Webcast Recap

Brazil's cattle industry, the world's largest meat producer, is responsible for 75 percent of the Brazilian Amazon's deforestation and accounts for 40 percent of Brazil's greenhouse gas emissions. At a Brazil Institute discussion on Feb. 24, 2010, Paulo Barreto, senior researcher at the Amazon Institute of the People and the Environment (IMAZON), argued that Brazil is capable of reducing deforestation while maintaining cattle expansion. Joining the panel, Steve Schwartzman, director of Tropical Forest Policy at the Environmental Defense Fund, highlighted the evolution of Brazil's environmental debate over the past two decades.

Introducing the cattle industry's environmental impacts, Barreto pointed out how high commodity prices cause the cattle industry to expand its operations farther into the Amazon, increasing deforestation. Barreto emphasized the importance of this relationship in the context of an imminent global food crisis and, consequentially, higher commodity prices.

Cattle ranching practices in Brazil are inefficient, raising less than one head of cattle per hectare. Barreto asserted that the cattle industry should focus on increasing productivity, allowing them to double production without harming the environment. Thus, according to him, the government should couple market incentives that promote productivity and good environmental practices with stricter enforcement against illegal deforestation.

Over the past decade, Brazil extended its protected areas to cover 42 percent of the Amazon. The Brazilian government increased penalties for illegal deforestation. However, officials collected less than 5 percent of the fines. Barreto criticized the government's lack of follow through, stating that it "allowed unfair competition to those who illegally deforest at the expense of those investing in land productivity."

In 2008, Brazil implemented a new broad approach to stop deforestation that confronted the entire beef processing chain. The government mapped out illegally deforested areas, publishing these locations on the Internet. Farmers partaking in illegal deforestation faced embargoes. The Federal Public Ministry (MPF) filed lawsuits against 21 embargoed farms and against slaughterhouses. The MPF warned supermarkets to stop buying from slaughterhouses involved in illegal deforestation in order to avoid facing penalties. The MPF's actions forced slaughterhouses to sign an agreement stating they would not buy from farms that did not partake in the new environmental regulations.

This agreement pressured farmers to register their land, resulting in an increase of registered properties in the state of Pará from 400 to 7,500 between June 2009 and February 2010. Retailers, such as Wal-Mart, stopped buying meat from slaughterhouses associated with illegal environmental practices. The government of Pará allocated US$ 2.8 million annually to independent auditors for monitoring and evaluation.

Controlling for municipal characteristics and economic growth, Barreto calculated that these policies led to a decrease in deforestation by 1,500 km² between 2007 and 2008. In 2009, deforestation fell an additional 45 percent, which may also be due to the global economic crisis. Although these results show promise, deforestation is just one component of environmental sustainability. Barreto concluded by saying that Brazil must create a strategic plan for an overarching goal of sustainable production.

Schwartzman provided a broader context of the evolution of Brazil's environmental debate. Two decades ago, Brazilian policymakers viewed the environment issue as irrelevant or as an impediment to development. "We observe a different world today," Schwartzman stated.

Schwartzman attributed this change to three factors. First, the emergence of technically capable, researched based non-governmental organizations, like IMAZON. These organizations not only provide policy analysis to better inform the government, but also hold the government accountable to correct information, providing transparency to the environmental debate.

Second, the massive growth of protected areas increased environmental awareness. Schwartzman stressed the role of extraction reserves, protected areas managed and used by traditional forest communities—a concept created by environmental activists led by Chico Mendes during the 1970s and 80s. In contrast to other tropical areas around the world, in which many conflicts arose between conservationists and local people, Brazil witnessed a socioenvironmentalist movement, positively impacting Brazil's environmental debate.

Finally, Schwartzman discussed how global warming pushed policymakers to incorporate the environment into development strategies. With this change, Brazil began to realize that it is capable of controlling deforestation while encouraging economic growth.

The challenges of sustainable land use lie in managing two counter tendencies: economic growth and environmental protection. These tendencies have come to the forefront in this year's election debates. Brazil assumed a leadership role in international environmental discussions, but also has a plan for accelerated growth (PAC), which one candidate is counting on as a ticket to the presidency. Meanwhile, rancher lobbyists have mobilized to undermine environmental legislation. Schwartzman concluded, "It's an interesting race and confrontation between these two trends. The outcome is not clear, but the possibility of this level of policy and political economic debate that's going on is something new that certainly did not exist 20 years ago."

By Amanda Earley
Paulo Sotero, Brazil Institute