02.07.19 Environment

Revealed: How the global beef trade is destroying the Amazon

The cows grazed under a hot sun near a wooden bridge spanning a river in the Amazon. The quiet was occasionally broken by a motorbike growling along a dirt road that cut through the sprawling cattle ranch.

But the idyllic pasture was on land that the Lagoa do Triunfo ranch has been forbidden to use for cattle since 2010, when it was embargoed by Brazil’s environment agency Ibama as a punishment for deforestation. Nearby there were more signs of fresh pasture: short grass, feeding troughs, and fresh salt used to feed cattle — all in apparent contravention of rules designed to protect vital rainforest.

This vast 145,000 hectare ranch is one of several owned by AgroSB Agropecuária SA — a company known in the region as Santa Barbara. Located in an environmentally protected area, Lagoa do Triunfo is more than 600km from the capital of the Amazon state of Pará, on the western fringes of Brazil’s “agricultural frontier” — where farming eats into the rainforest.

An investigation by the Bureau, the Guardian and Repórter Brasil has found that cattle produced by Santa Barbara are being sold to JBS, the world’s biggest meat-packing company. JBS is the single biggest supplier of beef, chicken and leather globally, and exports fresh beef to Europe and about half of the corned beef eaten in the UK. In 2017, JBS said it had stopped buying Santa Barbara cattle, after it was fined $7.7 million for buying cows raised on illegally deforested land — but our investigation shows that is no longer the case.

The investigation found that last year the Lagoa do Triunfo ranch delivered hundreds of heads of cattle to some of Santa Barbara’s other farms for the final stage of fattening. Cattle was then sent from those farms to slaughter in JBS plants. Using GPS and publicly available maps and locations, reporters located cattle and pasture inside embargoed areas at Lagoa do Triunfo.

The revelations come as work by Trase, an NGO, shared exclusively with our team, has revealed how huge swathes of felled rainforest can be traced back to this cattle trade — and how beef raised on deforested land ends up in international supply chains.

Deforestation around Lagoa do Triunfo. The dot left of centre marks the location of the ranch

Embargoes — restrictions that ban farmers guilty of deforestation or environmental damage from using parts of their own land — are imposed by the Brazilian government and serve both as a punishment and a protective measure to allow land to recover. They can be more effective than fines because they come at a higher cost for farmers.

But our investigative team visited land clearly demarcated as embargoed on government websites, and found grazing cows there. A worker at the ranch said that cattle were left to roam in areas employees knew were embargoed. “You can’t cut down the vegetation,” the employee said. “The vegetation grows and we work the cattle inside.”

Santa Barbara is an enormous, powerful ranching empire, owned by the billionaire Daniel Dantas, that controls half a million hectares across Pará. In 2008 Dantas was twice arrested on bribery charges and handed a ten-year sentence as a result of a corruption investigation that also saw his land confiscated. The investigation’s findings were subsequently overturned, the sentence dropped and Dantas got all his land back.

Over the past decade, according to Repórter Brasil, Santa Barbara has been accused of illegal deforestation and faced allegations of using slave-like labour — accusations it strongly denies. Lagoa do Triunfo is one of its largest ranches. There are 12 separate embargoed areas on it, dating from 2010 to 2013.

A flock of parrots in flight over the canopy of a rainforest
Parrots fly over the Brazilian rainforest Lee Dalton/Alamy

The wild west on the edge of the Amazon

With a population of 125,000 people and over two million cattle, the municipality of Sao Félix do Xingu, in Pará state, covers an area bigger than Scotland. Cattle ranching fed its growth from remote Amazon outpost to busy town. And there is money here: farmers’ wives are happy to pay $600 for a handbag, said Kelli Moraes, a 25-year-old sales assistant. “They are very fashion.”

Sao Félix do Xingu was mostly forest when Arlindo Rosa, now president of the town’s union of rural producers, arrived in 1993. “There was practically none of this farming … there was no highway, there was nothing,” he said.

“People came from outside with the spirit to raise cattle,” said his vice-president, Francisco Torres, who arrived in 1987. Santa Barbara, the region’s biggest ranching company, began buying land near Sao Félix do Xingu in 2006, Torres said.

Torres said many ranches in the area have suffered Ibama embargoes. “If they removed those embargoes, a lot would improve,” said Rosa. As is common with farmers and landowners in Amazon areas, both men were critical of what they saw as overzealous environmental controls. Rosa owes $1.4 million to Ibama in fines for deforestation, according to the agency’s website.

But embargoes have not stopped Santa Barbara illegally grazing cattle on deforested land, nor JBS being able to perfectly legally do business with the company, our investigation found.

JBS Beef Brazil’s “responsible procurement policy” says it “does not purchase animals from farms involved in deforestation of native forests … or that are embargoed” by Ibama. But the company has also said that the common practice of transferring cattle from one farm to another for fattening can make it impossible to trace individual cows.

Cattle were seen grazing on embargoed land at the ranch João Laet
The Lagoa do Triunfo ranch João Laet

Official state documents seen by the Bureau, the Guardian and Repórter Brasil showed that from January to October 2018, Santa Barbara delivered at least 296 cattle from the Lagoa do Triunfo ranch to its Espiríto Santo ranch in Xinguara, in the same state. Between July 2018 and January this year, Santa Barbara sent 2,900 cattle from the Espiríto Santo ranch to JBS slaughterhouses.

Throughout 2018, Santa Barbara also sent at least 729 cattle from the Lagoa do Triunfo ranch to be fattened at its Porto Rico ranch in Xinguara. In April 2018, 36 cattle from the Porto Rico ranch were sent to slaughter at a JBS plant.

JBS said that 99.9% of its cattle purchases meet its socio-environmental criteria and that it was working to implement “a new procedure to cover all links in the supply chain” and stop the use of “cattle from illegally deforested areas”.

Santa Barbara said it did not carry out deforestation to increase its area “but rather recovers degraded areas” and turns them into pastures. It said that trees on the Lagoa do Triunfo ranch had been felled before the Forest Code was introduced and that only 7% of the land is under embargo.

New research tracking beef cattle back to the ranches they were raised on has revealed the full extent of deforestation in the Amazon that is linked to a handful of global food corporations.

Trase, a supply chain research project developed by the Stockholm Environment Institute and Global Canopy, tracked livestock from deforested areas to abattoirs producing beef for international markets, as well as meat for domestic use. Up to 5,800 square kilometres of forest is being felled in the Amazon and other areas every year for cattle ranching.

The destruction of up to 290 sq km of forest each year is linked to JBS's supply chain for exported beef, according to the data assembled by Trase. There is no suggestion any Lagoa do Triunfo beef is exported.

JBS, which slaughters almost 35,000 cattle in Brazil per day, has faced a string of allegations relating to deforestation. In 2017, Brazil’s environmental protection agency, Ibama, raided and ordered the suspension of two JBS meat-packing plants in Pará accused of having purchased cattle raised on illegally deforested land between 2013 and 2016.

JBS denied the allegations but was fined R$24.7 million ($8 million). In the same year, a Guardian investigation with Repórter Brasil revealed how the company had purchased cattle linked to poor labour conditions and deforestation, resulting in UK supermarket Waitrose removing the company’s products from its shelves.

The findings come amid growing international concern over the looming impacts of climate change, with the Amazon forest seen by experts as a crucial buffer in stabilising regional and global climate.

Between 1980 and 2005, Amazon deforestation levels reached 20,000 sq km per year — with an area the size of Wales being lost. Although there have been political murmurings about trying to halt the destruction, the latest data shows that deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon has risen by 73% since 2012.

Erasmus zu Ermgassen, lead researcher at Trase, said: “Though some slaughterhouses monitor their direct suppliers and so in theory can avoid farms associated with deforestation, none monitor their indirect suppliers, who make up the bulk of their supply chain.”

Trase added: “There is a huge opportunity to reduce the deforestation associated with the production and exports of beef in Brazil. There is enormous potential to use land more efficiently and sustainably in the Brazilian beef sector, and to improve rural livelihoods by investing in cattle ranching on existing pasturelands.”

Trase will release the data in full later this month.

Top image: Deforested land in the Brazilian Amazon. Credit: João Laet

Our Food and Farming project is partly funded out of Bureau core funds and partly by the Hollick Family Foundation (for 2020) and The Guardian. None of our funders have any influence over the Bureau’s editorial decisions or output.