Written by Clifford Krauss, David Yaffe-Bellany and Mariana Simões
A smoky, choking haze drifted over a lush rainforest reserve in the Brazilian Amazon last month, as fires lit by cattlemen illegally ranching on protected land spread through the jungle.
From an elevated vantage point, a dozen blazes could be spotted across an 845,000-acre nature preserve.
As damaging as these fires would be to the Serra Do Cachimbo Biological Reserve, they represented just a tiny fraction of the total number burning vast swaths of the Amazon, with 26,000 recorded in August, the highest number in a decade.
The immense scale of the fires in Brazil this summer raised a global alarm about the risks they posed to the world’s largest rainforest, which soaks up carbon dioxide and helps keep global temperatures from rising.
It wasn’t supposed to be like this.
Ten years ago, an agreement was reached that was intended to help end these devastating acts of ecological arson.
In 2009, the three biggest Brazilian meatpacking companies signed an agreement with the environmental group Greenpeace not to buy cattle from ranchers who raised their beef in newly deforested areas.
The deal was meant to be a model for the world, a partnership between private industry and environmental activists that would benefit both.
For Greenpeace, the agreement offered a solution to one of the biggest causes of rainforest destruction. The cattle industry is responsible for up to 80% of the clearings in recent years, according to the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies.
For the meatpackers, the agreement relieved pressure from a growing international environmental campaign against them and threats of boycotts against retailers selling their beef.
But the vows made by those three companies — JBS, Minerva and Marfrig, which handle about 50% of the beef raised in the Amazon — have been only partially kept, according to prosecutors, environmentalists and academics who study the cattle industry.
The failure to fulfill crucial elements of the ambitious promise — which were always going to be a challenge to achieve — is one of the main reasons the Amazon is on fire.
Cattle ranching has been responsible for 18,000 square miles of additional deforestation — equivalent to New Hampshire and Vermont combined — since the 2009 agreement between Greenpeace and the meatpackers, according to University of Wisconsin researchers.
Convinced that the meatpackers were not living up to their commitments, Greenpeace pulled out of the agreement in 2017.
“We saw that they failed to comply with what they had promised,” said Adriana Charoux, the lead Greenpeace Amazon activist. “They could have done much more. The slaughterhouses are making a minimal effort.”
From Jaguars to Cows
In September, the fires were abundant in the Serra Do Cachimbo Biological Reserve, set aside by the Brazilian government 15 years ago as a pristine wilderness area off-limits to all commercial activity.
But driving over the creaky river bridges built by the ranchers in this reserve, it was easy to find illegal cattle operations here, as it is throughout Brazil’s Amazon. Where giant otters and jaguars once roamed, there were fields where cattle grazed.
Fazenda Canaã, a 2,700-acre farm carved out of the reserve’s rainforest around 2013, made no effort to hide. The jungle that had stood on this land was replaced by open savanna — grazing land for its 400 cattle.
For a ranch hand working there, the exchange of rainforest for productive farmland seemed like a fair deal.
“The right thing to do is let people work,” said Isaías Hermogem, as he watched over cattle grazing in a clearing edged with papaya and coconut trees. “Let’s open up more space.”
Many ranchers have taken that advice.
Fazenda Canaã is just one of at least 71 ranches in the Serra do Cachimbo, and both the number of ranches and the size of each appears to be growing. In August, just as the rampant fires in the Amazon gripped the attention of a warming world, Fazenda Canaã extended its turf with additional burning.
About 200 million head of cattle are raised in Brazil, with an estimated 173,746 square miles of forest — the size of California, plus Massachusetts and New Jersey — converted to cattle pasture over recent decades, according to the Yale School of Forestry.
Livestock farming generates more than $6 billion in annual export revenues and about 360,000 jobs. Much of the exported beef goes to meet growing demand in China.
Despite the promise of the major meatpackers not to buy cattle from ranches like Fazenda Canaã, cattle that spent time on this farm were purchased by JBS over the past three years, according to government data.
In fact, JBS, the biggest meatpacker worldwide, bought cattle that passed through 11 ranches in the preserve over the past two years, according to the government data.
Marfrig and Minerva each made indirect purchases from one ranch here, according to government data that traces a complex supply chain.
An audit in 2016 by federal prosecutors in Pará state, where the Serra do Cachimbo reserve is and where about a third of the cattle slaughtered in the Amazon come from, showed that 6% of the cattle JBS had bought between October 2009 and 2016, totaling 36,739 head, came from ranches that had been illegally cleared.
In 2016, 118,459 cattle, or 19% of the total bought by JBS in Pará, were acquired “with evidence of irregularities,” according to the audit by the Brazilian Federal Prosecution Service using satellite information, on-the-ground inspections and traced purchasing data.
“There is no reason why after 10 years there could not be better results,” said Nathalie Walker, a director at the National Wildlife Federation, who has studied the Brazilian cattle industry. “There were firm negotiated agreements.”
Brazil has many thousands of cattle farms in the Amazon, spread out across one of the world’s most remote areas, which hinders efforts at law enforcement, inspections and, especially, tracking cattle over their life spans.
It’s rare for a cow to spend its entire life on the farm where it was born; it may be bought and sold multiple times until it reaches the ranch that sells it directly to a slaughterhouse.
This complex supply chain has made the phenomenon of “cattle laundering” common and is the crux of the problem in fulfilling the deal’s promise.
A calf may be born on illegally deforested land and then ultimately sold to a fattening ranch whose land was cleared long ago and is within the terms of the accord.
When the slaughterhouses buy from these ranches, they can say they have acquired a cow from a compliant source.
JBS asserts that 100% of its cattle purchases from its direct suppliers “were in compliance with our responsible sourcing policies,” according to a statement from a company spokesman.
The company said that it uses satellite technology, geo-referenced farm data and government records to monitor more than 280,000 square miles, an area larger than Texas, and that it assesses more than 50,000 potential cattle suppliers every day.
“JBS has an unwavering commitment to combat, discourage and eliminate deforestation in the Amazon region,” said the company statement.
Despite those efforts, an audit commissioned by JBS acknowledged that the company does not fully monitor indirect suppliers because of a lack of accessible public data tracking the transport of animals.
“JBS can track 100% of its direct suppliers,” according to its third-party auditor, DNV GL, a Norwegian quality-assurance and certification company. But JBS “has not yet been successful in implementing traceability processes” for indirect suppliers.
And this gap, critics say, has rendered the agreement largely ineffectual.
Most of the Amazon ranches that sell cattle directly to JBS, Marfrig and Minerva are essentially middlemen, aggregators of cattle from multiple, inadequately monitored farms, according to data provided by University of Wisconsin researchers.
Based on an analysis of publicly available property records as well as on-the-ground interviews with hundreds of farmers in the Amazon, the University of Wisconsin researchers found that at least 15% of the indirect suppliers to the three major meatpackers have continued to deforest land since the 2009 agreement was signed.
“The agreement has so many holes, the deforestation is still just going on,” said Holly Gibbs, a University of Wisconsin geographer who has studied the agreement.
In a separate study of the cattle export market in the Amazon and the nearby Cerrado, a region that is not covered by the agreement, Trase, a research group that studies commodity supply chains, said that beef exports by JBS contributed to an estimated 100 square miles of deforestation a year from 2015 to 2017.
And the deforestation totals in the report reflect only a small part of the problem, because 80% of the meat produced in the region goes into the domestic market, whose effect on deforestation Trase did not measure.
“The lack of monitoring of indirect suppliers is a big blind spot,” said Erasmus zu Ermgassen, a Trase researcher. “Slaughterhouses, like JBS, have no way of guaranteeing that cattle from deforesting properties don’t ultimately end up in their supply chain.”
Initial Progress Come Undone
The landmark agreement signed by JBS, Minerva and Marfrig was considered promising.
The deal obligated the three companies to ensure that farmers who sold them cattle were not actively engaged in deforestation.
Soon after the Greenpeace deal, federal prosecutors reached an accord with 13 additional national meatpackers allowing federal law enforcement officers to monitor the source of their cattle so slaughterhouses would cut ties with cattlemen who cleared a significant amount of forest. Eventually, about 100 signed on, including the Big 3.
At first, the agreements did lead to improvements, as the meatpacking companies established the necessary protocols to monitor their direct suppliers.
In Pará state, for example, the University of Wisconsin research team found that while 36% of supplying ranches had recent deforestation in 2009, only 4% did in 2013.
But at the same time that the agreements limited the amount of new land for grazing, demand for beef was growing both domestically and internationally.
The incentive to clear more rainforest for pasture became hard to resist, and the result was a surge in the cattle laundering practice that has undermined the deals and ravaged Brazil’s rainforests.
Compounding the problem, farmers and ranchers have treated the inauguration of right-wing populist Jair Bolsonaro as president in January as a green light to burn deeper into the rainforest.
“If there was one thing Bolsonaro was crystal clear about,” said Jeremy Martin, vice president for energy and sustainability at the Institute of the Americas, a California-based research organization, “it was that he was 100% willing to compromise the Amazon for economic upside.”
A Large Loophole
The agreement with Greenpeace recognized that animals that end up in slaughterhouses are not always raised by the direct suppliers, and the three companies agreed they would monitor the complex path taken by cattle as they moved through the Amazon.
The tracking system was supposed to be in operation by 2011.
But on the 10th anniversary of the agreement, the companies still have not found a way to fully monitor the indirect suppliers.
While critical of the performance of JBS and other meatpackers, government prosecutors and academics say the three companies are only part of the problem and so can only be part of the solution.
The companies have been handicapped by the inconsistent quality of government inspections that monitor cattle traffic from farm to farm. And cattle data is scattered and incomplete, government officials say.
Daniel Azeredo, a senior federal environmental prosecutor who has investigated the cattle industry, said that JBS and the other meatpackers have acknowledged the problem. “In meetings they say, ‘We are victims of fraud,’” he said. “But I think they could do more.”
The independent auditor used by JBS said that tracing the full supply chain would be possible only if JBS had complete access to animal transportation documents that are closely guarded by the Ministry of Agriculture.
Another of the signatories to the deal, Minerva, also pointed to the intractable problems in the supply chain. “Today there are no reliable and accessible statistics on the cattle traceability chain,” Minerva said in a statement. “Any indirect supplier control initiative at this time is not monitorable, reportable and attestable.”
Marfrig said it was in full compliance with the agreement and was working to develop “new solutions to foment a deforestation-free supply chain.”
Brazil’s agriculture minister, Tereza Cristina da Costa Dias, agreed in an interview that the government’s animal transport information was disorganized, dispersed and difficult to access.
Asked if the cattle industry was doing enough to protect the Amazon, she said, “That’s a very difficult question.”
No one disagrees with the minister about the difficulty of the task.
A Solution Stymied
Following the life cycle of a cow takes sophisticated surveillance, regulatory supervision, standardized records and systematic auditing — a complex process that, critics acknowledge, is especially hard in the Amazon.
But thousands of miles from the Brazilian rainforests, in Madison, Wisconsin, a team of University of Wisconsin researchers has spent nearly a decade attempting to show it can be done.
Working with the National Wildlife Federation, the team has developed a computerized tracking tool, called Visipec, that documents the movement of cattle from the calving farms to the slaughterhouses by linking the datasets on government websites.
Using that data, the researchers say, the tool can help slaughterhouses track almost all their direct and indirect suppliers.
It’s unclear, however, how much private support or political will there is for such a solution, since it would close what some experts suggest has been a convenient loophole for all parties in the Brazilian cattle industry.
The National Wildlife Federation has offered Visipec for free to the major meatpackers, including JBS. So far, none of them are using it.
And just as the tool is ready to be fully deployed, much of the data underpinning it may soon become more difficult to access.
One of the key datasets had come from the website of the Brazilian agriculture ministry, which had posted online records of cattle transactions in the Amazon.
In April, the agriculture ministry released a memo saying that parts of the database would not be made publicly available because they contain “personal information” that “does not interest the general public.” Already, some of the data has become harder to download, said Gibbs, the lead university researcher.
While tracking the supply chain had always been difficult, she said, now “it is essentially impossible.”