Agricultural commodities were largely responsible for fires in the Amazon

burnt forest

Research shows slaughterhouses and soy producers at higher risk of being associated with burning

Agricultural commodities were largely responsible for fires in the Amazon, according to a study that crosses NASA data with companies’ supply chains

by Marcelo Coppola *

In August of last year, images of the fires in the Amazon attracted the attention of the world. Heads of government, multilateral organizations, environmentalists and celebrities have expressed concern about the future of the largest rainforest on the planet. “The Amazon needs to be protected,” said António Guterres, secretary-general of the United Nations (UN). “Our war on nature must end,” tweeted activist Greta Thunberg.

The real size of the environmental disaster was only known in January, when the National Institute for Space Research (Inpe) presented a final balance of the fires that hit the forest. In 12 months, 89 thousand fires occurred in the region, an increase of 30% in relation to 2018. A worrying growth, despite the number being below the historical series (109 thousand).

At the height of the crisis, President Jair Bolsonaro cast suspicion on NGOs operating in the region. And Minister Ricardo Salles (Environment) blamed the drier season, when, in fact, it rained more than the previous year. Researchers in the biome attribute the fires, however, to other factors.

Land speculation is today one of the great villains of the Amazon rainforest. It is a highly profitable business that involves the invasion of public lands, the felling and removal of the most valuable trees and then, through chains attached to tractors, the felling of the lowest vegetation. After a few weeks, the necessary period for drying the destroyed material, just set fire to what was once a forest. It is time then to spread the seeds to create the pasture, waiting for the buyer.

“It’s easy money. The invader of public land that spends R $ 1 thousand to cut down and set fire to one hectare manages to sell the same hectare for up to R $ 2.7 thousand ”, says Raoni Rajão, a researcher from the Amazon and professor at the Production Engineering Department from the Federal University of Minas Gerais (UFMG). Fires are usually carried out in the driest period in the Amazon, between July and October.

The forest does not burn only because of land grabbing. To expand the pasture, many producers set fire to areas adjacent to their properties or destroy the existing forest within their own farms. The Forest Code establishes that, in properties located in the Legal Amazon, 80% of native forest must be preserved. There are also the fires carried out by farmers, indigenous people and traditional peoples with the purpose of renewing the pasture or the cultivation area, a practice that has a much smaller impact on the biome, but which can get out of control and cause destruction in large areas.

A survey carried out by MapBiomas – an initiative that brings together universities, social organizations and technology companies – reveals the dimension of the criminal practices mentioned above. According to the study, carried out by crossing satellite images with the Rural Environmental Registry (CAR) and other official databases, 99% of the deforestation carried out in Brazil last year was illegal. Of the 12,000 square kilometers of destroyed native vegetation, most are located in the Cerrado and the Amazon.

Livestock and soy

A recent study by Chain Reaction Research (CRR) [ ], a coalition of environmental consultants European and American, helps to understand a little more the interests behind the fires that occurred last year in the Amazon. The researchers crossed images of the fires, taken by NASA satellites, with the location of the largest refrigerators in the region, such as JBS and Marfrig, and large soy silos, controlled by giants such as Bunge and Cargill.

The American space agency’s monitoring system detected 417,000 fires in JBS and Marfrig’s “potential buying zones” from July to October last year, a number that represents 42% of all fires in Brazil in the period – there were 981,000, according to NASA. The outbreaks of fires surrounding the two companies represent almost half (47%) of the total detected (885 thousand) in the vicinity of the ten largest slaughterhouses in the region.

Potential areas for the purchase of slaughterhouses were established by Imazon (Institute of Man and the Environment of the Amazon) in 2017, based on interviews with 157 slaughterhouses in the Legal Amazon. Among other information, these companies revealed the maximum distance they travel to buy animals for slaughter. The largest refrigerators have a maximum distance of 360 km from their facilities. Minors, who are certified to operate only within the State, buy cattle a maximum distance of 153 km.

In the case of soybeans, Chain Reaction Research has established a radius of 25 km from the silos of the largest companies in the sector as part of its supply chain. The survey indicated that the fires that occurred in the vicinity of Bunge and Cargill (39,900) exceeded the sum of the fires registered near the other eight largest traders in the sector.

The survey does not make any accusations against these conglomerates. “The objective was to show the occurrence of an enormous amount of fires in the vicinity of these companies, which does not imply their direct involvement with these practices. But it makes them have to resolve the suspicions that fall on their supply chain ”, says Marco Túlio Garcia, a researcher at Aidenviroment and one of the authors of the study, which also analyzed the fires in Indonesia, where the suspicions fall on oil production palm.

“Deforestation in the Amazon, the main cause of the fires, poses risks to these companies. In recent years, major international investors have placed these issues at the center of their agenda. They are no longer restricted to debates between environmentalists, ”adds Tim Steinweg, research coordinator at Chain Reaction Research. An example of this concern in the global market was given last December by Nestlé, when it suspended its soy purchases from Cargill, on suspicion that the product originated in deforested areas in the Amazon.

A recent report by The Guardian revealed that banks and other British financial institutions have invested more than US in recent years? 2 billion in the main Brazilian meat companies operating in the Amazon. Because of deforestation, they are considering reconsidering their support if these companies do not show progress in tracking their suppliers. Food giants express the same concern. In December, Nestlé suspended its soy purchases from Cargill, on suspicion that the product originated in deforested areas of the forest.

Scholars estimate that the livestock sector today poses more risks to the Amazon than the soybean industry, which today threatens the Cerrado more. The image of the grain producers has improved since the pact, dubbed the “soy moratorium”, signed in 2006 with environmental organizations, by which they undertook not to buy the commodity from deforested areas in the biome. The agreement was later supported by the federal government.

The livestock sector carries irregularities of the most varied types. Among them, animals that are born in deforested areas, often embargoed by Ibama, and that are sold to small and medium producers. After fattening, they are legally purchased by large slaughterhouses. Control systems fail to catch the addiction of origin. “It is a very complex chain. There is no system that allows each animal to be tracked from the beginning, and the slaughterhouses do not seem interested in implementing such monitoring, ”laments Ritaumaria Pereira, executive director of Imazon. “There is a saying in the region that reflects this sad reality. Ox does not die of old in the Amazon. There will always be someone to buy it, regardless of where it comes from, ”says the agronomist.

Less forest, less rain

For many experts, the Brazilian government and rural producers lack strategic vision in relation to the Amazon, the country’s main environmental asset. Paulo Moutinho, senior researcher at IPAM (Institute for Environmental Research in the Amazon), recalls that the forest functions as a kind of water vapor pump that, transported through the so-called flying rivers, irrigates the Midwest and Midwest. Southern Brazil. Destruction puts this irrigation system at risk. “When deforesting, it is like drilling a hole in this watering can, which guarantees the success of a large part of Brazilian agricultural production.” According to a study by the National Water Agency (ANA) and the IBGE, 92.5% of the water consumed by Brazilian agriculture comes from rains. Only 7.5% are irrigation systems.

The risks to the Amazon rainforest are real, according to the scientists. The biome has already lost about 17% (2017 data) of its native vegetation. If this percentage exceeds 20% / 25%, you are at great risk of entering a process of savanization, according to a study published two years ago by the Brazilian researcher Carlos Nobre and the American Thomas Lovejoy. In the previous decade, the same researchers said that the tipping point would happen when 40% of destruction was reached. They redid the calculations due to the deadly alliance between deforestation, fires and climate change.

Experts heard by the report believe that it is not necessary to destroy any more hectares to increase agricultural production. It would be enough to take advantage of the 12 million hectares that were deforested and abandoned in the Amazon, areas that could be recovered. “You have many areas that are open and, with adequate incentive, could be explored”, says Paulo Moutinho, from IPAM. Ritaumaria Pereira, from Imazon, agrees: “In addition to the regeneration of these areas, we need public policies to encourage increased productivity in livestock, which today is very low, about one animal per hectare”.

What companies say

In a statement, JBS complains about the fact that it was not sought by researchers at Chain Reaction Research. The company questions the technical criteria of the study and says it adopts a zero-tolerance approach to deforestation throughout its supply chain. “All JBS cattle supply farms in the Amazon region are monitored using satellite images and georeferenced data from the property. Therefore, suppliers that used fire to deforest the forest will be detected by the Company’s monitoring system and blocked for the purchase of cattle. ”

Marfrig stated that it adopts “a strict animal purchase policy, as well as a protocol with criteria and procedures that are prerequisites for the approval of suppliers”. The company says it maintains a platform that monitors, through a system of socio-environmental georeferencing and geomonitoring, all its suppliers. The tool crosses the georeferenced data and documents from the farms with official public information to identify potential non-conformities, “preventing the raw material from coming from farms that produce meat in deforestation or embargoed areas, overlapping with conservation units or indigenous lands, or even if they use ‘slave labor ”’.

Bunge said it is committed to a supply chain free of deforestation and that it condemns any use of fire for deforestation. “The company maintains strict control over socio-environmental criteria in its operations throughout Brazil. The actions include daily checks on Ibama and the Ministry of Labor and Employment public lists of non-conformities, in addition to checking other legal requirements, and immediately blocking any commercial negotiations, in case of non-compliance ”. According to the note, “the company is also a signatory to the Soy Moratorium, a globally recognized commitment that prohibits the purchase of soybeans grown in deforested areas after 2008 in the Amazon, and the Green Grain Protocol of Pará, a joint initiative with the Ministry Federal Public Ministry (MPF),that establishes criteria for commercial transactions with a focus on avoiding the commercialization of grains from illegally deforested areas ”.

Cargill said it is committed to protecting forests and native vegetation in ways that are economically viable for farmers. “Illegal deforestation and deliberate fires in the Amazon are unacceptable and, together with other companies in the sector, we will continue to partner with local communities, farmers, governments, NGOs and our customers to find solutions that preserve this important ecosystem,” Cargill. “We have been part of the Soy Moratorium in the Amazon since 2006, when we signed a voluntary agreement with industrial and environmental organizations not to buy soy from land that was deforested after 2008 in this biome. This effort contributed to the 80% decline in deforestation in the Amazon in the last decade and was extended indefinitely in 2016. ”

* Marcelo Coppola is a journalist and was an editor at Época magazine. He also worked for the Folha de S. Paulo newspaper and Veja magazine.

Collaboration by Clóvis Saint-Clair, Diálogo Brasil

in EcoDebate , ISSN 2446-9394, 10/01/2020