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Investigators link major companies to overlooked ecological catastrophe in Brazil — and some 'juggernaut' banks are behind it

There should be more transparency to help hold companies accountable.

There should be more transparency to help hold companies accountable.

Photo Credit: iStock

The production of beef is a major contributor to deforestation, and a new investigation has linked a number of major companies to the practice in the Brazilian state of Mato Grosso, which is home to part of the Amazon and the "upside-down" Cerrado forest savanna.

What's happening?

Nongovernmental organization Global Witness reported that deforestation in the Cerrado forest is an overlooked "ecological catastrophe," as rates of forest destruction hit a record in 2023, rising 43% from the previous year. 

After digging into public data, the NGO wrote that three of Brazil's biggest meatpackers — JBS, Marfrig, and Minerva — played a role, selling products connected to illegal deforestation. 

Cattle farms that did business with the companies, which denied the allegations, reportedly contributed to forest loss at a five times higher rate. 

Trade data indicated that demand for beef in the European Union and United Kingdom was a significant factor that accelerated the destruction of the Cerrado, which spans 22% of the country. 

This deforestation was partially facilitated by American, British, and EU financial giants, according to commercially available market data obtained by Global Witness. 

Barclays, BNP Paribas, HSBC, ING Group, Merrill, and Santander were among the "juggernauts" named that have "underwritten billions of dollars in bonds" in support of the industry's growth. 

Why is this concerning?

The Cerrado's deep, expansive root system is a carbon-storing machine. According to Global Witness, it soaked up 15.1 billion tons of carbon dioxide in 2017.

Scientists believe that it will be impossible to limit the warming of our planet to 2.7 degrees Fahrenheit above preindustrial levels if deforestation continues in the Cerrado.

The removal of the forest is also spilling over into the savanna, one of the most biodiverse plains in the world.

The World Wildlife Organization noted that almost half of the neighboring savanna's 11,000 plants are unique to the area, with locals relying on them for medicine and food. 

What can be done to help the Cerrado?

There have been various agreements aimed at protecting the neighboring Amazon, and they have led to some success, as the rates of deforestation in that jungle have been slowing down

Unfortunately, as Global Witness pointed out, this appears to have fueled further deforestation, as well as the destruction of savanna's native plants, in the Cerrado. 

After completing its investigation, the NGO concluded that there should be more robust illegal protections for the Amazon's neighbor. 

It also believes that there should be more transparency to help hold companies accountable and wrote that financial institutions should withhold their services "until each [meatpacking] company can demonstrate deforestation-free supply chains in Mato Grosso and beyond."

At a local level, cutting back on meat consumption by eating one plant-based meal per week is not only good for your wallet and your health, but also could help the Cerrado. According to Global Witness, a 2020 study found that two-thirds of deforestation there was because of cattle farming.  

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