Meat Giants Face Legal Battle Over Amazon Deforestation

BS SA and other meat processing companies are embroiled in multi-million dollar lawsuits for allegedly buying cattle from protected Amazonian areas, highlighting Brazil's ongoing battle against deforestation.

Herd of cows cordoned off

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The Latin American Post Staff

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Leer en español: Los gigantes de la carne enfrentan una batalla legal por la deforestación del Amazonas

Legal Confrontation Unveils Environmental Allegations

In a landmark legal confrontation, JBS SA, the world's largest meat processing company, along with three other slaughterhouses, finds itself at the center of a series of lawsuits. These legal actions, initiated by the state of Rondonia in western Brazil, accuse these corporations of contributing to environmental degradation by purchasing cattle raised illegally in a protected Amazonian area.

The lawsuits, filed between December 5 and 12, focus on exploiting the Jaci-Parana reserve. Once a lush rainforest, this region has been transformed mainly into grassland over decades due to rampant deforestation by land-grabbers, loggers, and cattle ranchers. Despite laws prohibiting commercial cattle raising in this reserve, it's estimated that about 216,000 cattle are currently grazing there, according to Rondonia's state animal division.

At the heart of these lawsuits is a novel type of evidence that has captured the attention of deforestation experts and veterans of Brazil's illegal cattle trade. This evidence includes transfer documents that trace cattle directly from protected areas to slaughterhouses. Remarkably, these documents appear to be provided by the illicit ranchers themselves.

Astonishment at Blatant Disregard

Jair Schmitt, the chief of environmental protection at Brazil's federal environmental agency, Ibama, expressed his astonishment at this blatant disregard for conservation laws. "In two decades fighting illegal cattle-raising in the Amazon, I had never encountered a transit permit with the name of a conservation unit on it," he said.

Among the 17 lawsuits filed, three specifically named JBS and the farmers allegedly involved in selling 227 cattle raised in the Jaci-Parana reserve. The state is seeking approximately $3.4 million in damages for environmental violations, including invasion, exploitation, and the prevention of natural regeneration of these protected lands.

Additionally, three smaller meatpacking companies — Frigon, Distriboi, and Tangara — stand accused of similar environmental harm. Frigon, particularly noted for its political connections in Rondonia, allegedly bought the most significant number of cattle, nearly 1,400 head, from eight illicit ranches. The lawsuits demand $17.2 million from Frigon and its associated farmers.

Global Impact of Meat Exports

These companies, including Frigon and the JBS plants implicated, have been exporting meat globally. According to Panjiva, a firm tracking international trade via customs records, their products have reached markets in the United States, China (the largest buyer of Brazilian beef), Hong Kong, Russia, Egypt, Morocco, Spain, Turkey, the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, and others.

The legal action against these companies and farmers aims to quantify the cost of destroying old-growth rainforest, a challenging endeavor given the forest's irreplaceability over short time frames. One court filing estimates the damages in the reserve at approximately $1 billion. It remains uncertain whether the hundreds of other invaders in Jaci-Parana will face similar lawsuits.

The lawsuits poignantly articulate the issue: "The invaders and their main business partners – loggers and meatpacking companies – make the profits their own while passing on to society the costs of environmental damage." This sentiment captures the essence of the legal battle: a fight against the privatization of profits at the expense of public environmental health.

High Stakes and Unlawful Activities

The significance of these lawsuits is underscored by an incident wherein a court officer, attempting to serve an eviction notice to one of the illegal farmers in the reserve, was reportedly threatened with death. This incident highlights the high stakes and entrenchment of unlawful activities in these protected areas.

The legal battles facing JBS SA and other meat processing companies in Brazil represent a critical juncture in the global fight against deforestation and environmental degradation. These lawsuits could set a precedent for holding corporations accountable for their supply chain practices, particularly in sectors like the meat industry where environmental impact is significant.

Also read: IATA Challenges Brazil on High Jet Fuel Costs, Seeks Change

Moreover, these cases reflect a growing awareness and assertiveness within Brazilian authorities and environmental agencies to combat illegal deforestation. Using concrete evidence, such as transit permits, signals a more sophisticated approach to tracking and prosecuting environmental crimes.

The lawsuit against JBS SA and others for their alleged role in Amazonian deforestation is pivotal in Brazil's environmental conservation efforts. They underscore the urgent need for corporate accountability in ecological matters and the complexities of combating illegal activities in protected areas. As these legal proceedings unfold, they could have far-reaching implications for environmental policies and corporate practices within Brazil and internationally.

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