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Why Amazon Fires Keep Raging 10 Years After a Deal to End Them

Promises made

Many of the thousands of fires burning in Brazil’s Amazon are set by ranchers. A deal inked 10 years ago was meant to stop the problem, but the ecological arson goes on as the Earth warms.




The Amazon Is Still Burning. Blame Beef.

Welcome to the lawless heart of the Brazilian Amazon. Here, cattle ranchers and loggers — emboldened by President Jair Bolsonaro — are clearing and burning huge swaths of rainforest every day in the name of progress.

It’s moving fast. It’s not just a ground fire. It’s reaching up into the canopy here, too, and just scorching everything. Is this the usual amount of fire that you see? Are you worried about the illicit activity that happens here? Pará, Brazil. Parts of the rainforest in this region have lost so much tree cover it hardly looks like the Amazon. I’m on a highway called the BR-163. In August, this corridor for soy and beef exports lit up like an inferno. Many of the fires were started on protected lands on a single day, a so-called Day of Fire. So, I take the highway here to a protected reserve that saw major burning on that day. It’s called the Jamanxim National Forest. This year, the Jamanxim lost over 45 square miles of tree cover. That’s an area twice the size of Manhattan. It’s the worst deforestation of all protected areas in Brazil. But many people who live here see this as progress. And it has a lot to do with beef. Brazil is the world’s largest exporter of beef. About half of the cattle are raised on pasture that used to be rainforest. And demand is growing. I’m visiting an annual barbecue and auction near the Jamanxim. But it’s not your typical backyard get-together. Some landowners and ranchers here brazenly defy environmental laws. Last year, a government report linked this man, a union leader, to land-grabbing schemes. This woman, head of a national association, was fined for burning 350 acres of rainforest. This man, a local mayor, was caught destroying over 700 acres of virgin rainforest inside the Jamanxim reserve. They all deny wrongdoing. What producers here want is to privatize the reserves, and there’s hostility here towards anyone who tries to stop them. The producers are petitioning an important government official, Nabhan Garcia, appointed by President Bolsonaro to open up the Amazon for development. There’s no question which side Mr. Garcia’s on. He’s a rancher and farmer himself. According to your own government studies, many of the people in some of these protected areas came in after the park was created. They’re in there illegally according to your own government standards right now. Part of the reason we’re here is because of all the fires, right? To be clear, deforesting land without authorization is illegal in Brazil. It’s seized land that’s logged, burned and converted, mostly for grazing. We’re talking millions of acres, billions of dollars and a web of criminal activity. But at the core of the issue is what turns out to be a pretty complicated question. Who does all this land belong to? I catch up with Luiz Helfenstein, who I’d met at the barbecue. His ranch is right at the edge of the Jamanxim National Forest. He considers himself one of the pioneers here. When you started, is this the first settlement that you built? Luiz came here back in the ’80s. He was handed 4,000 acres of rainforest, part of a government plan to develop the Amazon. That’s the BR-163. November 1994. Then the political winds shifted and preservation became the priority. In 2006, the government established the Jamanxim National Forest, taking back most of the land previously given to Luiz and other producers. They felt cheated, and some have responded by grabbing and burning protected land. I take a ride with Agamenon da Silva Menezes. Is this your car? He’s the head of a union for ranchers out here. Was the Day of Fire an example of that disobedience? But satellite data confirms there was an unusual spike in the number of fires on Aug. 10. Local reporters wrote about this so-called Day of Fire, exposing a coordinated plan among ranchers and land-grabbers to burn newly cleared forest. One of those reporters, Adecio Piran, soon found his face on a wanted poster. Did you ever receive death threats or threats to your personal safety? That type of intimidation helps explain how so much criminal activity can go unpunished. Last year, 30 environmental activists were murdered in Brazil. I follow a group of firefighters with one of Brazil’s environmental agencies into a biological reserve. The agency has been attacked by locals and their authority undermined by Bolsonaro’s government. None of the men will speak on the record. So this is what the effort to protect the forest here now looks like: a handful of men carving control lines and putting out brush fires with a leaf blower. It takes a bird’s-eye view to capture the magnitude of what they’re up against. This fire is nearly four miles long. According to Brazilian satellites, more than a soccer field worth of rainforest is cleared every minute. I’m back on the road, driving off federal land, when I see these two trucks. They pull on to the BR-163 highway with loads of fresh logs.

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When things go wrong, those in power often promise to make it right. But do they? In this series, The Times investigates to see if those promises were kept.

SERRA DO CACHIMBO BIOLOGICAL RESERVE, Brazil — A smoky, choking haze drifted over a lush rainforest reserve in the Brazilian Amazon last month, as fires lit by cattlemen illegally ranching on protected land spread through the jungle.

From an elevated vantage point, a dozen blazes could be spotted across an 845,000-acre nature preserve.

As damaging as these fires would be to the Serra Do Cachimbo Biological Reserve, they represented just a tiny fraction of the total number burning vast swaths of the Amazon, with 26,000 recorded in August, the highest number in a decade.

The immense scale of the fires in Brazil this summer raised a global alarm about the risks they posed to the world’s largest rainforest, which soaks up carbon dioxide and helps keep global temperatures from rising.

It wasn’t supposed to be like this.

Ten years ago, an agreement was reached that was intended to help end these devastating acts of ecological arson.

In 2009, the three biggest Brazilian meatpacking companies signed an agreement with the environmental group Greenpeace not to buy cattle from ranchers who raised their beef in newly deforested areas.

The deal was meant to be a model for the world, a partnership between private industry and environmental activists that would benefit both.

For Greenpeace, the agreement offered a solution to one of the biggest causes of rainforest destruction: The cattle industry is responsible for up to 80 percent of the clearings in recent years, according to the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies.


For the meatpackers, the agreement relieved pressure from a growing international environmental campaign against them and threats of boycotts against retailers selling their beef.

But the vows made by those three companies — JBS, Minerva and Marfrig, which handle about 50 percent of the beef raised in the Amazon — have been only partially kept, according to prosecutors, environmentalists and academics who study the cattle industry.

The failure to fulfill crucial elements of the ambitious promise — which were always going to be a challenge to achieve — is one of the main reasons the Amazon is on fire.

Cattle ranching has been responsible for 18,000 square miles of additional deforestation — equivalent to New Hampshire and Vermont combined — since the 2009 agreement between Greenpeace and the meatpackers, according to University of Wisconsin researchers.

Convinced that the meatpackers were not living up to their commitments, Greenpeace pulled out of the agreement in 2017.

“We saw that they failed to comply with what they had promised,” said Adriana Charoux, the lead Greenpeace Amazon activist. “They could have done much more. The slaughterhouses are making a minimal effort.”

What We Found

From Jaguars in Jungles to Cows in Pastures

In September, the fires were abundant in the Serra Do Cachimbo Biological Reserve, set aside by the Brazilian government 15 years ago as a pristine wilderness area off-limits to all commercial activity.

But driving over the creaky river bridges built by the ranchers in this reserve, it was easy to find illegal cattle operations here, as it is throughout Brazil’s Amazon. Where giant otters and jaguars once roamed, there were fields where cattle grazed.

Fazenda Canaã, a 2,700-acre farm carved out of the reserve’s rainforest around 2013, made no effort to hide. The jungle that had stood on this land was replaced by open savanna — grazing land for its 400 cattle.

For a ranch hand working there, the exchange of rainforest for productive farmland seemed like a fair deal.

“The right thing to do is let people work,” said Isaías Hermogem, as he watched over cattle grazing in a clearing edged with papaya and coconut trees. “Let’s open up more space.”

Many ranchers have taken that advice.

Fazenda Canaã is just one of at least 71 ranches in the Serra do Cachimbo, and both the number of ranches and the size of each appears to be growing. In August, just as the rampant fires in the Amazon gripped the attention of a warming world, Fazenda Canaã extended its turf with additional burning.

About 200 million heads of cattle are raised in the Brazil, with an estimated 173,746 square miles of forest — the size of California, plus Massachusetts and New Jersey — converted to cattle pasture over recent decades, according to the Yale School of Forestry.

Livestock farming generates more than $6 billion in annual export revenues and about 360,000 jobs. Much of the exported beef goes to meet growing demand in China.

Despite the promise of the major meatpackers not to buy cattle from ranches like Fazenda Canaã, cattle that spent time on this farm were purchased by JBS over the last three years, according to government data.

In fact, JBS, the biggest meatpacker worldwide, bought cattle that passed through 11 ranches in the preserve over the last two years, according to the government data.

Marfrig and Minerva each made indirect purchases from one ranch here, according to government data that traces a complex supply chain.

An audit in 2016 by federal prosecutors in Pará State, where the Serra do Cachimbo reserve is and where about a third of the cattle slaughtered in the Amazon come from, showed that 6 percent of the cattle JBS had bought between October 2009 and 2016, totaling 36,739 heads of cattle, came from ranches that had been illegally cleared.

In 2016, 118,459 cattle, or 19 percent of the total bought by JBS in Pará, were acquired “with evidence of irregularities,” according to the audit by the Brazilian Federal Prosecution Service using satellite information, on-the-ground inspections and traced purchasing data.

“There is no reason why after 10 years there could not be better results,” said Nathalie Walker, a director at the National Wildlife Federation, who has studied the Brazilian cattle industry. “There were firm negotiated agreements.”

What We Found

‘Cattle Laundering’ Subverts the Supply Chain

Brazil has many thousands of cattle farms in the Amazon, spread out across one of the world’s most remote areas, which hinders efforts at law enforcement, inspections and, especially, tracking cattle over their life spans.

It’s rare for a cow to spend its entire life on the farm where it was born; it may be bought and sold multiple times, until it reaches the ranch that sells it directly to a slaughterhouse.

This complex supply chain has made the phenomenon of “cattle laundering” common and is the crux of the problem in fulfilling the deal’s promise.

A calf may be born on illegally deforested land and then ultimately sold to a fattening ranch whose land was cleared long ago and is within the terms of the accord.

When the slaughterhouses buy from these ranches, they can say they have acquired a cow from a compliant source.

JBS asserts that 100 percent of its cattle purchases from its direct suppliers “were in compliance with our responsible sourcing policies,” according to a statement from a company spokesman.

The company said it uses satellite technology, geo-referenced farm data and official government records to monitor more than 280,000 square miles, an area larger than Texas, and that it assesses more than 50,000 potential cattle suppliers every day.

“JBS has an unwavering commitment to combat, discourage and eliminate deforestation in the Amazon region,” said the company statement.

Despite those efforts, an audit commissioned by JBS acknowledged that the company does not fully monitor indirect suppliers because of a lack of accessible public data tracking the transport of animals.

“JBS can track 100 percent of its direct suppliers,” according to its third-party auditor, DNV GL, a Norwegian quality-assurance and certification company. But JBS “has not yet been successful in implementing traceability processes” for indirect suppliers.

And this gap, critics say, has rendered the agreement largely ineffectual.

Most of the Amazon ranches that sell cattle directly to JBS, Marfrig and Minerva are essentially middlemen, aggregators of cattle from multiple, inadequately monitored farms, according to data provided by University of Wisconsin researchers.

Based on an analysis of publicly available property records as well as on-the-ground interviews with hundreds of farmers in the Amazon, the University of Wisconsin researchers found that at least 15 percent of the indirect suppliers to the three major meatpackers have continued to deforest land since the 2009 agreement was signed.

“The agreement has so many holes, the deforestation is still just going on,” said Holly Gibbs, a University of Wisconsin geographer who has studied the agreement.

In a separate study of the cattle export market in the Amazon and the nearby Cerrado, a region which is not covered by the agreement, Trase, a research group that studies commodity supply chains, said that beef exports by JBS contributed to an estimated 100 square miles of deforestation a year from 2015 to 2017.

And the deforestation totals in the report reflect only a small part of the problem, because 80 percent of the meat produced in the region goes into the domestic market, whose effect on deforestation Trase did not measure.

“The lack of monitoring of indirect suppliers is a big blind spot,” said Erasmus zu Ermgassen, a researcher with Trase and the Université Catholique de Louvain. “Slaughterhouses, like JBS, have no way of guaranteeing that cattle from deforesting properties don’t ultimately end up in their supply chain.”

What We Found

Great Promise and Initial Progress Come Undone

The landmark agreement signed by JBS, Minerva and Marfrig was considered very promising.

The deal obligated the three companies to ensure that farmers who sold them cattle were not actively engaged in deforestation.

Soon after the Greenpeace deal, federal prosecutors reached an accord with 13 additional national meatpackers allowing federal law enforcement officers to monitor the source of their cattle so slaughterhouses would cut ties with cattlemen who cleared a significant amount of forest. Eventually, about 100 signed on, including the Big 3.

At first, the agreements did lead to improvements, as the meatpacking companies established the necessary protocols to monitor their direct suppliers.

In Pará State, for example, the University of Wisconsin research team found that while 36 percent of supplying ranches had recent deforestation in 2009, only 4 percent did in 2013.

But at the same time that the agreements limited the amount of new land for grazing, demand for beef was growing both domestically and internationally.

The incentive to clear more rainforest for pasture became hard to resist, and the result was a surge in the cattle laundering practice that has undermined the deals and ravaged Brazil’s rain forests.

Compounding the problem, farmers and ranchers have treated the inauguration of the right-wing populist Jair Bolsonaro as president in January as a green light to burn deeper into the rainforest.

“If there was one thing Bolsonaro was crystal clear about,” said Jeremy M. Martin, vice president for energy and sustainability at the Institute of the Americas, a California-based research organization, “it was that he was 100 percent willing to compromise the Amazon for economic upside.”

What We Found

A Large Loophole, With Lots of Blame to Go Around

The agreement with Greenpeace recognized that animals that end up in slaughterhouses are not always raised by the direct suppliers, and the three companies agreed they would monitor the complex path taken by cattle as they moved through the Amazon.

The tracking system was supposed to be in operation by 2011.

But on the 10th anniversary of the agreement, the companies still have not found a way to fully monitor the indirect suppliers.

While critical of the performance of JBS and other meatpackers, government prosecutors and academics say the three companies are only part of the problem, and so can only be part of the solution.

The companies have been handicapped by the inconsistent quality of government inspections that monitor cattle traffic from farm to farm. And cattle data is scattered and incomplete, government officials say.

Daniel Azeredo, a senior federal environmental prosecutor who has investigated the cattle industry, said that JBS and the other meatpackers have acknowledged the problem. “In meetings they say, ‘We are victims of fraud,’” he said. “But I think they could do more.”

The independent auditor used by JBS said that tracing the full supply chain would only be possible if JBS had complete access to animal transportation documents that are closely guarded by the Ministry of Agriculture.

Another of the signatories to the deal, Minerva, also pointed to the intractable problems in the supply chain. “Today there are no reliable and accessible statistics on the cattle traceability chain,” Minerva said in a statement. “Any indirect supplier control initiative at this time is not monitorable, reportable and attestable.”

Marfrig said it was in full compliance with the agreement, and is working to develop “new solutions to foment a deforestation-free supply chain.”

Brazil’s agriculture minister, Tereza Cristina da Costa Dias, agreed in an interview that the government’s animal transport information was disorganized, dispersed and difficult to access.

Asked if the cattle industry was doing enough to protect the Amazon, she said, “That’s a very difficult question.”

What We Found

A Solution Stymied

No one disagrees with the minister about the difficulty of the task.

Following the life cycle of a cow takes sophisticated surveillance, regulatory supervision, standardized records and systematic auditing — a complex process that, critics acknowledge, is especially hard in the Amazon.

But thousands of miles from the Brazilian rain forests, in Madison, Wis., a team of University of Wisconsin researchers has spent nearly a decade attempting to show it can be done.

Working with the National Wildlife Federation, the team has developed a computerized tracking tool, called Visipec, that documents the movement of cattle from the calving farms to the slaughterhouses by linking the data sets on government websites.

Using that data, the researchers say, the tool can help slaughterhouses track almost all their direct and indirect suppliers.

It’s unclear, however, how much private support or political will there is for such a solution, since it would close what some experts suggest has been a convenient loophole for all parties in the Brazilian cattle industry.

The National Wildlife Federation has offered Visipec for free to the major meatpackers, including JBS. So far, none of them are using it.

And just as the tool is ready to be fully deployed, much of the data underpinning it may soon become more difficult to access.

One of the key data sets had come from the website of the Brazilian agriculture ministry, which had posted online records of cattle transactions in the Amazon.

In April, the agriculture ministry released a memo saying that parts of the database would not be made publicly available because they contain “personal information” that “does not interest the general public.” Already, some of the data has become harder to download, said Ms. Gibbs, the lead university researcher.

While tracking the supply chain had always been difficult, she said, now “it is essentially impossible.”

The Takeaway: A supply chain can only be as green as its least eco-friendly link.

Clifford Krauss and Mariana Simðes reported from the states of Mato Grosso and Pará in Brazil. David Yaffe-Bellany reported from New York.


Not long ago, this quarry, 40 kilometers outside Prague, held a carefully built fake town called the Two Rivers. Then, a few days back, the producers and set dressers of Amazon's The Wheel of Time burned it down. The town's inn, an intricately rendered two-story building, is now blackened, its left side plunged into spiky rubble: Smoke machines give the impression that it is still smoldering. There are holes in roofs, artfully destroyed beams. Every house—interior and exterior—has been charred enough so that it shows on camera. The actors who wander the Two Rivers are made up to match. Rosamund Pike, who starred in Gone Girl, is smudged with soot. Rain has begun to come down in earnest, pooling in the muddy streets and making the extras and the stuntmen shiver. Michael McElhatton, who played Roose Bolton on Game of Thrones and is playing a character called Tam al'Thor on The Wheel of Time, sits on a stump in the middle of it all in a big down jacket, staring at nothing in particular.

It's November 2019, and the production—comprising hundreds of, and on some days nearly a thousand, people—is filming the end of the first episode of what everyone hopes will be a television show that runs for, well: six seasons? Eight? A show that will be as epic and sensational and ubiquitous as Game of Thrones once was. On one side of the green, a camera sits on a long dolly track; another camera operator stalks the scene, taking various close-ups. The episode's veteran television director, Uta Briesewitz, is arranging four of the show's main cast of relatively unknown young actors in a moment of reckoning: Pike's character, a woman with mysterious powers, has arrived to awaken them and set them on their way. “Your life isn't going to be what you thought,” Pike intones, as various cameras circle her. Pike runs through her speech, which is heavy with exposition for both the characters and the audience, a few times. “Can I do one more?” she asks Briesewitz, while apologizing to the extras scattered about. “I think that one got a bit phony.”

Finally, Briesewitz calls “cut.” Pike retreats from the weather into a nearby tent. “It's not like working with David Fincher,” she says to me, referring to the Gone Girl director's penchant for shooting 70 takes of a scene. The production is huge and moving at warp speed. Pike has to know things backward and forward. She has to get her lines out as dozens of crew members and background actors get soaked in the cold rain and actual living horses wander around while makeup women with transparent plastic bags dart in and out to touch up extras and guys with smoke canisters paddle mist into the edges of shots. This set they're on—not just a few hollow façades set up to create the impression of reality, but real buildings, in every direction—is giant, immersive, and won't last past this episode.

Want to make the next Game of Thrones? This is how it begins. Viewers have become accustomed to a kind of scale, or realism, that creeps toward the actually real. “It's not like we can go say, ‘Oh, you know, Game of Thrones, season one, they only spent this,’ ” Mike Weber, an executive producer of The Wheel of Time, says. “The audience expectation is coming off of the last season of Game of Thrones, not the first season.” For the first season of Thrones, HBO spent about $6 million an episode, a number that steadily climbed from there. Amazon and The Wheel of Time? They're starting at upward of a reported $10 million per episode—for eight total, the first of which will begin streaming in November—just to get out of the gate.

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