I spent a day a few weeks ago in São Paulo at the headquarters of a major Brazilian beef company — or, to put it another way, the cutting edge of tropical conservation.

The image people have of conservationists in the tropics is often drawn from Indiana Jones films: intrepid biologists in the jungle swatting away mosquitoes while they discover a new species. What I’m finding is that it’s not in the forest that I get that (rare) feeling of really having achieved something for conservation, but while wearing a suit in a place like São Paulo.

Yet I, too, began my conservation life swatting away mosquitoes (and much other insect life) in the Amazon, true to stereotype. The story of that journey from the Amazon to São Paulo reflects something of the direction in which tropical conservation as a whole is moving — and not the least of the many interesting issues it raises is how conservation organizations like The Nature Conservancy work together with campaign organizations like Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth.

My first conservation love is and will always be the Amazon, where I lived for over a decade. Overwhelmingly the most important driver of deforestation in the Amazon is ranching, with pasture having replaced more than 80 percent of the Brazilian Amazon cleared since reliable satellite records began, in the early 1980s.

When I returned in 1990 to the place I had done my doctoral fieldwork three years before, I had to be told when I’d arrived. The ranches had stripped away all the forest. All the landmarks I’d used to know where I was — the clump of trees behind the huts, the trail through the forest — had either been destroyed or lost their reference points.

So I’ve known for most of my adult life how important the beef market is to tropical conservation. Soy, biofuels, all the other commodities you may have heard linked to Amazon deforestation — they are as nothing compared to beef. There are good reasons why ranching thrives in the Amazon: land is free or cheap in most of it, cattle need minimal care, and they can walk to market.

I worked on greening supply chains in the soy industry in the Amazon for years, and made progress. But it was always with one eye on the beef sector. What I learned with soy would one day, I hoped, be applied to the beef industry. I tried to open up channels with the beef industry in Brazil for years, from 2003 on. I talked about the importance of not being linked to deforestation in a warming world, of monitoring supply chains and making sure your suppliers were doing the right thing. They listened politely, but I never got anywhere. The companies never felt any pressure to do anything, and in the absence of pressure, being environmentally responsible meant little more than costs and hassle. I didn’t like it, but I could understand it.

Meanwhile, ranching was becoming more and more important in the Amazon. From 1996 to 2006, while the area of pasture actually fell in the rest of Brazil, in the Amazon it increased by 20 percent, to a total of over 61 million hectares (for comparison, about 200,000 hectares of soy is grown in the Brazilian Amazon). This is what lies behind the stubbornness of deforestation in the Amazon, year in and year out, even as Brazil and the world worry more and more about climate change and biodiversity loss.

Then, in June, something extraordinary happened. Friends of the Earth in Brazil and Greenpeace in Europe came out with separate reports detailing the role of the beef industry in driving Amazon deforestation. There was a media firestorm. Within days, all the major Brazilian supermarket chains (Carrefour and Walmart among them) announced new policies banning the purchase of meat linked to deforestation in the Amazon. Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth achieved in a couple of weeks what I’d tried to do for years with no success.

But there are big risks. Right now, none of the meat processing companies have any way of documenting land-use change in the ranches that supply their Amazon slaughterhouses, and thus no way of guaranteeing to the retailers that their meat is deforestation-free. Getting such a monitoring system up and running was the reason I was in that meeting in São Paulo. In those circumstances, the easiest option for the Walmarts of this world is “redlining” the Amazon – simply suspend meat purchases from the Amazon, and buy meat from somewhere else less risky.

There are two problems with that:

  • One is that replacement beef will come from Brazil’s Cerrado savannas and southern Brazil’s Atlantic Forest, neither of which are as famous as the Amazon but are actually more threatened and also globally important, in conservation terms. Simply channeling demand away from the Amazon to elsewhere in Brazil is emphatically not a conservation win.
  • But even more worrying is what happens when, as you must to see how this plays out, you put yourselves in the shoes of an environmentally irresponsible beef producer, who wants to keep on working as he (it’s almost always a he) always has, without having to worry about all this deforestation nonsense.

The unfortunate fact is that you have alternatives. In 2008, the main export markets for Amazon beef were, in order — drum roll please — Russia, Venezuela and Iran! So, if Walmart gets all starry-eyed about the rainforest, you can always  sell to the Russians or the Iranians.

The problem with trying to inject conservation into commodity markets is that they’re global. The danger with the Greenpeace/Friends of the Earth approach is that it cuts off access to markets that could change the behavior of producers and influence them to stop deforesting, and throws them into the arms of the Russians. The supermarkets and consumers who shop in them would get that warm, self-satisfied feeling of having done something to stop deforestation, when in reality you could argue they’re actually accelerating it.

The trick, then, is to mix honey with vinegar. After putting the fear of God into the market players — and nobody does that better than Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth — the campaigns, which thrive on simplicity, have to give way to something much more complicated: getting beef markets to work in a way that brings deforestation down, instead of simply switching the markets and consumers that drive it.

The trick here is to make sure there is responsibly produced Amazon beef to supply the market that Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth have played such an important role in creating, in volume sufficient to meet the demand. I’ll be suiting up and heading to São Paulo for a long time to come, it seems.

(Image: Smoke from burning tropical forest in Para state, Brazil. Credit: leoffreitas through a Creative Commons license.)

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  1. Beef should be OUTLAWED world wide. It is dangerous for all of us. Humans are by BIOLOGY Vegetarians. They were NOT designed to consume meat. Plain & simple biology. Anything that can have such a devastating effect on the planet should not be allowed to continue, no matter what. Just my thoughts…

  2. beef is probably not a good idea, mostly because of land and water use issues; but anyone who thinks vegetarianism in the human species is “simple biology” is, sad to say, ignorant of our evolutionary history and the role that animal protein likely played in building the exceptionally large brains of modern _Homo sapiens_.

    please, let’s not give the naysayers any more evidence — “environmentally conscious” does not have to mean “naive”.

  3. Wow. Amazing. I had no idea. And here I was so happy that all these supermarket chains in the UK, such as Waitrose, are no longer dealing with unsustainably caught fish.

    There just had to be a catch, didn’t there!? Thank you so much for this knowledge. I will help spread it.

  4. At home we enjoy a low-animal protein diet, for our health and the environment’s sake. We eat animal food, but very sparsely. When I buy meat or poultry, I stick to locally and organically produced supplies. I know it’s just a grain in the desert, though.
    The quickly developing countries are multiplying their meat intake – it’s a signal of wealth, people think. China is a clear example.
    And my country is one of the most voracious fish predator in the world – Spain.

  5. 1. You can’t just stop the use of beef around the world, but you can try to convince people to consume less.
    2. Think about how much a cow eats over its lifetime before it gets slaughtered and consumed within a few days.
    3. Anyone that wants to learn more about what’s at stake, read Mark Plotkin’s “The Shaman’s Apprentice”.

  6. My solution would be that the world population move toward vegetarianism–but I know that there is always another consequence. What would the global consequence be, if people stopped eating beef?

  7. I live in California where irrigation has been turned off to thousands of farmers. We supplied much of the world with fruits/vegs, but that will come to an end. So as food sources decrease, people will get food where they can, without thinking of where it came from. It’s survival.

  8. I live in Brazil – quite away from the Amazon forest, but close enough to the ag industry to know that there can be beef production w/out deforestation. WWF has just released a study about that which shows that productivity levels are really low here and there is plenty of land that has been damaged and that can be recovered for pasture. The point is that putting trees down provides the initial capital with which one can start a business. Embargo on wood from the forest would make deforestation quite less profitable – maybe less profitable enough to make the recovery of damaged lands an attractive option. Please do not buy wood from unknown sources – and maybe we will be able to reduce deforestation here in Brazil.

  9. The biggest enemy to sensible meat consumption are the fast fat outlets and their sly appeal to our salivary overdrive at the taste of burnt protein. How many cows is a billion hamburgers? How do we back a culture away from a heart attack precipice? Even the urban garden I’m barracking for
    wants to hold a sausage sizzle to raise funds. Do we really need to kill a cow to grow a tomato?
    The problem is that our fuel funded economics make meat too easily accessible. The beginning was refrigeration, and transport then took dead animals on trips most of the worlds population could not have made a hundred years earlier.
    Has anyone done a graph paralleling meat consumption and fuel consumption? We need to push the health benefits of reducing food miles – by health I mean environmental as well. Lets put a carbon tax on food transport.
    Such a tax would kill off cattle farms in the amazon.
    Globalization of markets is a poisonously insidious idea. We now have the know how to move away from this insidious nonsense. If you must eat a cow make it local, and better still, go and kill it yourself. I think there are quite a few who won’t go there.

  10. carbon tax on food transport? because Iran is concerned? the point was made, this isn’t solely a US demand caused issue. Take the US out of the equation, China, Iran, Russia, they’ll all happily import the beef.
    I enjoy being a carnivore, sourcing my meat locally whenever possible. Keep in mind that not all folks will be 100% on board with anything, so making modest moves moves the most. Continual modest moves will shift the way in which we behave as a global community. keep that in mind, a global community.

  11. Hey Cleary,

    I mention your great article on my blog. Check it out and feel free to comment, clarify or contradict.


  12. I know this somewhat off topic, but I can’t find anything on TNC’s website about its involvement with Cargill Inc. in an assessment project of rainforest deforestation by soybean farmers. Would be interested to hear TNC’s description of this relationship. I saw it mentioned in the below Bloomberg article:

    “Minneapolis-based Cargill Inc., the largest privately held company in the U.S., spent $20 million to build a grain port on the Amazon River in 2003 that led to farmers illegally destroying thousands of hectares of rain forest to grow soybeans, says Felicio Pontes, a federal prosecutor who sued to block the project.

    In early February, soybeans were piled high in a storage area at Cargill’s Amazon port, waiting to be loaded onto a ship bound for Europe. The company ships about 60,000 tons of soybeans a year grown near the town of Santarem. Before Cargill built the port, there was no large-scale soybean production in the area.

    ‘Completely Obvious’

    Cargill hired The Nature Conservancy, an Arlington, Virginia-based nonprofit group, to confirm that soybean farmers aren’t clearing the Amazon around Santarem. The group says it has certified this year that 155 of 383 farms weren’t deforesting.

    “It’s completely obvious that Cargill’s port gave an incentive that led to deforestation,” Pontes says”


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