Satellites and local studies have revealed that land previously belonging to the Amazon Rainforest has now been clear cut to make way for cattle pastures and slaughterhouses.
How Many Cattle Are We Talking?
To date, two thirds of the Amazon has been deforested and turned into cattle pastures. Cattle more than outnumber humans in the area. In 2016, cattle numbers reached upwards of 85 million while the human population was counted at 25 million; three cows for every one person. In the city of São Félix do Xingu, the home of the largest cattle herd, the ratio reaches 18 cows per person.
In Brazil, the Amazon covers 61% of the country. Cattle there are dispersed among 400,000 farms and ranches.
What’s Happening with the Slaughterhouses?
Despite cattle numbers reaching 85 million, the NGO Imazon discovered there were only 128 active slaughterhouses under 99 companies responsible for 93% of the annual cattle slaughter. This finding was very surprising and represents a significant bottleneck in the cattle industry.
Imazon’s study went on to calculate how much cattle was needed to fulfill the operations of the 128 slaughterhouses. A single meat processing plant requires 600,000 hectares (2317 square miles) of pasture. The 128 operational slaughterhouses would require 68 million hectares (262,559 square miles) of pasture - approximately the size of the state of Texas. This size exceeds what is currently available, meaning that more deforestation is likely to occur.
How the Government is Fighting Back
The Federal Public Ministry (MPF) has been working with local slaughterhouses since 2009 to sign what is being called the Beef Agreement. The agreement would allow for firms to inspect the slaughterhouses and the pasture land. It would also ban any pasture expansion that resulted in deforestation.
Paulo Barreto, the lead researcher on the Imazon study, explained why it made sense to sign an agreement with the slaughterhouses instead of the cattle farmers. He said, “It was like having two options to address this issue: gathering managers for each of these 100 slaughterhouse firms in a conference room or, alternatively, filling five huge soccer stadiums with all the farmers involved in cattle ranching.”
Are the Slaughterhouses Responsible for Deforestation?
The Imazon study was also responsible for finding out whether deforestation could be directly linked to the slaughterhouses. The researchers accomplished this through looking at geographical patterns.
Amintas Brandão Jr., a co-author on the study, explains, “We ran a spatial analysis in which you insert the coordinates of the slaughterhouse in the software and its maximum buying distance, say 100 kilometers. Then the software automatically goes through all the roads and navigable rivers accessible to that slaughterhouse up to those 100 kilometers distant. Thus, we have been able to delineate a potential supply zone.” Essentially, they were able to figure out how far slaughterhouses were willing to go for their cattle. They discovered that the zone of influence for all 128 slaughterhouses matched 88% of all deforestation that occurred between 2010 and 2015.
The study then looked at the possibility of future deforestation due to the needs of the slaughterhouses. They determined that state slaughterhouses could kill 180 animals per day and would buy from farms up to 95 miles away. Federal slaughterhouses could kill 700 animals a day and buy from farms up to 223 miles away. Using these numbers and their geographical zone of the slaughterhouses’ influence, researchers were able to create a map of deforestation probability in the Brazilian Amazon.
They discovered that current deforestation rates had a 90% match with the slaughterhouses’ zone of potential supply. So if current rates are repeated from 2016-2018, 90% of new deforestation will be attributed to the 128 slaughterhouses.
What’s the Solution?
Given the small number of slaughterhouses compared to the large number of ranchers, Barreto does believe the solution lies with the slaughterhouses. However, he knows there are problems with this approach. 30% of slaughters occur at houses that have not signed the Beef Agreement.
Barreto thinks the best way forward is legal pressure and cooperation between the government, the slaughterhouses and the ranches. He says, “We already have a map, and the technologies are available to trace cattle from the ranches where they are bred all the way to intermediate fattening ranches, and to the slaughter sites. Now, we need consistent legal pressure and punishment for breeders and meatpackers who condone environmental crimes.”