Cattle ranchers have become the single biggest driver of the Amazon’s deforestation, according to the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies.

There are approximately 1.5 billion cows in the world, a population second only to humans among large mammals. They can be raised anywhere: from the Arctic to the equator, on prairies, in deserts and on mountains.

Cattle ranchers in the Brazilian Amazon — the storied rainforest that produces oxygen for the world and modulates climate — are aggressively expanding their herds and willing to clear-cut the forest and burn what’s left to make way for pastures. As a result, they’ve become the single biggest driver of the Amazon’s deforestation, causing about 80 percent of it, according to the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies.

The ecological devastation is done in the service of the surging demand for beef. About 80 percent of Brazil’s beef is consumed domestically, said Nathalie Walker, the director of the tropical forest and agriculture program at the National Wildlife Federation. But the real shift can be traced to the global market, particularly in Asia, where demand is growing at a much faster rate than it is domestically. “The expansion is driving the deforestation,” Walker said.

From 2010 to 2017, beef exports climbed 25 percent, to 1.5 million tons, according to the Brazilian Beef Exporters Association. To accommodate that growth, cattle ranchers have been pushing their herds into the Amazon, clear-cutting and burning the forest as they go. Today nearly 40 percent of Brazil’s cattle population is located in the Amazon region, according to government data.

Hong Kong is the biggest global importer of Brazilian beef products, bringing in about $1.5 billion worth in 2017, according to the Brazilian Beef Exporters Association. China is second, at nearly $1 billion, followed by Iran, Egypt and Russia. The United States, which imported $295 million in beef, came in sixth.

Many experts on the Amazon have concluded that as long as Bolsonaro remains in power, efforts to stop deforestation will have to come from outside the country. Moira Birss, the campaign director of the finance program at Amazon Watch, an environmental group, recently wrote a report examining the role of U.S. and European finance companies in supporting Brazilian agribusiness.

Major investment companies such as the Capital Group, BlackRock and Vanguard collectively hold hundreds of millions of dollars in investments in Brazil’s major meatpackers, Birss’s report found. “Foreign investors have enormous influence over what happens in the Brazilian Amazon,” according to the report. “Big banks and large investment companies play a critical role, providing billions of dollars in lending, underwriting and equity investment to soy and cattle companies. This capital and financial security enables agribusiness to maintain and expand operations, causing further devastation to the Amazon.”

In an interview, a BlackRock representative said that like the majority of the company’s investments, its holdings in JBS are primarily through various index and exchange-traded funds selected by the individual investors that make up its customer base. “Our obligation as an asset manager and a fiduciary is to manage our clients’ assets consistent with their investment priorities,” said Farrell Denby, vice president for corporate communications. He added that BlackRock reviews companies for “sound corporate governance practices, including how companies manage the material environmental and social factors inherent to their business models.”

Amazon Watch and other environmental groups are pressuring financial firms to do more. They point to Legal & General Investment Management (LGIM), a large United Kingdom investment firm, which this year announced it would be cutting a number of polluting companies from its portfolio of “ethical” investments, and using its remaining shares in those companies to vote against board members who “fail to demonstrate sufficient action” on climate issues.

Walker, with the National Wildlife Federation, agrees that “it would be helpful if those big finance companies had deforestation policies that they implemented.” She added that consumers can play a role, too, by pressuring companies they buy from to adopt similar policies and not source materials from farms and ranches that cut down and burn the rainforest.

“We’re clearly at a really pivotal point for the Amazon,” she said. “If you care, show you care. If you’re a supply chain actor, show your suppliers. The solutions are out there.”

Original source: www.washingtonpost.com