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Brazil struggles to protect Amazon as beef demand booms

Tobias Käufer in Bogota, Colombia
April 19, 2023

Brazil's cattle farmers have been exporting more beef than ever before. But what's good for the economy is bad for nature.

A Brazilian cowboy leading a herd of cattle in the Pantanal region
Blessing or curse? Brazil's beef is in high demand all over the worldImage: picture-alliance/blickwinkel/McPHOTO/J. Bitzer

Beef production is considered one of the biggest drivers of human-caused climate change. Brazil, as one of the world's leading beef exporting nations, has boosted exports massively in recent years, encouraged by rising global demand for beef and a government policy that more often than not turned a blind eye to the environmental downsides of beef production.

Under the right-wing government of former President Jair Bolsonaro between 2019 and 2022, Brazil returned to clearing huge swaths of Amazon rainforest to make way for new pastureland, defying international calls to stop the controversial practice. The government's reluctance to stop the destruction of the Amazon led to boycotts of Brazilian beef by some major global retailers.

"As international retailers with global supply chains, we want to play our part in taking responsibility to counteract the destruction of threatened forest areas," Germany's Aldi Group, for instance, said in a press release just over two years ago.

The anti-Bolsonaro campaign, however, couldn't prevent Brazilian beef from dominating the world market in recent years. According to the country's Valor business magazine, citing US Department of Agriculture figures, Brazilian beef exports are estimated to "exceed 3 million tons in 2023.

"Such a volume would be nearly 4% more than in 2022 and represent almost 25% of global beef exports," the magazine wrote.

Old policy and new 'progressives'

Brazil's new government led by left-wing president Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva seems little inclined to change Bolsonaro's successful beef export strategy for the time being.

"Brazil is showing the strength and size of its livestock industry, and its global market expansion will be a great opportunity to resume growth in this sector," Agriculture Minister Carlos Favaro told local media reporters after the successful conclusion of recent export negotiations with Mexico.

Smoke billows from a fire in an area of the Amazon rainforest near Porto Velho, Brazil.
Using mostly slash-and-burn methods, Brazil erased 10,573 square kilometers (4,082 square miles) of rainforest in 2022Image: Reuters/B. Kelly

This year, beef from Brazil is also being welcomed back in China and the Arab world which had halted imports due to cases of mad cow disease in some of Brazil's herds. So, little seems to have changed under the self-styled "progressive" Lula government, which has vowed to put the well-being of people and nature before profits.

Amazon deforestation set to continue

However, expansion of the Brazilian beef industry has raised the alarm among nature conservationists.

"The current situation is worrying and far from being in line with the government's goal of zero deforestation and its commitments under the UN climate and biodiversity agreements," said Cristiane Mazetti, rainforest expert at Greenpeace Brazil.

"The expansion of grazing land is continuously progressing and remains the main cause of deforestation in the Amazon," she told DW.

A picture of Brazil's President Lula da Silva holding a speech at the COP27 climate conference in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt.
At the 2022 UN climate summit, Brazil's president pledged to completely stop Amazon deforestation by 2030Image: Nariman El-Mofty/AP Photo/picture alliance

Mazetti also noted that meat traders and retail companies were breaking their pledges to ban deforestation-related products, and repeatedly postponing targets for full traceability.

"In practice, indirect supply chains, in particular, are poorly monitored and often linked to deforestation and human rights abuses," she said, adding that the planned free trade agreement between the EU and South America's Mercosur trade bloc would only "add to the pressure on nature."

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Action plan meets reality check

Contrary to the Bolsonaro government, President Lula has at least drafted a so-called Action Plan to Combat and Prevent Deforestation in the Amazon. The plan wants to establish a traceability system to monitor the origins of agricultural products.

Mazetti thinks the plan could be "a great step forward" in protecting the rainforest from livestock expansion, but only "if it is well structured, transparent and made mandatory."

The detrimental impact of agriculture on nature in Brazil was recently documented in a study commissioned by the Folha newspaper. It has shown that half of the country's soy exports to China this year were harvested on cleared land that used to belong to the Amazon rainforest.

While Brazil's Agribusiness Production Index, calculated by the Center for Agribusiness Studies of the Getulio Vargas Foundation, rose 1.3% in January — the best January result in five years — deforestation in the Amazon again increased significantly. Compared with the same month a year ago, when Bolsonaro was still at the helm, the pace of deforestation grew by 14%, according to data published by the online news portal G1 in mid April.

This article was originally published in German.