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Report: Cattle riding herd over Amazon

Booming Brazilian beef exports could be the main culprit behind a sharp rise in deforestation of the Amazon as cattle farmers cut deeper into the forests, a leading research institute said Thursday.
Brazil's beef export industry is one of the world's largest. Here, meat processors carve pieces for local and foreign consumption.
Brazil's beef export industry is one of the world's largest. Here, meat processors carve pieces for local and foreign consumption.Dario Lopez-mills / AP file
/ Source: Reuters

Booming Brazilian beef exports could be the main culprit behind a sharp rise in deforestation of the Amazon as cattle farmers cut deeper into the forests, a leading research institute said Thursday.

The report, “Hamburger connection Fuels Amazon Destruction,” by the Indonesia-based Center for International Forestry Research was released at a time when environmentalists feared the latest Amazon destruction rates could be the highest ever.

The deforestation rate in the world’s largest jungle jumped 40 percent in the 12 months to the middle of 2002, and the authors of the report are bracing for figures for the subsequent year that could be yet higher. The latest data should be released in coming weeks.

At around 9,840 square miles, the deforestation figure for 2001/2002 was the second-highest on record and represented an area slightly smaller than Haiti.

David Kaimowitz, director-general of the forestry research center, said the report showed this surge was being fueled by a steep rise in cattle farming in the Amazon, helped by Brazilian beef exports and the eradication of foot-and-mouth disease in the Amazon.

World's biggest herd
While environmentalists have feared that the spread of soybeans in the Amazon posed the greatest threat, the report showed that the amount of deforested land dedicated to cattle pasture is six times as large as land with cultivated crops.

Brazil has the world’s largest commercial cattle herd.

“In a nutshell, cattle ranchers are making mincemeat out of Brazil’s Amazon rainforests,” said Kaimowitz. “This is the threat that in the long-term is overwhelmingly the most dangerous.”

The Amazon, an area of continuous tropical forest just under half the size of the continental United States, has been described as the “lungs of the world” because of its vast capacity to produce oxygen. It is also home to up to 30 percent of the planet’s animal and plant species.

The report showed that Brazil’s cattle herd doubled in the last decade to 175 million head in 2002 and that the Amazon accounted for 80 percent of that rise, with 57 million cows.

Soon to be top beef exporter?
Meanwhile, Brazil’s beef exports soared to a record $1.5 billion last year, three times as much as in 1995, and the country is expected to become the world’s top beef exporter this year.

Exports are mainly high quality beef from Brazil’s south, but as large parts of the Amazon were declared foot-and-mouth free in recent years, Amazon cattle has increasingly stepped in to feed domestic beef demand.

“Brazil’s success in combating foot-and-mouth disease may be good news for the cows, but it is bad news for the forest,” said Kaimowitz.

Kaimowitz said the fact that Amazon beef is not exported makes no difference because it is filling the gap created by rising exports in the domestic market.

The report recommended urgent action to stop land-grabbing by large-scale cattle farmers, who have been drawn to the Amazon because of the rising prices for the region’s cattle, and for the government to rethink road projects in the Amazon.

“Our concern is that is that next year and after that deforestation could mushroom,” said Kaimowitz.