One morning this summer, Odilon Caetano Felipe, a herder who raises cattle on illegally deforested land in the Amazon, met a trader and sold more than 72 newly fattened animals. With the stroke of a pen, Mr. Felipe gave his cattle a blank file: by selling them, he obscured their role in destroying the world's largest rainforest.
Over lunch, shortly after the July 14 sale, Mr. Felipe spoke openly about the business that made him rich. He admitted to having cut down the thick Amazon rainforest and that he had not paid for the land. He also said he structured his sales to hide the true origins of his cattle by selling to a middleman, creating a paper trail falsely showing that his animals came from a legal ranch. Other ranchers in the region are doing the same, he said.
"It makes no difference," he said, his firm is legal or not.
A New York Times investigation into the growing Brazilian slaughterhouse industry - a company that sells not only beef to the world, but also tons of leather each year to large companies in the United States and elsewhere - identified gaps in its surveillance systems that allow cattle skins kept on illegally deforested Amazon land to move undetected through the Brazilian tanneries and be sold to buyers worldwide.
Mr. Felipe's ranch is one of more than 600 operating in an area of the Amazon known as Jaci-Paraná, a specially protected environmental reserve where deforestation is limited. And transactions such as hers are the linchpins of a global trade complex that binds Amazon deforestation to a growing appetite in the US for luxurious leather seats in pickup trucks, SUVs and other vehicles sold by some of the world's largest automakers, including General Motors, Ford and Volkswagen.
A luxury vehicle may require a dozen or more skins, and suppliers in the United States are increasingly purchasing their leather from Brazil. While the Amazon region is one of the world's leading suppliers of beef, increasingly to Asian countries, the global appetite for affordable leather also means that the hides of these millions of cattle provide a lucrative international leather market. valued at hundreds of billions of dollars a year.
This leather trade shows how the buying habits of the rich world are linked to environmental degradation in developing countries, in this case helping to finance the destruction of the Amazon despite its precious biodiversity and consensus. scientist that its protection would help slow climate change.
To follow the global leather trade from illegal ranches in the Brazilian rainforest to seats in American vehicles, The Times interviewed ranchers, traders, prosecutors and regulators in Brazil, and visited tanneries, ranches and other facilities. The Times spoke to participants at all levels of the illicit trade in the Jaci-Paraná Extractive Reserve, an area of Rondônia state that has benefited from special protections because it is home to communities of people who, for generations, have lived off the land by harvesting rubber trees (a species of rubber tree).
These communities are now being hunted down by pastoralists who want the land for the cattle. Over the past decade, ranchers have significantly expanded their presence on the reserve, and today about 56% of it has been cleared, according to data compiled by the state's environmental agency.
The reports are also based on analysis of business and international trade data in several countries and on thousands of livestock transport certificates issued by the Brazilian government. The certificates were obtained by the Environmental Investigation Agency, an advocacy group in Washington. The Times independently verified the certificates and obtained thousands of others separately.
This made it possible to trace the leather from illegal farms in the Amazon to the slaughterhouses operated by Brazil's three largest meat producers, JBS, Marfrig and Minerva, and then to the tanneries they supply. JBS describes itself as the world's largest leather processor.
According to Aidee Maria Moser, a retired Rondônia state prosecutor who has spent nearly two decades fighting illegal breeding in the Jaci-Paraná reserve, the practice of selling animals raised in the reserve to of intermediary traders suggests an intention to conceal their origin. “It's a way to give cattle a veneer of legality,” she said, “so that the slaughterhouses can deny that there was something illegal. "
The problem is not limited to Rondônia. Last month, an audit by prosecutors in the neighboring state of Pará, home to the second-largest cattle herd in the Amazon, found that JBS had purchased 301,000 animals, or 32% of its purchases in the state. between January 2018 and June 2019 in farms that violated the prevention of illegal deforestation commitments.
JBS disagreed with the criteria prosecutors used and agreed to improve its monitoring system, block vendors flagged by the search, and donate $ 900,000 to the state in response. to the audit.
To get a sense of the scale of ranches operating in vulnerable areas of the Brazilian Amazon, The Times overlaid government maps, protected Amazon lands, deforested areas, and farm boundaries with the locations of the ranches that JBS publicly listed as supplying its slaughterhouses in 2020. Analysis showed that among JBS suppliers, ranches covering around 4,000 square kilometers overlapped significantly with either indigenous land, a conservation area, or an area that was deforested after 2008 , when laws regulating deforestation were put in place in Brazil.
The methodology and results were reviewed and verified by a team of independent researchers and academics studying land use in the Brazilian Amazon.
International trade data showed that companies that own tanneries supplied with hides then shipped leather to factories in Mexico run by Lear, a major seat maker that supplies auto assembly plants across the United States. United. Lear said in 2018 that about 7 0% of its supply of raw hides from Brazil. The hides from Brazil are also going to other countries, including Italy, Vietnam and China, for use in the automotive, fashion and furniture industries, according to trade data.
JBS acknowledged that nearly three-quarters of the ranches identified in the Times analysis straddled land that the government classifies as illegally deforested, or as indigenous land or a conservation area. But he said all the ranches had been in compliance with the rules to prevent deforestation when JBS bought them.
JBS said that in cases where there was overlap, farms were allowed to operate in protected or deforested areas, where their boundaries had changed, and where they followed rules to correct their environmental violations. Breeding is allowed in certain protected areas in Brazil if it follows sustainable practices.
In a statement, JBS said it has maintained a monitoring system for more than a decade to verify suppliers' compliance with its environmental policy. “ More than 14,000 suppliers have been blocked for not respecting this policy,” she said. However, the company added: "The big challenge for JBS, and for the beef supply chain in general, is to monitor the suppliers of its suppliers, as the company has no information about them."
Amazon deforestation has increased in recent years as farmers rushed to meet the growing demand for beef, particularly in China. Representatives of the leather industry argue that as long as there is a demand for beef, they are simply using hides that would otherwise go to landfills.
Raoni Rajão, who studies Amazonian supply chains at the Federal University of Minas Gerais, said that because the leather industry makes animal husbandry more profitable, it shares responsibility for any deforestation. “Leather can have a high added value ,” he said.
The loss of forests destroys the Amazon's ability to absorb carbon dioxide, which trees remove from the air. Carbon dioxide from the combustion of fossil fuels is the main driver of climate change. Brazil was one of over 100 countries to commit to stop deforestation by 2030 at the recent United Nations summit on cli my t in Glasgow.
While most ranches in the Amazon region are unrelated to illegal deforestation, the findings show how illegal leather enters the global supply chain, bypassing a system that slaughterhouses and leather companies themselves. created in recent years to try to show that their livestock is derived solely from legitimate farms.
In response to detailed questions, JBS, Marfrig and Minerva said they were unaware that cattle from the Jaci-Paraná reserve were entering their supply chains.
All three said they have farm monitoring systems that directly supply their slaughterhouses and exclude farms that do not comply with environmental laws. But all three admitted that they could not trace indirect suppliers, such as Mr Felipe, who sell cattle through intermediaries, hiding their origins.
Lear said he uses "a robust sourcing process" that ensures he is working "with the most knowledgeable and advanced suppliers who are committed to purchasing hides from cattle raised on compliant farms ." The company said if suppliers violate its policies, it would take action that could include rescinding their contracts "and / or taking legal action against the supplier ."
General Motors. said he expected suppliers to "comply with laws, regulations and act in a manner consistent with the principles and values" of the automaker. Ford said he aspired to "source only responsibly produced raw materials." Volkswagen said its suppliers already adhere to a high level of sustainability.
In Jaci-Paraná, global demand for leather helps support a growing herd of 120,000 cattle where the forest once stood. “If all the cattle were sold,” said Ms. Moser, the former prosecutor, the government would have enough money “to reforest the entire reserve” .
" I came here to kill you "
It was pouring rain last December when two men arrived at Lourenço Durães' house on the Jaci-Paraná river. Mr. Durães, a 71-year-old rubber worker, invited the men over and offered them coffee. Then, after discussing the weather for a few minutes, one of the visitors got right to the point.
"I'm not going to lie to you ," he said, according to Mr. Durães and a friend of his, who recently described how the meeting unfolded. “I came here to kill you. "
They wanted to get rid of Mr. Durães because his land is precious to the pastoralists.
Jaci-Paraná was created in 1996 to grant a community of rubber tappers the right to continue their profession. Mr. Durães is among the last in this profession. The community is pushed towards the exit by deforestation.
“We are afraid, but I hope justice will be done,” Durães said, adding that he believed he was spared that day because he was an old man.
End of the first part.