Climate

Brazilian Ranchers Aren’t Cutting Down As Much Forest Anymore. Here’s Why.

CREDIT: AP PHOTO/ANDRE PENNER, FILE

Pressure from environmental groups and federal prosecutors is helping break the link between cattle ranching and deforestation in the Amazon, according to a new study.

Agreements with Brazil’s largest slaughterhouses have “dramatically” reduced deforestation by ranchers, research published Tuesday in Conservation Letters found.

Supply chain solutions — such as the market-driven agreements Brazilian beef companies entered into with Greenpeace and the Brazilian government in 2009 — are remarkably effective and have rapidly changed deforestation behavior for beef suppliers, said Holly Gibbs, a professor at the Center for Sustainability and the Global Environment at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and an author of the study. Both 2009 agreements committed companies to only sourcing beef from ranchers who were not engaging in deforestation.

The agreements have been “exceptionally influential,” Gibbs told ThinkProgress.

When JBS, one of Brazil’s biggest beef producers, signed the agreements, only 2 percent of its suppliers were registered as zero-deforestation. By 2013, nearly all were, the researchers found.

The reasoning is simple: “If you don’t comply with the agreement, you won’t have access to the market,” Gibbs said. “It starts to change the tone of agriculture in Brazil.”

Agriculture and deforestation have long been coupled in the Amazon Basin. Stretching across 1.4 billion acres — and making up half of the world’s remaining tropical rainforest — the region is one of the biggest carbon sinks in the world, making it a critical component of addressing climate change.

Unlike most countries, where carbon emissions are counted in things like coal factories and cement production, Brazil’s carbon footprint it counted in the number of trees it loses each year. Soy and beef production have caused 70 percent of Brazil’s deforestation in recent years, Gibbs said. More than two-thirds of deforested land in the Brazilian Amazon is used for cattle ranching.

“To delink this agricultural production from deforestation would have huge impacts on climate change,” Gibbs said.

According to state data, Brazil’s carbon footprint due to deforestation has been decreasing since 2004. Which is not to say deforestation has stopped — it’s just slowing.

Deforestation, forest degradation, and clearing peat account for an estimated 4.3 billion to 5.5 billion tons of emissions globally per year, according to the Union of Concerned Scientists.

In addition, deforestation can be devastating to the animal and human life that depends on forests for food and survival. Some 1.6 billion people depend on forests for “food, fresh water, clothing, traditional medicine and shelter,” the World Wildlife Fundestimates.

Millions of species live in the Amazon Basin, including sloths, poison dart frogs, pygmy marmosets, and black spider monkeys — all threatened by human encroachment as well as climate change. Worldwide, there is still the equivalent of 35 football fields of forest being cut down each minute, the World Wildlife Fund says.

But some would say at least the tide has turned on the acceptability of farming on deforested land.

Even McDonald’s Corp, which was targeted for sourcing beef from deforested areas as far back as the 1980s, has joined in. Last month, the company announced plans to achieve zero forestation throughout its supply chain by 2030.

“As we see all these big multi-national companies step forward… we need to start understanding what that means on the ground,” Gibbs said. “Are we going to see changes, or are we going to see greenwashing?”