ONE OF THE factors slowing progress against climate change is a lack of corporate accountability. In the Amazon rainforest, which absorbs 3% of global carbon emissions, a France-size swathe of foliage has vanished since 1970. Nearly all deforestation in Brazil today is illegal. But we do not know which firms use suppliers that operate on illegally cleared land (see article). Even beef exporters are in the dark: they mostly record where their cattle were fattened, not where they were reared.
Fortunately, plausible deniability is becoming harder to sustain. Trase, a research organisation, has analysed Brazil’s supply chains, stretching from newly cleared land in the Amazon and cerrado (a leafy savannah) to ports overseas. In a forthcoming report, conducted with ICV and Imaflora, two Brazilian institutes, Trase finds that the bulk of soyabean exports from one state ravaged by illegal deforestation ends up in the hands of a few big companies, some of which trade on Western stockmarkets.
Trase scours satellite images to spot areas cleared for cattle or soyabeans. It cannot prove ties between specific exporters and farms. But it does produce regional estimates, using sites of slaughterhouses and soya processors, customs records and data on commodity flows between states.
For each of Brazil’s 5,570 municipalities, Trase estimates the share of local output bought by each company. It then allocates tree-clearing proportionally, so a firm that buys 20% of a municipality’s soya gets 20% of the area’s soya-based deforestation risk (the risk that farming occurs on deforested land). Such estimates may seem unfair, if they saddle scrupulous firms with risk that belongs to irresponsible competitors. Exporters say they are committed to transparency, and do publish reports on suppliers. But Trase reckons these data are not detailed enough to assess firms’ behaviour.
Trase’s new study focuses on soya from Mato Grosso, a state spanning the Amazon and cerrado that lists which farms have licences to clear land. This lets researchers separate legal and illegal deforestation. The study shows that 95% of tree-clearing on soya farms in the state in 2012-17 was illegal. Many recently razed areas have yet to be used for planting, but may be in future.
Among the 15 municipalities in the state with the most illegally deforested land, Trase estimates that nearly 60% of their total harvest was bought either by Amaggi, a private Brazilian firm, or by the American agribusiness giants Bunge and Cargill. Those companies all say that they adhere to a ban on soya-based deforestation in the Amazon from 2008, and that they do not buy from illegally cleared areas. Trase’s data do not show otherwise. But avoiding the fruits of illegal deforestation in these places must require meticulous discipline.
In Brazil, beef causes six times more deforestation than soya does. Trase has also studied the 20% of beef output that is exported (though it does not have data about legality). JBS, Minerva and Marfrig, Brazilian firms that Trase says combine for two-thirds of exporters’ deforestation risk, all say their direct suppliers avoid deforested land. Trase’s figures do not refute this.
However, these companies acquire a majority of their beef from firms that do not rear all of their cattle themselves. And these suppliers’ own suppliers are much harder to monitor. If exporters wish to prove they act responsibly from farm to fork, they will need to obtain and share data about their chains’ missing links. ■
Sources:Trase; Global Canopy; Stockholm Environment Institute; ICV; Imaﬂora
This article appeared in the Graphic detail section of the print edition under the headline “The roots of the problem”