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Climate Change»Rainforest Destruction, Worse than Expected

»Monday, June 1,2009

Rainforests are being cleared for land and estimates believe that as much as, 12b tonnes of C02 have been emmited as a net result.A report today from Greenpeace details a three-year investigation into these cattle farms and the global trade in their products, many of which end up on sale in Britain and Europe. Meat from the cattle is canned, packaged and processed into convenience foods. Hides become leather for shoes and trainers. Fat stripped from the carcasses is rendered and used to make toothpaste, face creams and soap. Gelatin squeezed from bones, intestines and ligaments thickens yoghurt and makes chewy sweets.

Greenpeace says it has lifted the lid on this trade to expose the "laundering" of cattle raised on illegally deforested land.

The environment campaign group wants Brazilian companies that buy cattle to boycott farms that have chopped down forest after an agreed date. To get the industry onside, it is seeking pressure from multinational brands that source their products in Brazil, and, ultimately, from their customers. Three years ago, a similar exposure of the trade in illegally grown Brazilian soya brought a rapid response from the industry, and a

moratorium on soya from newly ­deforested farms that still holds.

Last month, the Guardian joined Greenpeace on an undercover visit to the cattle farming heartland around the town of Maraba, deep inside the Amazon region. While saving the rainforest is a fashionable cause in faraway developed countries such as Britain, in Maraba it is a provocative and even ­dangerous ideal.

Many people in Maraba work at the slaughterhouse perched on a hill that overlooks the town. The facility is owned by the Brazilian firm Bertin, one of the companies targeted by Greenpeace for buying cattle from farms linked to illegal deforestation. After slaughter, Greenpeace says Bertin ships the meat, hides and other products to an export facility in Lins, near Sao Paolo. From there, they are shipped all over the world. The firm is Brazil's second largest beef exporter and the largest leather exporter. It is also the country's largest supplier of rawhide dog chews.

Bertin denies taking cattle from Amazon farms associated with deforestation. The company says it "makes permanent investments in initiatives that minimise impacts resulting from its activities" and that it seeks "to be a reference in the sector". It says it has already blacklisted 138 suppliers for "irregularities".

Brazilian government records obtained by Greenpeace show that 76 cattle were shipped to the Bertin slaughterhouse in Maraba from Espirito Santo farm in May 2008. Another 380 were received in January this year.

Standing on Espirito Santo's shady veranda, Oscar Bollir, the farm manager, insists they do nothing wrong.

Under Brazilian law, such farms inside the Amazon region must retain 80% of the original forest within their legal boundary. So why is there pasture for as far as the eye can see? The farm is very big, Bollir says, and most of the required forest is on the other side of some low-slung hills in the distance.

The squatters on the farm, part of a political movement to settle landless people on illegally snatched farmland, are troublemakers, he says. "They don't want land they just want trouble. They want to take all the farms." Earlier that day, he says, he and his men had been forced to visit a neighbouring farm where squatters had killed cattle. Unlike the previous incident on Espirito Santo, when Daniel and Diego's father was shot alongside several others, Bollir says, this time there had been no trouble.

He adds that he is aware of environmental concerns, but that his priority is to produce food and jobs. "Why are these other countries looking at Brazil and telling us what to do?"

The next day, Greenpeace investigators flew over Espirito Santo – the group has a single-engined plane donated by an anonymous British benefactor. Bollir's promised bonanza of forest was not there. GPS data combined with satellite images show that just 20% to 30% of the farm is forested. A local lawyer also reported that during the nearby dispute over the killed cattle, three squatters had been shot and injured.

The Greenpeace report identifies dozens of farms like Espirito Santo that it says break the rules across Para and Mato Grosso to supply Bertin and other slaughter companies. Campaigners say there are probably hundreds or even thousands more.

Cheap pasture from clearing and seeding rainforest is very attractive to farmers without easy access to the expensive agrichemicals and intensive land management techniques used in more developed countries. Within a few years, the planted pasture becomes overrun with native grass, unsuitable for cattle. Many farmers then take the cheap option and knock down adjoining forest to start again, leaving swaths of unproductive deforested land in their wake.

Andre Muggiati, a campaigner with Greenpeace Brazil based in the Amazon town of Manaus, says efforts to protect the forest in frontier regions such as Para are crippled by a lack of effective governance. Government inspections are inadequate and many farms are not even registered so checks cannot be carried out. Casual violence and intimidation are common. "It's totally unregulated and many people behave as if the law does not apply to them. It's like the old US wild west," he says.

Illegal deforestation is not the only problem: farms are regularly exposed as using slave labour, and, like many tropical forest regions, there are regular and violent clashes over land ownership.

The problem is clear a three-hour flight across the patchy forest from Maraba, where a clearing on the side of the river is home to a few hundred Parakana people, a tribe with no contact with the outside world until 1985.

Greenpeace can only reach the village because its plane is equipped to land on the sluggish water, but cattle farmers are steadily intruding. Hundreds of farms have been set up in the surrounding reserve, and they are not welcome.

"Since the invaders arrived there have been many problems," says Itanya, the village chief. Food is harder to find, he says, and discontent is growing. "If the government don't find a solution we will solve it ourselves.

We know how to make poison arrows and we are ready to kill people." It is not an idle threat: in 2003 the bodies of three farmers were discovered in the jungle not far from the village. Itanya says it was the work of a neighbouring group.

"We asked them many times to stay away," Kokoa, the chief of the neighbouring group, told the Guardian through an interpreter. "They wouldn't, so one time we said to them that you will never go back and you will stay here forever. We killed them. We are proud that we defended our land."

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