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How Big Business Accidentally Helped the Amazon Rainforest

It's much easier for environmentalists to take aim at multinational corporations than at peasant farmers.
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The Amazon rainforest in Brazil. (Photo: Andre Dib/Shutterstock)

The Amazon rainforest in Brazil. (Photo: Andre Dib/Shutterstock)

The Amazon rainforest has seen extraordinary change over the last two decades. In Brazil alone, it's lost more than 100,000 square miles of tree cover since 1995. Those cutting and burning the trees have changed too. In the 1990s, subsistence farmers were the primary destroyers of rainforest. As time passed, however, it became harder and harder for such small farms to survive. Large corporations began buying up smaller parcels and sending better-funded farmers and ranchers into the forest. It was just like what happened to independent pharmacies and bookstores in the United States. The mom-and-pop deforesters began disappearing.


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Stereotypically, environmentalists are known for opposing big business. Yet the growth of multinational corporations in the Amazon—including Walmart, Cargill, and large slaughterhouses, like JBS, Marfrig, and Minerva—was a secret boon for conservationists, giving them a target the public could rally against. It was hard to tell independent peasant farmers that they should give up their land, and their incomes, for the sake of plants and animals, but folks around the world were happy to pressure Nike and Walmart to stop buying leather and beef from ranches that operate illegally in the world's most diverse biome. "In its strength, the multibillion-dollar Brazilian cattle industry developed an Achilles' heel," as Yale Environment 360 reported in 2009.

The growth of multinational corporations in the Amazon was a secret boon for conservationists.

Yesterday, a new report came out that finds zero-deforestation agreements, signed by large Brazilian slaughterhouses, likely help slow forest loss. "After the last 15 years of being completely focused on studying tropical deforestation, these are the first policies I've seen lead to significant and rapid change," the report's lead researcher, University of Wisconsin-Madison geographer Holly Gibbs, told Pacific Standard. Sometimes, the agreements achieved what the Brazilian government couldn't. For example, in 2006, the government passed a law saying ranchers had to register their land. Yet in 2009, Gibbs and her colleagues found that only two percent of ranches supplying JBS had registered their pastures. Then the slaughterhouse signed its agreement. By 2013, nearly 100 percent of its suppliers had registered land, making it possible for the government and others to identify and penalize those who cut and burn the forest illegally.

Market pressures can wield power the government can't, Gibbs argues. The Brazilian Amazon is too vast for government officials to monitor closely. "But the slaughterhouses are key points because they're right on the edge of the forest, they see ranchers daily, and they can restrict access to the market," she said.

By extension, consumers of beef and leather goods around the world can have an effect on the Amazon by supporting companies that don't operate illegally in the forest. After all, JBS and other São Paulo-based slaughterhouses export internationally. A generation ago, the Amazon may have felt like a distant concern for most, despite the forest's planet-wide effects on greenhouse gases and climate change. With the rise of globalization, however, it's now all of our responsibility—and within all of our reach to change.