As the breadbasket of Brazilian agribusiness and the ‘water tank’ of river basins in biomes such as the Amazon, Caatinga and Pantanal, Cerrado has already lost half of its original vegetation cover to pastures and crops such as soybean, corn and cotton. While the rate of deforestation has fallen in the past two years, illegal deforestation in new areas, from Mato Grosso to Bahia, is still happening – and causing concern.
While about 70% of Amazon land belong to the State and most of its territory is protected by conservation units and indigenous lands, the Cerrado is largely in private hands. And most environmentalists agree that both government policies and initiatives by rural producers and agribusiness companies fall short when it comes to preserving the Brazilian savanna.
In the meat industry, the differences between the two biomes are quite visible. “As a result of the pressure that has been going on for over 10 years, there has been significant progress in the management of meatpackers’ supply chain In the Amazon,” says Daniela Teston, corporate engagement manager at WWF Brazil. But that is not the case with Cerrado.
An investigation by Repórter Brasil found official documents and satellite images that point to unauthorized deforestation in Cerrado farms that supply cattle to the country’s two largest meat companies: JBS and Marfrig.
Both are already signatories to a 2009 agreement with Brazil’s Federal Prosecution Service (MPF) that has banned the slaughter of cattle from indigenous lands, environmental reserves, and farms deforested without permission from competent agencies in the Amazon biome. JBS signed a more comprehensive commitment in 2011, valid for the so-called ‘Legal Amazon’ – an administrative region that is not restricted to the Amazon biome and also encompasses Cerrado areas.
One of the examples examined by Repórter Brasil is the Prata Farm in Paranatinga, MT. The property, which belongs to the company RLA Gonçalves Agropecuária, has more than 41 thousand hectares – equivalent to 260 Ibirapuera Parks – the best-known park in the city of São Paulo. According to a technical report of May 2017, commissioned by the Mato Grosso State Prosecution Service (MP-MT), the property is located in an “important ecological zone with high biodiversity in a transition area between Cerrado and Amazon.” The report also highlights the “proximity to indigenous lands and the presence of 260 water sources that drain into the Upper Xingu River.”
The same report points out that, between 2011 and 2016, about 616 hectares of native vegetation were removed from the farm without environmental licenses. The company responsible for the Prata Farm even signed a Conduct Adjustment Agreement (TAC) with the state’s prosecution Service to recover the environmental liability. However, satellite monitoring by Inpe’s (National Institute for Space Research) Prodes/Cerrado system shows new unlicensed deforestation after this period.
From 2018 to 2019, the Prata Farm supplied animals to the JBS unit in Diamantino, MT, and to Marfrig’s slaughterhouse in Paranatinga. RLA Gonçalves Agropecuária also transferred animals from the Prata Farm for fattening at another property of the group, the Diamante Farm. Located in Poxoréu, MT, Diamante supplied cattle to two Marfrig meatpacking plants in Mato Grosso.
The two companies confirmed trade relations with RLA Gonçalves Agropecuária. Marfrig released a statement saying that its Paranatinga unit was closed in December 2019. It says that the company is “starting negotiations to expand geospatial monitoring to the Cerrado.”
“It is important to remember that, in the Cerrado biome, there are many different phytophysiognomies (about 25 patterns of natural vegetation) that need to be studied with caution for the process of geospatial monitoring of areas to be successful,” the company adds. “Even so, we have been collecting maps of our suppliers in the Cerrado since 2019 so that we’ll soon have enough elements to carry out the monitoring.”
JBS, in turn, made no specific comments on the case and stated that “tracking the entire meat chain is a complex task, but it can be achieved in the medium term.”
Repórter Brasil also spoke with RLA Gonçalves Agropecuária. According to a statement released by the company, “the [Prata] farm remains one of the most preserved areas in the entire region”. Regarding deforested areas, the company claims that they were cleared decades ago and fall under the concept of ‘consolidated use.’ Finally, the text says that “any liabilities that may exist have legal deadlines for regularization.” However, the explanations provided by the company do not match the satellite images and the MP’s technical reports, which point to recent deforestation on the property.
After this report was published, RLA Gonçalves Agropecuária sent an e-mail with further clarifications. Regarding the agreement signed with the Mato Grosso State Prosecution Service, it says that “legally, the TACs must be adjusted to the current legislation and, according to the new Forest Code, we are totally legal.” The company also maintains that the Prata Farm “has excess legal reserves, well preserved permanent preservation areas, and no environmental liabilities. Therefore, no restriction is justified.” The full answers can be read in Portuguese here.
Repórter Brasil also investigated another case involving a rural property that supplies cattle to JBS’s Diamantino plant: the Lua Clara farm, located in a Cerrado area in the municipality of Campos de Júlio, MT.
In 2015, an operation conducted by Sema-MT (the Mato Grosso State Environment Department) together with the State Police fined the farm’s owner Eric Von Wagner BRL 354,000 for cutting down forest without a license. Three years later, he was fined again by the same agency, this time for irregular deforestation near a road that crosses the farm.
Inpe’s monitoring system reveals that 835 hectares were deforested at the Lua Clara Farm between 2015 and 2016, and no license can be found on Sema-MT’s system.
Repórter Brasil tried to speak with Eric Von Wagner but he refused to answer questions about deforested areas. Sema-MT was also contacted and asked about the two cases investigated but had not responded until this article was finished. JBS, in turn, issued a statement saying that “in order to promote transparency in its actions, the Company’s cattle purchase operations and its entire supplier monitoring system are audited annually, independently.”
“To control deforestation in the Cerrado, we need a commitment not only from companies that purchase cattle, but also from those that sell grains, together with the Federal Prosecution Service and civil society, just as it happens in the Amazon,” says Daniel Avelino, executive secretary of the Prosecution Service’s Environmental and Cultural Heritage Chamber.
Avelino is one of the coordinators of the Conduct Adjustment Agreement signed in 2009 with more than a hundred meatpacking companies operating in the Amazon. The agreement is considered one of the most effective mechanisms to combat the destruction of the planet’s largest forest. “We need to build something along that line for the Cerrado – its condition is worse”, he says.
In recent years, tools have emerged to map deforestation and clean up supply chains. The most significant is devastation tracking by satellite images. Since 2018, Inpe has extended to the Cerrado the same monitoring it has carried out for decades in the Amazon, with alerts on fire outbreaks and an image archive with a history of deforestation. “While Prodes/Cerrado has been publishing deforestation data for two years now, meatpacking companies have not yet incorporated this information into their monitoring system,” Teston says.
“It is unbelievable that there is still no efficient tracking system for meat and grains [in the Cerrado]. There is technology. There is know-how. There are systems to monitor this tracking. So there is no technical excuse for not doing it,” says André Guimarães, executive director of Ipam (Institute for Environmental Research in the Amazon).
The rhetoric of federal and state governments for encouraging agriculture expansion and loosening environmental policy is also a reason of concern.
“By and large, enforcement has been weakening. And in many states, it is also easy to obtain licenses to deforest”, says WWF Brazil’s director of conservation and restoration of ecosystems Edegar Oliveira. “There is a whole methodology available for combating deforestation in the Cerrado. The obstacles we face are political and operational; it’s a question of making things actually work”, he concludes.