A Rainforest-Protection Policy That Really Works

New research finds zero-deforestation pledges are effective, and buying zero-deforestation products helps.
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Cattle in Brazil. (Photo: Rachel Kramer/National Wildlife Foundation)

Cattle in Brazil. (Photo: Rachel Kramer/National Wildlife Foundation)

Last month, McDonald's pledged not to use ingredients and packaging that contribute to deforestation around the world. Sure, the announcement is a public relations move for the fast-food giant, but it could work. A new analysis of a similar pledge, by the world's largest cattle processor, finds strong hints that zero-deforestation agreements reduce the clearing of Brazilian Amazon rainforest. It's a bit of good environmental news for a region where that's a scarce commodity.

"After the last 15 years of being completely focused on studying tropical deforestation," says geographer Holly Gibbs, an associate professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, "these are the first policies I've seen lead to significant and rapid change."

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Gibbs led the analysis, working with Brazilian researchers to interview ranchers in the country's Pará state, and to examine satellite images for deforestation—of which cattle ranching is the top cause. Their analysis is the first to measure the effectiveness of the agreements that three major meat processors signed in 2009 with Greenpeace and the Brazilian government.

There are loopholes in the pledges, which say processors won't source from ranches that deforest illegally. It's likely some ranchers are "laundering" their cattle—yep, like you would mob money—to make them appear, deceptively, to come from eco-friendly farms. Still, Gibbs thinks the agreements likely helped reduce Amazon deforestation rates, which have fallen 80 percent in the last 10 years. "I think that they've changed the tone of the industry," she says.

After analyzing the fate of Pará ranches that supply meat-processor JBS, Gibbs and her team found a few positive results. One was that the agreements led nearly all JBS ranchers to register their land with the government. Before JBS went zero-deforestation, only two percent of its suppliers registered their land, even though Brazilian law requires it. Registration allows watchdogs to identify to whom land that appears deforested in satellite photos belongs. Another signal for optimism: Before its pledge, about two-thirds of JBS' suppliers had cut down rainforest recently; by 2013, only four percent had.

"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."

Still, problems persist. Namely, the pledges technically allow JBS to buy cows that spent their last days on a zero-deforestation farm, but were born and reared mostly on deforesting farms. As ranchers told Gibbs' team, "The cows are not embargoed. Only the land." No one has yet studied how often such cattle laundering occurs.

Following this study, the team plans to look at how to close the loophole. Another important fix will be teaching farmers to raise more cattle on the same amount of land, Gibbs says, to minimize the need to destroy forest. Previous research has found Brazil could grow its agricultural exports without clearing more land.

Meanwhile, zero-deforestation's successes points to the power of ordinary shoppers. "By sending those market signals through our purchases and through Facebook and social media"—by supporting zero-deforestation social media efforts, that is—"we can actually change what these companies are doing," Gibbs says.

Quick Studies is an award-winning series that sheds light on new research and discoveries that change the way we look at the world.

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