Major Portion of Brazil’s Exports to Europe Linked to Illegal Deforestation, Study Finds

A cattle ranch in Rio Branco, Acre, Brazil.

A cattle ranch in Rio Branco, Acre, Brazil. Kate Evans/CIFOR

As much as 22 percent of soy and 60 percent of beef exported from Brazil to the European Union is linked to illegal deforestation, according to a new study published in the journal Science. The research examined supply chains for Brazil’s major agricultural exports, tracing products back to illegal tree felling and fires in the Amazon and Cerrado regions.

The study, conducted by scientists in Brazil, Germany, and the United States, examined publicly available land-use and deforestation maps covering 815,000 rural properties. The researchers found that just 2 percent of properties accounted for 62 percent of illegal deforestation, most of which was dedicated to producing soy and beef destined for Europe.

“Until now, agribusiness and the Brazilian government have claimed that they cannot monitor the entire supply chain, nor distinguish the legal from the illegal deforestation,” Raoni Rajão, an environmental scientist at the Universidade Federal de Minas Gerais in Belo Horizonte, Brazil and the lead author of the new study, said in a statement. “Not anymore… Now, Brazil has the information it needs to take swift and decisive action against these rule-breakers to ensure that its exports are deforestation-free. Calling the situation hopeless is no longer an excuse.”

Roughly 41 percent of the EU’s soy imports come from Brazil each year, totaling 13.6 million metric tons. The scientists estimate that during the 2008-2018 study period, about 2 million tons of soy grown on illegally deforested land entered EU markets, with as much as 500,000 tons from the Amazon alone. Of the 4.1 million cattle traded to EU slaughterhouses, at least 500,000 came from illegally deforested properties. But when land used as overflow for grazing and food supplies was considered, scientists estimated that as much as 60 percent of traded cattle could be linked to illegal deforestation.

The new study analyzed land-use and deforestation maps covering 815,000 rural properties.

The new study analyzed land-use and deforestation maps covering 815,000 rural properties. UFMG

The research comes at a critical time for Brazil. The country’s deforestation rate jumped 25 percent in the first half of 2020. World leaders, financial institutions, and major corporations have upped their calls for President Jair Bolsonaro, who has led a widespread dismantling of environmental laws since taking office in 2019, to stop the surge in tree loss or risk lucrative trade deals and investments. In response, President Bolsonaro has deployed the military to the region to stop illegal land clearing and announced a ban on fires in the Amazon for 120 days.

“It’s critical for Europe to use its trade might and purchasing power to help roll back this tragic dismantling of Brazil’s environmental protection, which has implications for the global climate, local people, and the country’s valued ecosystem services,” said Britaldo Soares-Filho, a geoscientist at UFMG and co-author of the new report. “With this research, policymakers in Brussels finally have the information they need to assess the extent of the problem in the Brazilian soy and beef sectors. It’s time for them to act.”