Lessons from Brazil on how to turn companies' zero-deforestation commitments into action

By Michelle Mendlewicz, EDF Global Climate 2016 Summer Fellow and Dana Miller, Policy Analyst

Cattle ranching in Brazil | Photo: Scott Bauer via Wikimedia Commons

Hundreds of major consumer goods companies that have driven the demand for soy, palm oil, timber & pulp, and beef – the big four commodities that contribute significantly to deforestation – have committed to eliminating deforestation from their supply chains. However, a vast majority haven’t yet acted on their zero-deforestation commitments or reported their progress.

According to a report by Forest Trends’ Supply Change, the majority of companies do not disclose their progress on zero deforestation commitments, with only 23% to 27% of commitments backed-up by data.

An analysis by The Sustainability Consortium found similar results, with 25% to 40% of companies reporting any information on deforestation for beef, soy, and palm oil.

Cutting and burning trees adds as much pollution to the atmosphere as all the cars and trucks in the world combined, which is why it’s important that more than 400 companies, including Walmart and Unilever, that have committed to achieving zero net deforestation by 2020 actually follow through on their pledges.

Two examples from Brazil, home to the largest remaining area of rainforest in the world, show that collaboration with governments and civil society can help companies turn their zero-deforestation commitments into action.

Mato Grosso’s ambitious strategy

Brazil successfully reduced Amazon deforestation by about 75% from 2005 to 2013 while maintaining robust growth in beef and soy production. Its success can be largely attributed to joint efforts between companies, government agencies, and environmental communities.

Brazil’s experience shows it takes more than commitments from companies to accomplish zero deforestation — businesses must focus on implementation and monitoring.

An example of this collaboration is Mato Grosso’s “Produce, Conserve, Include” (PCI) strategy, launched at the Paris climate conference (COP21) in December 2015. The State of Mato Grosso contributed to 50% of Brazil’s deforestation reduction between 2005 and 2013, while increasing beef and soy production. It is the largest agricultural commodity producer in the Amazon, producing 27% of the soy, 25% of the corn, and 19% of the beef in Brazil. The PCI plan aims to simultaneously reduce deforestation in the Amazon by 90% by 2030, increase agricultural production, and promote socioeconomic inclusion of smallholders and traditional populations.

Major soy and beef merchants Amaggi and JBS, non-governmental organizations such as EDF and partners in Brazil, and the Government of Mato Grosso worked together to develop the plan and continue to collaborate on its implementation.

As PCI’s coordinator stated, the ambitious strategy is only possible because it was “embraced” by society, and due to local partners and international supporters of the initiative.

Brazil’s businesses, governments and civil society successfully reduce deforestation from beef production

Another example of collaboration between businesses, governments and civil society has already shown success in reducing deforestation from commodity supply chains in Brazil. An agreement between Greenpeace and food processing companies in Brazil, Marfrig, JBS, and Minerva, requires farmers to provide information about their suppliers. This information is then cross-checked with government agencies, including the Brazilian Institute of Environment and Natural Resources (Ibama) and the Public Prosecutor’s Office (Ministério Público), to eliminate environmental or socially harmful practices. According to Marfrig, of the 8,303 properties monitored in the Amazon region, 6,471 are approved to supply cattle, while the remaining 1,679 properties are banned.

Meatpacking companies also signed a Term of Adjustment of Conduct (TAC) with the Public Prosecutor’s Office (MPF) to stop purchasing cattle originating from properties that cause illegal deforestation, are located on indigenous territories, are not registered with the government’s system, or are featured in the Ministry of Labor’s list of labor analogous to slavery.

A study published in 2015 found that both agreements – the one with Greenpeace and the TAC with government agencies – have incentivized behavior change by companies. Ranchers supplying to these companies complied with laws to register their properties with the government’s system two years before nearby ranchers. Only 2% of purchases by JBS were with registered properties before the agreement was signed, while 96% of transactions were with registered companies by 2013. Purchases by slaughterhouses from recently deforested properties fell from 36% in 2009 to 4% in 2013. According to Supply Change, JBS and Marfrig have self-reported 100% progress on commitments to zero-deforestation cattle, among other commitments.

Implementing, monitoring and collaborating on zero-deforestation commitments

Challenges remain, however, in eliminating deforestation from beef supply chains. Marfrig, JBS, and Minerva control around half of beef slaughter in the Amazon, while companies that control the other half have no monitoring systems or commitments in place. The limited scope of the agreements can cause issues including “laundering” – when ranchers raise cattle on noncompliant properties and move the animals to compliant ranchers before selling them to slaughterhouses – and “leakage,” when cattle produced on recently deforested land are sold to slaughterhouses that do not have monitoring systems in place.

Greater collaboration between a larger number of companies, producers and governments within a region can reduce the risk that deforestation will leak to other suppliers.

Brazil’s experience shows that it takes more than commitments from companies to accomplish zero deforestation. In order to achieve real progress, businesses must focus on implementation and monitoring. By collaborating and engaging with government agencies and environmental communities, companies can overcome the challenge of traceability and advance the fight against climate change.

For more information on efforts to reduce deforestation from cattle supply chains, visit Zerodeforestationcattle.org.

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