Prosecutor Takes on Beef Industry to Put Brakes on Deforestation in the Amazon

Combining local activism with the long arm of its federal prosecutor, the state of Pará advances a new model for combatting deforestation.

The cattle industry stands to benefit in Brasil Novo, Para (seen here), which takes part in the state's Green Municipalities program and recently exited the federal government's blacklist for municipalities with high deforestation rates. Credit: Jeff Tollefson/InsideClimate News

Jeff Tollefson is reporting from the Brazilian Amazon for eight weeks and exploring Brazil's efforts to protect the world's largest rainforestand the earth's climate.

The morning after I landed in the Brazilian state of Pará, I joined a pair of state government officials heading to an event in a municipality of Terra Alta, located 70 miles inland from the capital of Belém. It turned out they were honored guests, and as we approached we discovered that a parade was literally waiting for them on the side of the road before rolling into town. A man was shooting fireworks out the back of one truck, and a stack of concert speakers belted music out of another.

The occasion? Several dozen properties were formally being entered into the new "rural environmental registry," and the local government was using the occasion to persuade more landowners to register their land and protect their remaining forests. Terra Alta Environment Secretary João Batista do Nascimento told me that the municipality needs to get its environmental documents in order so its producers can remain competitive in a market that punishes environmental negligence.

"Our challenge is to bring this message to people who have to produce and respect the forest," Paulo says.

I knew about both the land registry and the state of Pará's voluntary "Green Municipalities" program, which promotes a grassroots community pact against deforestation. But it never occurred to me that these initiatives would be the focal point of an ear-piercing political rally by a governing mayor.

Although some towns are clearly moving faster than others, nearly three-quarters of the state's 144 municipalities have joined the voluntary program. "We're bringing environmental activism to the communities," the head of the state's Green Municipalities program, Justiniano Neto, told me back in Belém.

A multitude of forces is driving this apparent surge in environmental awareness, including government enforcement, national and international markets, and even local budgets. One of my goals in coming to Pará was to explore this dynamic and how it fits into the larger struggle over resources in the Amazon. In addition to Neto, I found myself on the trail of a 32-year-old attorney who surprised everybody by taking his job seriously.

As a federal prosecutor in the state of Pará, Daniel Azeredo doesn't have your average job. His is a special post that operates independently of all other branches of government. He answers to no one, aside from a council of his peers if questions arise, and everyone is fair game as he seeks to enforce Brazilian law and defend the public good.

The son of a middle-class family from the state of Minas Gerais further south, Azeredo took the public service exam for this post alongside 15,000 people and was among 70 to pass. Only after he assumed his post in 2007 did Azeredo's attention turn to illegal deforestation.

Even with the stricter enforcement regime in effect, the entire process struck Azeredo as absurd. Environmental enforcement officers raid a property, arrest a low-level pawn who is getting next to nothing to clear land with what often amounts to a slave-labor operation, and then slap this sorry sap with an exorbitant fine that everybody knows he will never pay. Then they let him go, because there aren't enough jails to hold everybody who has participated in this particular crime.

And at the end, the government still has no idea who actually controls the land being deforested, usually to provide pasture for cattle. Here's one illustrative statistic that Azeredo offered me: tally up the area covered by all of the land titles on file with the state of Pará several short years ago, and you have an area four times larger than the state itself.

"Those who occupy land in the Amazon were invisible," Azeredo says, "and here you have the key to the problem."

To start tracking down the true offenders, Azeredo asked the state for a list of all the licenses for ranches and slaughterhouses operating in the state. He estimates there are about 50,000 facilities subject to such licensing requirements across the state's beef industry. After an exhaustive search, state officials said they turned up three licenses; precisely one of them was valid.

Azeredo made his first move in 2009 with a lawsuit against ranchers and the 11 largest slaughterhouse operators, who controlled some 60 percent of the state's beef market. The lawsuit argued that ranchers were operating and deforesting without licenses and thus illegally. But rather than stop there, Azeredo sent a letter to the 70 largest purchasers of meat and leather, including Walmart, Carrefour, McDonalds and Reebok, warning that he would prosecute them, too, if they continued to purchase illegally produced beef.

Greenpeace launched its own international campaign against the tropical-forest-destroying beef industry around that time, and the heat was on. 

Rather than fight, some of the state's biggest customers simply stopped buying from Pará, and in some cases from the Amazon. They said there was no way to ensure that their products didn't originate on illegally deforested land, which was of course true.

At that point, things could have gone either way. Young and fresh, Azeredo was publicly derided. He was called to testify before Congress and then berated by lawmakers. Accusations of abuse of power forced a formal review by the aforementioned jury of his peers (he was cleared). When he attended meetings, he often had to be accompanied by security.

Azeredo has a hard time explaining why he persisted, but giving in doesn't seem to have been on his list of options. Instead, he produced a kind of consent agreement, known as a "TAC," that allowed commerce to begin anew with the understanding that all parties would seek to bring cattle ranches into compliance with the rural registration system. Here again, if they had not signed, it would have been a long and difficult prosecution in a court system that isn't known for its efficiency.

But sign it they did, which meant not only abiding by government embargoes but also ensuring that their suppliers—the ranchers—have their properties properly registered and their activities properly licensed. This process seeks to bring landowners out of the dark and into a formal system, regardless of whether they illegally cleared land. The benefit is that landowners get a piece of paper from the government that serves as a de-facto title while the larger land-tenure problems work themselves out. Greenpeace, meanwhile, extracted parallel industry agreements to prevent the purchase of both cattle and soybeans from recently deforested lands.

Since then it's been one turn of the screw after another, including a separate consent agreement initiated by Azeredo in which municipalities agreed to do their part to get landowners to register their lands and then begin issuing licenses for activities on those lands. Azeredo says there were about 500 properties in the state's land registry when he began. Today, some 112,000 properties have been registered, representing 62 percent of private land in Pará.

I've heard an environmentalist credit Azeredo with clarifying for the corporate world the issue of green supply chains. I've heard a scientist say that municipalities seem more open to looking at solutions since Azeredo engaged. And I've heard a soybean farmer say he is more afraid of "federal prosecutors" than environmental law enforcement.

I caught up with Azeredo at a recent meeting with representatives of small and medium-sized slaughterhouses and beef exporters, who eventually signed on to the agreement but have yet to really dive into implementation. Tall and thin, he sported a gray pinstripe suit with a red tie but engaged in a casual dialogue about the challenges ahead. Once suppliers are registered and licensed, determining whether they're complying is a matter of checking the satellite data—freely available to all, or for a fee through full-service consultancies—and the government embargo lists.

After nearly two hours of discussion, he issued a simple warning, "If we can't make this work," he said, firmly but without malice, "we are going to have problems."

Justiniano Neto, left, and Daniel Azeredo listen to people attending a meeting of small and medium-sized slaughterhouse owners and meat exporters in Belem, Para. Credit: Jeff Tolleffson/InsideClimate News

The industry still has a way to go, but Azeredo says companies and municipalities have made progress. He is now working toward an agreement with the Bank of Brazil, which for years financed deforestation through low-interest loans. And he is teaching his fellow federal prosecutors to use similar tactics in other industries, such as logging.

There will always be outliers where enforcement is needed, but Azeredo estimates that broad compliance should be achievable within four or five years. This aligns with discussions that are brewing about a new Amazon-wide accord—designed in part to replace Greenpeace's soybean agreement, which expires this year—among major agricultural and livestock companies and government entities to end net deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon by 2020.

For now, Azeredo and Neto, of the Green Municipalities program, seem to have become tag-team partners at these meetings. When Azeredo runs into heavy grumbling, Neto often jumps in as chief salesman, his voice hitting a higher pitch as he excitedly ticks off the ways people can comply and the long-term benefits they will accrue. One example: beginning this year, a portion of the city budget that comes from the state will be allocated based on environmental performance.

I watched the duo work the beef industry first, and then I watched them at a second meeting in Brasil Novo, a municipality in the central Xingu River region that is the latest to exit federal government's black list. There Azeredo and Neto talked about what comes next, including licensing activities from deforestation to cattle grazing, and ultimately land titles. Azeredo pointed out that landowners who are in the land registration system will move first when it comes time to sort out formal titles.

Although Pará now has the highest level of deforestation in Brazil, the overall level has dropped by 73 percent over the past decade. Neto says deforestation has stabilized where communities engage and lands are registered. Moreover, while deforestation throughout the Amazon spiked last year, Neto says nearly a third of the total in Pará took place in rural settlements run by the federal government, like the one in Querencia I discussed in my last post; roughly half of it took place around a single municipality called Novo Progresso, which is sitting on what is likely to be the next development corridor further west.

These numbers make deforestation, once wickedly pervasive, seem a little more tractable.

Listening to Azeredo and Neto talk, I thought about the words emblazoned on the Brazilian flag: order and progress. For decades Brazil focused on progress, and the result was a disorderly and often violent occupation as settlers tore through forests and indigenous lands. Now the government is starting to emphasize order as well, and one effect seems to be progress.

Coming: Life, interrupted, in the Amazon. With one sidetrip to the hospital, your correspondent gets stuck on the wrong side of the Xingu River, runs into roadblocks set up by protesters of the massive Belo Monte Hydroelectric dam and spends quality time in one city that was ill-prepared for the resulting growth.

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