In Brazil, The Meat Industry Searches for a Solution to Deforestation

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Published on September 3rd, 2009  |  Discuss This Article  


I am presently lodged in a small frontier town of ~30,000 called São Felix de Xingu, in the Northeastern state of Pará, Brazil. The roads are mostly dirt, but it is very lively on a Friday night, with motorbikes driving everywhere and crowds of people at the local boîtes. We had dinner (delicious fish pulled from the Rio Xingu that flows through the town) with the local mayor, who governs a municipal region that is the size of Panama (or about the size of Maine), the second largest municipality by area in Brazil, and perhaps in all the world. According to the mayor, it is less than 14 percent deforested, which marks it as among the best preserved areas in Pará, the location of nearly half of the deforestation in Brazil.

The Conservancy is working here with the local, state and national governments and with local meatpacking companies to assure compliance with environmental laws. Cattle ranching is one of the largest causes of deforestation in Pará, and the federal government is enlisting the meatpackers to impose restrictions on their suppliers, the ranchers, to document their compliance with the Brazilian forest code, which requires 80 percent of land parcels in the Amazon region to be reserved as native forest.

This law is routinely violated, in part because records of land ownership have historically been poor, much of the land is lacking title, and in some cases there are competing governmentally sanctioned claims on the land. The government is now focused on rectifying this situation by regularizing the land titles, and encouraging the reforestation of degraded land.

The level of engagement by all parties is impressive for such a lightly populated area. No fewer than six federal and state environmental officials joined us in São Felix. The local government is also significantly engaged on the issue, with a staff of three dozen working on deforestation and environmental issues.

Earlier in the day, we visited a slaughterhouse near Marabá that was featured in a recent Greenpeace report on the destruction of the Amazon. We met with the very sophisticated sales manager and their sustainable projects coordinator. They are taking a great interest in the prospect of some sort of green label that would certify that the beef comes from a cattle producer who is complying with the law, or perhaps going further by reforesting part of his land.

The meat industry is not without controversy, and arguably a contributor to deforestation, but they are also an important lever in the process of changing behavior in the Amazon. One reason is that cattle ranches in Pará typically graze only 4 cows for every 10 acres, about 1/2 or less of the density elsewhere in Brazil. The government is working with these ranchers to use their relationships with the suppliers to help with regularizing land tenure, improving land management and compliance with the forest code and reforesting degraded areas.

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