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Amazon: How cattle ranchers circumvent agreement signed with prosecutors and encourage deforestation

A journalistic Investigation by Repórter Brasil reveals how cattle from deforested farms in the Brazilian state of Mato Grosso elude control by meatpacking companies like JBS. It also shows that there is still no guarantee that meat from any meatpacker is 100% deforestation-free

Legal farms that receive cattle raised in banned areas and mask its illegal origin. Property titles that elude monitoring by meatpacking companies. Rural properties leased to third parties that elude control by meatpackers. These are common situations in the Amazonian livestock market. In practice, they contribute to circumvent restrictions that have been in force for a decade, banning sales of animals fed on pastures full of socio-environmental irregularities.

One of the bottlenecks for tracking cattle in the Amazon is the lack of transparency in Animal Transit Guides (GTAs) – documents that inform the origin and destination of any cattle shipment (Photo: João Laet/The Guardian/Repórter Brasil)

Since 2009, an agreement signed by the Federal Prosecution Service (MPF) and more than a hundred meatpacking companies – including JBS, Marfrig and Frigol – prohibits the slaughter of cattle raised on indigenous lands, environmental reserves, and farms deforested without environmental licenses, or those caught using slave labour.

The so-called “Meat TAC” (TAC stands for Conduct Adjustment Agreement in Portuguese) is considered one of the main tools to curb deforestation in the Amazon. This is because the establishment of pastures is recognized as the main vector for expanding the agricultural frontier and clear native forest.

“At first, the Agreement was very effective,” says Daniel Avelino, a Federal Prosecutor in Pará and one of the architects of the initiative. In its first year, deforestation saw and unprecedented reduction in the Amazon and was below 10,000 square kilometers. Three years later, in 2012, a record was reached: less than 5,000 square kilometers.

However, devastation in the planet’s largest tropical forest escalated again after 2013 and almost broke the disturbing symbolic barrier of 10,000 square kilometers last year. “That figure is absurd but considering the dismantling of the environmental policy and lack of enforcement, only the TAC kept it from reaching 15,000 or 20,000,” Avelino says.

“After 10 years of TAC, we still can’t say that any meatpacking company is really free of deforestation,” says Imazon researcher Ritaumaria Pereira 

The agreement signed with the MPF has been in force for more than eleven years, and meatpacking companies – especially larger ones – developed their own monitoring systems to comply with its clauses. WWF Brazil corporate engagement manager Daniela Teston sees progress in supplier management by companies, but she points out that “some technical problems remain, especially with regard to indirect suppliers.” When transferring cattle to legal producers, ranchers involved in socio-environmental violations leave the radar of meatpackers. It is the so-called ‘cattle laundering.’

According to the original terms of the Meat TAC, meatpackers should have created mechanisms to track indirect suppliers since 2011. “But they haven’t. And this will be the main agenda for 2021,” says Lisandro Souza, head of Imaflora (The Institute of Forest and Agricultural Management and Certification).

Together with the Prosecution Service and meat companies, Imaflora has been working on a protocol to standardize the enforcement of the rules provided for in the TAC. “There are many differences between companies’ monitoring systems,” Souza explains. “There are cases where a company sources from a supplier that is banned by another company – and vice versa,” he adds.

A first version of the protocol will be in force in July. The main novelty is the setting of a productivity ceiling to try to prevent fraud: each property will be allowed to sell only three heads of cattle per hectare per annum. Ranchers who exceed that figure will have to submit a report to prove their ability to supply more animals.

Fraud in the Rural Environmental Registry

Repórter Brasil investigated two cases that illustrate how cattle ranchers in the Amazon manage to circumvent the restrictions imposed by the Meat TAC.

The first case is that of the Leão Farm, in Jauru, MT. Satellite monitoring by the Prodes system, carried out by Inpe (Brazil’s National Institute for Space Research), shows that 36.5 hectares of vegetation were cut down on the property in 2016. The consultation system of Sema-MT (The Mato Grosso State Environment Department) shows no license for deforestation.

Indirect supplier monitoring by ranchers is weak, and it ends up contributing to deforestation in the Amazon. (Photo: Marcio Isensee e Sá/Repórter Brasil)

In February 2019, the Leão Farm sent animals to the JBS slaughterhouse in Araputanga, MT. JBS is the largest meat company in the world. According to the agreements signed by the company to fight Amazon devastation, the purchase should not have happened.

To monitor cattle supply farms, meatpackers use data from the Rural Environmental Register (CAR) – a federal government system in which landowners declare the geographical coordinates of their rural properties. In the case of the Leão Farm, its CAR registration was split into two different areas, even though they were contiguous. Irregular deforestation occurred in the larger portion, so that the other could keep on trading cattle with companies that signed the Meat TAC.

Split registration of land on the CAR goes against the rules established by the Ministry of the Environment (MMA). According to a normative instruction that regulates the matter, “owners or possessors of rural properties who have more than one property or possession in a continuous area must register them as a single property.”

“There are frauds of all kinds in the CAR and one is [split registration],” explains prosecutor Daniel Avelino, without specifically analyzing the case of the Leão Farm. The CAR is self-declaratory; no information is checked. At first, the federal government was in charge of the register. Then it passed to the states, which didn’t check it either. Since there is no validation, it is very easy to commit fraud,” he adds.

The Leão Farm is registered to Vanilda Ferreira Dutra. She was found by Repórter Brasil and asked about deforestation on rural property but did not respond to requests for clarification.

Cattle triangulation

The second case investigated also concerns three contiguous plots of land in Nova Ubiratã, MT. While they are all part of the Bianchin Farm, each area has its own CAR registration.

Altogether, Ibama (The Brazilian Institute of the Environment and Renewable Natural Resources) has already fined the Bianchin Farm BRL 29 million for various environmental violations – from unlicensed deforestation to non-compliance with environmental embargoes. Between 2012 and 2017, about 1,200 hectares of Amazon rainforest were cleared there according to satellite monitoring by the Prodes system. Cattle is not allowed in embargoed areas so that the native vegetation can recover.

In 2017, the farm was leased by Gustavo Vigano Piccoli, a major rural producer and former president of the Mato Grosso Association of Cotton Producers (Ampa) and the Social Cotton Institute (IAS). Renamed as Agropecuária GPC, the property started to supply cattle to the JBS meatpacking plant in Diamantino, MT. The lease is described in a technical report on livestock management at the farm, published by the Federal University of Paraná (UFPR).

Cattle from the leased area are also sent to another property belonging to Piccoli in Sorriso, MT – the Pedra Farm – which, in turn, supplies two JBS units in Mato Grosso. The so-called “triangulation” – transfer of cattle between farms of the same owner – is another practice that still goes undetected by meatpacking companies’ monitoring systems.

Gustavo Vigano Piccoli was contacted several times for this report. His aides said he was away and would answer questions as soon as he returned, but he had not done so Repórter Brasil until this article was finished.

On a statement, JBS said that “the Company’s cattle purchases and the entire supplier monitoring system are audited annually, independently.” According to the text, the results of the audits – published on the company’s website – “show that more than 99.9% of JBS’s cattle purchases from farms located in the Amazon region comply with the company’s socio-environmental criteria.”

Animal Transit Guides

One of the main bottlenecks for tracking cattle in the Amazon is the lack of transparency in Animal Transit Guides (GTAs). Issued by state agricultural defense agencies, these documents basically inform the origin and destination of any cattle shipment – between rural properties or between farms and meatpackers.

Cattle ranchers circumvent restrictions that have been in place for 10 years banning sales of animals fed on pastures with environmental irregularities. (Photo: Fernando Martinho/Repórter Brasil)

“Agricultural defense agencies do not enforce it enough, and that allow GTAs to be issued at random, allowing a huge amount of animals to be registered to a very small piece of legal land,” explains Ritaumaria Pereira, a researcher at the environmental organization Imazon. “An animal goes through two or three farms during its life cycle and only the direct supplier (the last farm) can be monitored by the companies that signed the TAC,” he adds.

She also criticizes the difficulty in accessing the information contained on GTAs. “These data are not presented in an ‘instructive way’. The agencies that provide this information do so aggregately, and the consultation system makes it impossible to monitor transactions in real time,” she says.

The current GTA system is also criticized by some slaughterhouses for making it difficult to monitor suppliers. JBS, for instance, states that it has been discussing with the Ministry of Agriculture, Livestock and Supply (MAPA) about reforming the procedure for issuing these documents. The company proposes the adoption of a new program that automatically crosses several data on properties requesting GTAs.

“JBS would start asking its direct suppliers (cattle fattening) to buy calves only from farms that are not involved in illegal deforestation, that is, from properties that sold their animals with the so-called “Green GTA” and do not appear on the public list of areas embargoed by Ibama,” the company says in a statement, which can be read in full here(in Portuguese).

“After 10 years of TAC, it is still not possible to say that a meatpacking company is really deforestation-free,” says Pereira from Imazon. And she cites another complicating factor: not all meat companies operating in the region are signatories to the Meat TAC. An Imazon study published in 2017 estimates that 70% of all slaughtering is done by companies that signed the agreement with the Federal Prosecution Office. Therefore, a considerable number of animals elude any control. “This creates unfair competition with the companies that signed the Meat TAC.”

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