Demand for Brazilian beef threatens rainforest

Fire is used for forest and land clearing to create cattle pasture Copyright: Christian Cossalter/CIFOR

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Brazil’s growing success as an exporter of beef is responsible for much of the recent rise in the rate of destruction of the Amazon rainforest, according to new research.

A report to be released later this year by the Indonesia-based Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR) suggests a strong link between the fivefold increase in Brazilian beef exports in the past six years and increasingly rapid destruction of the Amazon rainforest.

In the past 12 years, the number of cattle in the Amazon has more than doubled, from 26 million in 1990 to 57 million in 2002. The report shows that the overwhelming majority of the new cattle are concentrated in Brazil’ s Amazon states of Mato Grosso, Pará, and Rondônia, which were also the states with the greatest deforestation in 2002.

"This research provides the first substantial data to support recent speculation about the role international demand for Brazilian beef is playing in Brazil’s skyrocketing deforestation rate," says David Kaimowitz, director-general of CIFOR and one of the report’s authors. "Cattle ranchers are making mincemeat out of Brazil’s Amazon rainforests."

The report, Hamburger Connection Fuels Amazon Destruction, suggests that the increase in worldwide demand for Brazilian beef may have been fuelled by concerns regarding the threat of mad cow disease in other cattle-producing nations. The recent devaluation of the Brazilian currency and a decrease in the nation’s incidence of foot-and-mouth disease may also have played a part.

"Brazil’s success in combating foot-and-mouth disease may be good news for the cows, but it is bad news for the forest," Kaimowitz says.

The Brazilian government’s Space Research Institute (INPE) is expected shortly to release satellite images confirming that the Amazon forest is rapidly disappearing. Last year, INPE’s data showed a 40 per cent increase in deforestation rates over 2002.

In March, Brazil’s President Luiz Inácio ‘Lula’ da Silva announced a new US$135-million action plan to prevent and control deforestation in the Amazon.

The government’s approach goes in the right direction, but unless urgent action is taken, the Brazilian Amazon could lose an additional area the size of Denmark over the next 18 months, warns Benoit Mertens, one of the authors of the report and a CIFOR researcher.

"The international and domestic market forces currently promoting the cattle-driven deforestation described in CIFOR’s report are much stronger than ever," he says. "Even with the most determined policy response, it might be hard to decisively curb deforestation. To limit the negative impact on Brazilian rainforests will require a massive effort."

Link to a summary of the report’s main findings in English

Link to a summary of the report’s main findings in Portuguese