areas,” she said. “So the farmer is a hostage of scarcity, of a low-productivity system.”
But what nearly all the respondents had in common was a lack of original forest cover. Brazilian law requires cattle ranches in the Amazon to maintain 80% of forest cover on their land, an area known as the legal reserve. Yet more than 95% of the study respondents said they maintained a legal reserve smaller than that required by law. The study found the average forested area of the ranches was just 19%.
There was a mixture of frustration and recognition when, last year, the large slaughterhouses announced new targets for their entire chain to comply with zero-deforestation requirements in the Amazon. The plan is to gradually bring indirect suppliers on board between 2025 and 2030.
“The big slaughterhouses have shown that they are going to make investments; it is a light at the end of the tunnel,” Pereira said, but questioned the timeline.
“What is hard to accept is that it might take a long time: another 10 years. Is that right?”
Pereira, R., Rausch, L. L., Carrara, A., & Gibbs, H. K. (2020). Extensive production practices and incomplete implementation hinder Brazil’s zero-deforestation cattle agreements in Pará. Tropical Conservation Science, 13(1). doi:10.1177/1940082920942014
Banner image of a cattle ranch in Novo Progresso, Pará, by Felipe Werneck/IBAMA.