Can the Amazon Rainforest Be Saved…From Itself?


In the fight against climate change, the Amazon rainforest was long a solution. But deforestation, cattle ranching, and biomass burning now make it a threat no one was prepared for.

In the spring of 2021, a coalition of South American conservation groups from Colombia and Brazil said the French supermarket chain Casino made meat purchases directly linked to deforestation and irresponsible forest management. It was the first lawsuit of its kind. 

The suit alleged that the world’s largest meat producer, JBS, was threatening the health of the Amazon rainforest and increasing greenhouse gas emissions.

According to the plaintiffs, Casino and its suppliers caused damages to their “customary lands and the impact on their livelihoods”. The filings show the plaintiffs seeking more than €3 million in damages.

The 11 groups said the supermarket chain, which operates more than 500 stores in France, purchased beef from the Brazil-based meat giant JBS. A number of JBS suppliers have been accused of creating a deforested area five times the size of Paris.

Under a 2017 French law, businesses must avoid human and environmental rights violations within their supply chains. Casino contends that it vetted its suppliers to ensure compliance.

‘A deforested area five times the size of Paris’

“According to evidence compiled and analysed by the Center for Climate Crime Analysis for this case, Groupe Casino regularly bought beef from three slaughterhouses owned by JBS,” the groups said in a joint statement.

“The three slaughterhouses sourced cattle from 592 suppliers responsible for at least 50,000 hectares of deforestation between 2008 and 2020. The deforested area is five times the size of Paris.”

The groups say Indigenous rights have been violated — some violently — citing one incident where land was “invaded” by a cattle farm.

“The demand for beef by Casino and Pão de Açucar brings deforestation and land-grabbing and violence, and the murder of indigenous leaders when they choose to resist,” Luiz Eloy Terena, a leader of Brazil’s Terena people, said in the statement.

Courtesy Maksim Shutov | Unsplash

“With this lawsuit, we seek to hold the company accountable for the consequences of these impacts and to bring some relief to the reality confronted by our indigenous peoples on their lands.”

But this isn’t the first time the meat producer has been linked to deforestation. Investigations in 2017, 2019, and 2020 found JBS, as well as other leading Brazilian meat suppliers Marfrig and Minerva, purchasing cattle from nearly 400 ranches linked to illegal deforestation. That investigation also found that companies all failed to properly monitor at least 4,000 meat suppliers previously accused of forest destruction.

“Our investigation clearly demonstrates that relying on an unregulated private sector with voluntary no-deforestation policies has failed to tackle forest destruction and related human rights abuses. This could contribute to the permanent loss of the Amazon rainforest,” Chris Moye, senior Amazon forests investigator at Global Witness, said in a statement.

Beef and deforestation

The Amazon rainforest is the world’s largest tropical rainforest; it makes up more than half of the world’s remaining rainforests by volume, covering more than two million square miles of land. Like all forests, the Amazon plays a significant role in the world’s oxygen production and carbon sequestration. The forest produces its own weather systems that impact global weather patterns and climates. The continued destruction of the forest means these patterns change and impact global temperatures.

New research published this week found continued Amazon deforestation may shrink Himalayan snow and Antarctic ice.

Courtesy Febiyan | Unsplash

The forest isn’t just a large swath of oxygen and weather; it’s also home to more than 500 Indigenous communities, some of whom have had little to no contact with the outside world. The Amazon is also the most biodiverse ecosystem on the planet; it contains ten percent of the world’s animal and plant species. The total number of species in the Amazon is not known — more than 2.5 million have already been identified. Scientists estimate we’ve studied less than half of one percent of all flowering plant species in the Amazon.

But the forest is suffering significant losses, predominantly at the hands of the meat industry. Brazil is now home to the world’s second-largest cattle herd in the world. Ranchers raze the rainforest for the cattle and the crops needed to sustain them.

New data published last month found the tallest tree in the Amazon, located in the Paru State Forest, is now under threat of deforestation.

Rates of deforestation in the Paru State Forest had rarely exceeded 200 hectares per year prior to 2014, but that number tripled to 600 hectares that year, according to data from the National Institute for Space Research. By 2019 nearly 1,400 hectares were deforested — and in 2021 there were nearly 1,100 hectares of forest loss.

‘Matter of great urgency’

According to the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies, Brazil’s cattle ranchers are contributing to nearly 80 percent of Amazonian deforestation. In 2009, JBS, Marfig, and Minerva, all pledged not to purchase cattle that came from ranchers violating deforestation or Indigenous land rights.

Brazil’s former president Jair Bolsonaro is to blame for much of the losses. His administration relaxed laws protecting the forests and the rights of Indigenous communities. Last January, a coalition of tribal chiefs asked the Hague to find the Brazilian president guilty of ecocide.

The appeal claimed that Bonsonaro failed to protect Indigenous communities that call the forest home. And there’s science to back them up: 2020 saw the biggest increase in Amazon deforestation in a decade, according to the Brazilian Amazon Deforestation Monitoring Program. It says more than 4000 square miles (11,000 km) of monitored areas were lost; that’s an increase of 47 percent over 2018 losses and more than nine percent over 2019. It’s 182 percent higher than established targets. Those losses also equate to 648 million tons of CO2 emissions accelerating global warming. “Brazil has clearly failed in its bold intention to reduce deforestation rates,” the researchers noted. 

Courtesy Dan Smedley | Unsplash

The appeal to the Hague was submitted by Paris-based attorney William Bourdon, who filed the case on behalf of indigenous chiefs Almir Suruí and Raoni Metuktire. The request called the issue a “matter of great urgency.”

Under Bolsonaro’s administration, Amazon rainforest destruction has soared. But despite that, fines for these crimes continued to drop. In 2019, the year Bolsonaro took office, they dropped by 42 percent. Bolsonaro used that number to relax budgets by more than 27 percent for enforcing regulations.

According to the complaint filed against Bolsonaro, rates of deforestation increased 50 percent in the last two years, hitting numbers not seen since 2008. Bolsonaro’s rollbacks on regulations have also led to the increase in crimes against Indigenous communities. Invasions of forest communities were up 135 percent in 2019, leading to the death of nearly 20 Indigenous people.

Incoming president, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, says he will help reverse destruction engulfing the Amazon rainforest.

“The world expects Brazil to once again become a leader in tackling the climate crisis and an example of a socially and environmentally responsible country,” he said in his inauguration speech.

An ecocide, a genocide

A report compiled by NGOs and attorneys says that Bolsonaro is also to blame for the destruction of Sovereign lands and the murder and persecution of Indigenous people.

“People are feeling endorsed to commit crimes, as the president supports them,” said Patxon Metuktire. He is the grandson of 92-year-old Kayapo chief, Raoni Metuktire. Chief Raoni has been at the forefront of the fight to protect the Amazon and its Indigenous communities.

“My grandfather believes the Brazilian population cannot make the president stop acting against the indigenous people,” Paxton said. “[Bolsonaro] keeps violating our rights, so this is our last resort. My grandfather is ready to testify and clarify anything for prosecutors if needed.”

Courtesy Joise Keam | Unsplash

According to a report published in the journal Nature Communications, the Amazon is near a “tipping point,” following its recent spate of fires. Further destruction of the rainforest could decrease rainfall. The researchers warn this could turn the lush forest into a dry savannah.

The accusations against France’s Casino supermarket are being countered by some of Europe’s biggest supermarket chains including Aldi, Asda, Sainsbury, Co-op, and Tesco. They all say they’ll refuse products from Brazil if legislation endangering the Amazon passes. 

“We will have no choice but to reconsider our support and use of the Brazilian agricultural commodity supply chain.”

-Cathryn Higgs, head of food policy at the Co-op

The legislation, PL 510/2021, would relax rules around deforestation, further encroaching on the fragile Amazon rainforest.

In an open letter from the Retail Soy Group, the supermarket chains urged Brazil’s National Congress to reconsider the legislation. It points to the recurring fires, loss of wildlife habitat, and the role the Amazon plays in curbing climate change.

No protection for the Amazon

“It is therefore extremely concerning to see that the same measure we responded to last year is being put forward again as the legislative proposal with potentially even greater threats to the Amazon than before,” the letter said.

“However, if this or other measures that undermine these existing protections become law, we will have no choice but to reconsider our support and use of the Brazilian agricultural commodity supply chain,” the letter warned.

The companies say they’re eager to support sustainable land management in Brazil, but it must be done with Indigenous rights and sustainability in mind.

Courtesy Markus Spiske | Unsplash

Cathryn Higgs, head of food policy at the Co-op supermarket chain, said: “The Amazon faces a new threat with legislation that undermines the credibility of environmental protections.

“Its rainforest is essential to planetary health and it’s imperative the proposed legislation isn’t given any airtime by the Brazilian government.

“We are joining forces with environmentally and socially responsible organisations to oppose the measures being put forward. If these new laws are brought in, we will have no choice but to reconsider our support and use of the Brazilian agricultural commodity supply chain.”

‘Land-grab bill’

This comes as Indigenous people expect invasions and violence after another piece of legislation, PL 2633/20, passed in the lower house of Congress last week. It’s now headed to Brazil’ Senate for vote. 

Dubbed the “land grab bill” by critics, it would allow for the “legalization of claims by squatters illegally occupying public lands — including undesignated forests and Indigenous territories still awaiting full recognition and demarcation by the federal government,” according to Mongabay.

There are approximately 800 Indigenous territories awaiting full demarcation. The passing of PL 2633/20 could make recognition and protection of their ancestral lands more difficult. 

Courtesy Azzedine Rouichi | Unsplash

The bill creates “this enormous uncertainty for populations living in these undesignated areas,” Antônio Eduardo de Oliveira, executive secretary of the Indigenist Missionary Council, told Mongabay. 

Failure to protect Indigenous lands is also failure to prevent climate change. A study published in March in Frontiers in Forests and Global Change, said the world’s largest rainforest is now producing more emissions than it can sequesters. The study is the first to look at emissions beyond just carbon dioxide, including methane and black carbon, coming from the more than two million square miles that make up the South American rainforest.

“Cutting the forest is interfering with its carbon uptake; that’s a problem,” Kristofer Covey, lead author and Skidmore environmental studies professor, told National Geographic. “But when you start to look at these other factors alongside CO2, it gets really hard to see how the net effect isn’t that the Amazon as a whole is really warming global climate.”

Black carbon

The new study found the Amazon fires in 2019 and 2020 released significant amounts of black carbon. The fires destroyed an area roughly the size of New Jersey, releasing sunlight-absorbing black carbon into the atmosphere.

Methane has also become an increasing problem in the Amazon in recent years. Measured over two decades, methane is 84 times more potent than CO2. It’s a byproduct of a number of processes including microbes in the soil. But it’s most problematically a byproduct of livestock. The Amazon went from fewer than 5 million cattle in the 1960s to more than 80 million in the last decade. At least 15 percent of the rainforest has been razed for animal grazing and confinement.

Courtesy Matt Howard | Unsplash

The Amazon is now producing more nitrous oxide than in previous years as well; this occurs as a result of logging and wetlands that compact soil.

Continued destruction is pushing the Amazon toward a state similar to that of rainforests in Southeast Asia, the researchers warn; those forests, razed for palm oil and livestock, have gone from carbon sinks to net emitters.

Cabon sequestering

Collectively, the forests of the world absorb nearly eight billion metric tons of carbon annually. Without the carbon absorption of the Amazon, the planet will not be able to meet the Paris Agreement targets of keeping global temperatures from increasing by more than 1.5 degrees Celsius from pre-industrial levels by the end of the century.

It’s not just razing the forests for meat that’s threatening the world’s most vital rainforest. In February, a group of leading climate scientists urged world leaders to preserve the planet’s forests and end biomass burning.

The letter, signed by more than 500 of the world’s top scientists, said that biomass burning is detrimental for the rainforests, and potentially even worse for the climate. 

According to the group’s letter, tree biomass is being implemented as an alternative to fossil fuel-based energy. But its impact on the planet may be more damaging.

Courtesy Patrick Hendrey | Unsplash

“Government subsidies for burning wood create a double climate problem because this false solution is replacing real carbon reductions,” the group wrote. “Companies are shifting fossil energy use to wood, which increases warming, as a substitute for shifting to solar and wind, which would truly decrease warming.”

In order to meet 2050 carbon neutrality goals, tree “preservation and restoration” plays a key role, the group says. Destroying forests turns them from carbon sinks to carbon debts, says the group. The scientists say we don’t have enough time to regrow forests in order to tackle the looming climate crises.

They also say countries need to end subsidies and incentives for tree burning. This, they say, is because the math doesn’t add up. Every kilowatt-hour of heat or electricity produced by tree burning adds two to three times as much carbon to the air as the use of traditional fossil fuels.

“Forests are one of our best tools for fighting climate change and one of our best defenses against its impact.”

-Natural Resources Defense Council

Biomass burning

“When energy companies burn trees to make electricity, the result is increased climate-changing carbon dioxide emissions, devastated ecosystems, and displaced wildlife,” the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) explains on its website. “Forests are one of our best tools for fighting climate change and one of our best defenses against its impact.”

According to the NRDC, the least-expensive biomass-produced electricity costs more than double that of energy-efficient production; it’s about 50 percent higher than onshore wind and solar electricity.

“[W]hen biomass is removed from forests and burned for electricity, the result is an increase in carbon dioxide that persists in the atmosphere for decades, even under the best case scenario in which new trees are replanted immediately,” NRDC notes. “That doesn’t even include additional emissions associated with harvesting, chipping, drying, preparing, and shipping the wood pellets.”

Courtesy Matthis Volquardsen | Pexels

The climate scientists say world leaders need to act immediately to preserve the world’s forests and decrease the carbon impact from biomass burning.

“The European Union needs to stop treating the burning of biomass as carbon neutral in its renewable energy standards and in its emissions trading system,” the group wrote. “Japan needs to stop subsidizing power plants to burn wood. And the United States needs to avoid treating biomass as carbon neutral or low carbon as the new administration crafts climate rules and creates incentives to reduce global warming.”

Trees, the group says, are “more valuable alive than dead both for climate and for biodiversity.” 

Bourdon agrees. “We are running against the clock, considering the devastation of the Amazon.”

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