Cattle ranching is the biggest driver of illegal deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon. As the EU looks to revive the Mercosur trade deal - meaning more beef from the region will end up on Europeans’ plates - Paulo Barreto outlines how to improve a sector in desperate need of transparency.
Policies protecting the environment had been dismantled. Attacks against Indigenous Peoples and incursions on their land had surged. And deforestation was at its highest levels for years: rising 52% between 2019 and 2021 in the Amazon, compared to the previous three years.
For the European Union (EU) - Brazil’s second largest trading partner and a big importer of the beef and soy that drive deforestation and rights’ abuses in Brazil – the country’s unfolding catastrophe was a litmus test of how far it was prepared to sacrifice the environment and human rights for trade.
Now, following recent economic talks in Brazil between EU lawmakers from the international trade committee and Brazilian officials, the picture is very different.
Brazil's new president, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, has pledged to stop the onslaught in the Amazon. By appointing two respected Amazon defenders, Marina Silva and Sȏnia Guajajara, as Minister of Environment and Climate Change, and Minister of Indigenous Peoples respectively, Lula has signalled his intent to do so.
Within the EU, there has also been change.
After years of campaigning and lengthy political debate, in December 2022 the EU adopted the Regulation on deforestation-free products. This pioneering law is designed to eradicate the global deforestation embedded in the EU’s imports of commodities, including beef and soy.
The advent of a new government in Brazil has also meant plans to finalise the EU-Mercosur Trade Agreement have been revived. This is sure to be at the top of the agenda during the EU delegation’s visit.
The mammoth Free Trade Agreement between the EU and Brazil and other Mercosur nations was approved in 2019 after 20 years of negotiations, but it hasn’t been ratified because of concerns it would exacerbate environmental and human rights abuses.
The optimism surrounding these recent developments, however, should not obscure the huge challenges to ending the destruction of the Amazon and Brazil’s other precious biomes.
One of the greatest is bringing transparency to Brazil’s beef sector.
Opaque supply chains
Brazil is the world’s largest beef exporter, and cattle ranching causes the vast majority of deforestation in the Amazon. Cattle pastures cover about 90% of the total deforested area, and new deforestation is overwhelmingly illegal.
Yet to guarantee that the beef ending up in the mouths of Europeans and others, has not contributed to the destruction of the world’s largest tropical forest, it’s critical to know and monitor the entire production chain.
Right now, this is very far from the case.
A new public indicator, Radar Verde, to increase transparency and control of Brazilian beef’s production chain and marketing, developed by Imazon and Mundo Que Queremos Institute, provides the latest evidence of the opacity shrouding Brazil’s beef sector.
Radar Verde invited 90 slaughterhouses and 69 retailers to prove that their policies guarantee that the beef they buy is not associated with Amazon deforestation. Only 5.5% agreed to participate and none of them disclosed their final results. The same happened with retailers: 96% of the supermarkets did not respond and the 4% who participated did not publish their results.
Brazilian beef companies maintain that they trace the cattle they buy – but they only receive data on suppliers that sell to them directly. This leaves a yawning information gap in tracing cattle from birth to slaughterhouse; in other words, from where the deforestation is occurring.
So how can we ensure that cattle do not come from illegally deforested land?
The current Trade and Sustainable Development provisions in the EU-Mercosur Trade Agreement are insufficient to mitigate the increased deforestation risk the deal poses.
To uphold sustainability, development, and human rights principles, ratification should be conditional on improved policies and performance - analysis of 189 countries from 2001 to 2012 shows that deforestation increased significantly over the three years after Free Trade Agreements were enacted.
To be deforestation-proof, the cattle traceability system in Brazil must provide information on each animal. The current mandatory tracking method does not do this meaning cattle raised in illegal areas may be mixed with cattle raised in legal ranches. The SISBOV system which traces cattle individually is voluntary.
The Trade Agreement also lacks legally binding sanctions to address non-compliance which have been shown to stimulate best practice. Sanctions must be adopted before the Mercosur Agreement is ratified.
Without this level of transparency, there is still the danger that the Mercosur deal will mean more deforestation-laced beef entering the EU market.
Paulo Barreto is a senior researcher at Imazon, a Brazil-based independent non-profit organisation which promotes conservation and sustainable development in the Amazon