Demand for Brazilian beef blamed for Amazon deforestation

BOGOR, Indonesia, April 6, 2004 (ENS): Rapid growth in the Brazilian beef industry is responsible for much of the recent spike in the destruction of the Amazon rainforest, according to a report by the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR) based in Indonesia. The report comes amid new evidence that the rate of Amazon deforestation is at a record high.

"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. "In a nutshell, cattle ranchers are making mincemeat out of Brazil's Amazon rainforests."

Kaimowitz notes that the Brazilian government's Space Research Institute (INPE) is expected to shortly issue satellite images that show the Amazon rainforest disappearing at an alarming rate. The images are expected to show the continuation of the trend reported in 2003, when INPE released figures showing a 40 percent increase in deforestation over the 2002 figure.

Preliminary indications suggest the latest figures will be equal to or greater than the extremely high figure of 2.5 million hectares reported last year.

From 1990 to 2000, the total area of forest lost in the Amazon rose from 41.5 million hectares to 58.7 million hectares.

Many environmentalists have shown justifiable concern about the expansion of soybean cultivation and logging in the Amazon, the report says, but that explains "only a small percentage of total deforestation."

Much of the Amazon rainforest destroyed in the past decade has become pasture, according to CIFOR's report "Hamburger Connection Fuels Amazon Destruction." The full version of the report will be released in mid-2004.

The report looks at the deforestation figures in concert with the massive surge in the Brazilian Amazon's cattle population, which has more than doubled from 26 million head in 1990 to 57 million in 2002. Brazil's beef exports have increased more than five times in the last six years.

The jump in the worldwide demand for Brazilian beef has been brought on by several factors, CIFOR researchers say, among them concerns regarding the threat of mad cow disease in several other cattle producing countries such as the United States, Canada and the UK.

The report notes that the Brazilian cattle industry has also benefited from a recent devaluation of the Brazilian currency and a decrease in the nation's incidence of foot-and-mouth disease.

Between 1990 and 2001 the percentage of Europe's processed meat imports that came from Brazil rose from 40 to 74 percent. Markets in Russia and the Middle East are also responsible for much of this new demand for Brazilian beef. Recently certified free of foot-and-mouth disease, beef from Brazil is considered preferable to beef from other regions where cases of mad cow disease have been identified.

"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 said.

In 1995, Brazil exported less than $500 million of beef - its 2003 total was three times that amount.

And the volume of exports between 1997 and 2003 increased more than five-fold, from 232,000 to nearly 1.2 million metric tons.

Some 80 percent of the growth in the cattle industry was in the Amazon, according to the report.

CIFOR's researchers say ranching is particularly profitable in the Amazon because the price of land is low.

"These prices remain very low in part because farmers find it easy to illegally occupy government land without being prosecuted, and to deforest areas much greater than the 20 percent of their farms currently permitted by law," the report said.

The forestry research group praises a deforestation action plan announced in March by Brazil's President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva but report coauthor and CIFOR researcher Benoit Mertens cautions that limiting the negative impact on Brazilian rainforests will require "a massive effort."

"The international and domestic market forces currently promoting the cattle-driven deforestation described in this report are much stronger than ever," Mertens said. "Even with the most determined policy response, it might be hard to decisively curb deforestation."

Brazil's plan commits the government to spending $135 million on activities designed to reduce deforestation, including better planning for land use, greater enforcement of laws regarding deforestation and the illegal occupation of government lands, and improved monitoring of deforestation. There will be more detailed reviews of public infrastructure investments, greater support for indigenous territories and community forestry, increased support for sustainable agriculture, and greater control over credit for ranchers, the Brazilian government promised.

The Lula government has pledged to carry out these objectives with the coordinated power of 12 government ministries.

"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," Mertens said. "Any steps to effectively tackle Brazil's deforestation problem will require high level attention, and a number of additional measures, more funds, and greater coordination between and within the key ministries."

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