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The Meaty Issue at the Heart of the Amazon

18 May 2009

Today, Brazil is the world's leading beef producing country, but what toll has this success taken on the Amazon rainforest and can the government learn to stop deforestation whilst keeping the industry moving forward? Adam Anson, reporting for TheCattleSite, finds out more.

Ever since the 1970s, cattle ranching has been the leading cause of Amazon deforestation. Over the years, several pivotal factors colluded to make this industry so open to expansion. The devaluation of the Brazilian real against the dollar effectively doubled the price of beef, meanwhile problems with Foot and Mouth Disease came under relative control, opening new foreign markets. Infrastructure improvement made the rainforest accessible and reduced the cost of shipping and processing. As the industry boomed the Amazon burned. Huge tracts of forest made way for African grasses ideal for pasture.

Strict governmental legislation was put aside as foreign markets began gobbling up beef exports. Between 1990 and 2001, Europe's processed meat imports from Brazil rose from 40 to 74 per cent. By 2003, Brazilian cattle production was largely export driven.

In the wake of such soaring demand new ranchers were sucked into the Amazon and it soon became apparent that it held numerous other incentives to entice them to expand. Cattle farming was a low maintenance industry, providing a more stable market than what crops could offer, without the added hassle of pest management. It was also an easy way to claim land ownership. Once a person had cleared the land and placed cattle upon it, it was then legally in that persons possesion. To support the farmers, slaughterhouses began popping up all across the Amazon. Many of these were able to single handedly acquire, process and export cattle to foreign markets. The driving force of the industry became ever more powerful and deforestation hit epic proportions.

Since 1996, 10 million hectares of the Amazon -- roughly the size of Iceland -- have been cleared in the name of cattle farming. A Greenpeace survey based on Brazilian government data shows that in 2006 cattle occupied 79.5 per cent of the land already in use in the Brazilian Legal Amazon. Today, most of the growth of the Brazilian beef industry takes place inside the Amazon. Greenpeace figures say that from 2002 to 2006, 14.5 million of the total 20.5 million head of cattle added to the Brazilian herd were located in the Amazon. Clearly, these rates of expansion are not sustainable, so somewhere an exchange must take place which begs the question: what is of greater importance, the industry, or the rainforest. The answer depends upon which person you ask; minister, farmer, consumer - the abattoir worker or the indigenous person.

One perspective that effects all of us is the environmental repercussions that such large-scale deforestation are likely to have. The Amazon forest is a crucial carbon stock, accounting for one and a half times the entire content of carbon in our atmosphere - an estimated 80-120 billion tonnes of carbon. If such a source was to be released into the atmosphere it would have an effect equivalent to 50 times the annual carbon output of America. It must also be taken into account the huge part that forests play in taking carbon dioxide that is already in the atmosphere and releasing oxygen in its place.

It is also claimed that cattle ranching has terrible social impacts, including the highest rate of slave labour in Brazil. In 2008 alone, 3005 rural workers were released from slavery. The Amazon is home to over 20 million people and over 200,000 indigenous people, providing food and shelter for them. It is also home to an abundance of exotic life unparalleled across the rest of the world. Of the know species there are 40,000 plants, 427 mammals, 1,294 birds, 378 reptiles, 427 amphibians and 3,000 species of fish. Additionally, the Amazon produces 20 per cent of river water in the world.

With support from the National Science Foundation (NSF), Robert Walker, a geography professor at Michigan State University, was funded to research the Brazil's dynamic cattle economy. In a NSF report, Mr Walker speaks of the two conflicting forces that lie at the heart of this problem. "It's a two edged sword in that there is this tremendous ecosystem that is largely intact but underneath that ecosystem and within it, there are riches that could be of great benefit to individuals and larger groups," he says. "If you are in Brazil long enough you will see it both ways." This may explain the situation that the Brazilian government finds itself trying to juggle, at once boosting the industry whilst saving the rainforest.

Many people have argued that whilst the Brazilian rainforest is a national resource, the problems that lie within it are an international prerogative. Consequently the world should pull together to subsidise the maintenance of the Amazon, whilst compensating Brazil for lost revenue. However, in May 2008, Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva said that Brazil will forge its own path to developing the Amazon. "There are people who think the Amazon should belong to mankind. And we think that way, too," he said. "We think that it needs to benefit everyone. But we also have to say loudly and clearly that it is Brazil that is in charge of looking after the Amazon."

According to a report from MongaBay, President Lula made this statement at the launch of Brazil's Sustainable Amazon Plan which intends to create jobs, generate economic growth and reduce social inequalities by improving infrastructure to integrate the region into the broader economy. Critics say the plan's emphasis on port and road expansion will facilitate more deforestation — Environment Minister Marina Silva resigned shortly after the plan was announced. According to other reports, the government now aims to double the country's share of the beef export market to 60 per cent by 2018 through low interest loans, infrastructure expansion, and other incentives for producers.

However, there are encouraging signs that the government is trying to find a solution to this problem. Under a current plan the government intend to establish a $21 billion fund to reduce deforestation over the next decade, using improved governance and law enforcement, whilst utilising new sustainable initiatives. Since the beginning of 2004, Brazil has created more than 20 million hectares of protected areas in the Amazon region. If effectively enforced, it is estimated that this action will prevent one billion tonnes of carbon from being transferred to the atmosphere through deforestation by the year 2015. There has also been the recent release of the Alancia da Terra for beef, which is seeking to reduce the impact on the rainforest. But whilst the industry continues to expand, deforestation continues to rise.

Greater danger lies ahead as the Brazilian market begins to recover from the double blow of a European ban -- due to the prevalence of Foot and Mouth Disease -- and the impact of the recession on the country's beef processors. A resurgence in supply and demand will undoubtedly have further detrimental effects on the rainforest. Also the growing demand for biofuels and soya, may push cattle ranchers deeper into the forest as their old lands are taken over. One recent Greenpeace report says that Brazil must reduce deforestation rates to zero by 2015 if it is to reverse the growing threat it encounters. But against the grey background of speculation, one thing becomes increasingly clear: some day soon Brazil must make a choice, in one hand lies vast piles of cash - in the other, the Amazon rainforest.

May 2009


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