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Why is the rain forest in Brazil still burning?

San Francisco Chronicle logo San Francisco Chronicle 10/12/2019 By Clifford Krauss, David Yaffe-Bellany and Mariana Simões

SERRA DO CACHIMBO BIOLOGICAL RESERVE, Brazil — A smoky, choking haze drifted over a lush rain forest 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 rain forest, 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 rain forest 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 meat-packers, 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 meat-packers, according to University of Wisconsin researchers.

Convinced that the meat-packers were not living up to their commitments, Greenpeace pulled out of the agreement in 2017.

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 rain forest 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 rain forest 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 — 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 meat-packers 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 meat-packer 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.

“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.

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.

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 meat-packers have continued to deforest land since the 2009 agreement was signed.

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 rain forest.

“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 San Diego-based research organization, “it was that he was 100% willing to compromise the Amazon for economic upside.”

Clifford Krauss, David Yaffe-Bellany and Mariana Simões are New York Times writers.

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