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On the Global Day of Action for the Amazon, companies must look at their role in fuelling the Amazon fires

Fire in the Brazilian Amazon, photo: Pedarilhosbr

Today, the NGO Amazon Watch has joined forces with Extinction Rebellion and the National Indigenous Association of Brazil to call for a day of global action for the Amazon.

The Amazon fires have provoked worldwide outrage, with much of this directed quite rightly at the Brazilian Government, and in particular the Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro. He has faced widespread condemnation at home and abroad for his attitude to the fires, with opinion poll ratings tumbling.

Both his rhetoric and his actions on the Amazon, urging deforestation in the name of development and undermining the land rights of indigenous communities, have led to a precipitous rise in forest clearance and the fires that accompany it.

But we should also recognise that burning is an annual occurrence, which is driven in part by global demand for commodities such as beef, leather and soy that are produced on deforested land. These commodities end up in products that we all use — from meat and dairy to bags and shoes. We all play a part in creating a market for the goods produced for those global supply chains, but the companies who manufacture and sell us those goods have a clear responsibility to ensure that their Brazilian supplies of soy, leather and beef are deforestation-free.

Many of the most influential companies in forest-risk supply chains have made commitments to do just that — including through the New York Declaration on Forests and Consumer Goods Forum resolution. Each year, Global Canopy’s Forest 500 project assesses the approach of the most influential companies. Our latest assessment found that those commitments are not being implemented.

Fire in the Brazilian Amazon, photo: Pedarilhosbr
Fire in the Brazilian Amazon, photo: Pedarilhosbr

Traders in the spotlight

In the Amazon, the biggest direct driver of deforestation is cattle ranching, producing beef and leather. The majority of beef is sold to the domestic market, but some 1.4 million tons is exported annually, with the biggest import markets in China, Russia and Europe.

Three big companies dominate the Brazilian beef market, with JBS the biggest exporter. JBS has a commitment to ensure its cattle supply chain is deforestation-free — but has faced repeated accusations of breaching that commitment, sourcing cattle from illegally deforested land.

The second biggest driver of Brazilian deforestation is soy, particularly in the Cerrado, Brazil’s vast biodiverse-rich region, which is also burning. Forests and other native vegetation are often initially used for beef pasture before being converted for soy. Most Brazilian soy is exported — with around 90% of soy exports used for animal feed. Again, China and Europe are important markets.

Brazil’s soy trade is dominated by Cargill, Bunge, ADM, Louis Dreyfus and COFCO. All five have made commitments to not source soy from deforested land in the Amazon and the Cerrado. But again, questions remain about how well these commitments are being implemented — with Bunge and Cargill facing fines in 2018 for sourcing from land that had been illegally cleared.

Retailer responsibility

While the soy and beef traders have committed not to buy from farms on deforested land, the Forest 500 annual assessment shows that of the 203 most influential manufacturers and retailers sourcing soybeef or leather, only 24% had a deforestation commitment for one or more of those commodities. Companies failing to address the issue include the owners of big name brands such as 7-ElevenPizza Hut and Taco Bell, who sell products containing beef and soy.

And of the 48 retailers and manufacturers with commitments to deforestation-free sourcing, none is doing enough to ensure that its supply chains are deforestation-free.

Supply chains are complex, and it is often the case that the retailers at the consumer end of the chain do not know where they are sourcing from. A leather furniture retailer in Europe may not be aware that the leather they buy from a manufacturer in China can be traced back to a ranch in the Amazon, for example.

As consumers, we are all contributing to the deforestation problem — hidden in the products we buy. And much greater transparency is needed here.

A responsibility for consumer governments

Consumer pressure is essential — and one positive outcome of the current crisis and the Global Day of Action could be greater pressure on companies. But many of the companies in forest-risk supply chains are hidden from the consumer. And without consumer pressure, failing to implement these commitments still has far too little direct cost. Which means that for some companies, there is little direct incentive to act.

For this reason, it is crucial that governments in consumer countries also take responsibility. The French President Emanuel Macron recognised the international importance of what is happening in Brazil at the G7 Summit — and France has shown leadership in requiring large companies to carry out due diligence on their supply chains through the Loi de Vigilance. An important exemplar for other countries committed to tackling deforestation and climate change.

The European Union’s Communication on Stepping up EU Action to Protect and Restore the World’s Forests provides an excellent opportunity for joined-up action across European governments, and the new Commission could move forward on this, introducing EU-wide corporate due diligence legislation to ensure companies are required to identify, prevent and mitigate environmental impacts in their supply chains.

The EU trade deal with the Mercosur countries is another opportunity to promote deforestation-free supply chains, but as it currently stands, there is a risk that increased beef exports to Europe will instead put more pressure on the Amazon. Member states should consider this carefully before this is ratified.

No excuses for Bolsonaro

None of this removes the responsibility from Brazil’s President, who is pursuing a short-sighted populist agenda.

This is doubly sad, when Brazil has so recently been an international leader in tackling deforestation, demonstrating to the world that it can grow its agricultural sector at the same time as bringing down deforestation rates in the Amazon. Brazil is not short of land — it does not need to clear forests to expand agriculture.

So as we mark the Global Day of Action on the Amazon, yes, the Brazilian Government has a clear responsibility — but we must also recognise the role that global markets play. Companies in those supply chains must do more to ensure that traders and producers receive a clear message that they oppose the Amazon and Cerrado destruction. And consumer country governments must also send Brazil that same message loud and clear.