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Why the Real Threat to the Amazon is on Our Supermarket Shelves

The noise was deafening as dust clouds formed beside the impenetrable Amazon rainforest. A bulldozer then started clanking through a clearing, its engine roaring. A heavy-duty metal chain originally designed for mooring ships tightened fast like a fishing line. At the other end was another bulldozer. With an ear-splitting din, the two moved together through the forest. Nothing escaped. Everything was brought down. No matter how old or stubborn. Onlookers laughed as another patch of rainforest was destroyed. 

Correntão, or ‘The Chain’, is a controversial means of deforestation. Long considered illegal in Brazil but now authorised in the state of Mato Grosso, whole stands of trees can be brought down in seconds. The remnants of ancient forest are then cleared, first by fire, and then by cattle.

There’s nothing new about the expansion of cattle ranching in the Amazon rainforest. What’s little known is how the real driver of this destruction is ‘cheap’ meat on our supermarket shelves. 

‘Cheap’ chicken

Existing cattle pastures have been put to the plough to grow crops for chickens, pigs, fish, and dairy, much of which is exported to China, Europe, and the UK. The UK annually imports about 3 million tonnes of soya, the vast majority for animal feed. 

Longstanding cattle pastures in Brazil are replaced with soya in what is known as a ‘land-use cascade’. Triggered by demand for soya for export, this cascade has caused land prices to rocket as much as ten-fold.

Cattle ranchers then sell their fields for enormous profits and expand their herds elsewhere with the proceeds. 

This ‘soya rush’ has led to dramatic levels of deforestation, not least in the Amazon. 

As industrial agriculture, or ‘Big Ag’, moves in to the forest, small farmers are forced out. 

Osvalinda Pereira, who was twice forced out of smallholdings in Brazil’s Mato Grosso, died on April 12  | Credit: Mauricio Monteiro Filho / CIWF

Driven out

Just one of the many moving stories involves a couple, Osvalinda and Daniel. 

They were fulfilling a long-held dream by smallholder farming in Brazil’s Mato Grosso region. They had crops, dairy cattle and chickens. Then they became surrounded by big agricultural producers. The Correntão passed, bringing down surrounding forest. When the couple’s health began to suffer, they moved out. Only for history to repeat itself a thousand miles away. 

On another settlement, Osvalinda and Daniel found themselves again as smallholders in a sea of big producers sharking for land. It was then that the threats and intimidation began. One morning in 2018, Osvalinda went to tend to her chickens and found two graves meticulously dug with crosses, one for her and one for her husband. They fled to the city. 

Their plight mirrors that of other small farmers in the wake of the soya rush. For some, like Osvalinda and Daniel, moving on becomes the only option. 

Through the lens of Osvalinda and Daniel’s story, I came to realise that whilst cattle ranching has long been linked to Amazon deforestation, the real driving force is closer to home: cheap soya-fed meat and dairy on our supermarket shelves. 

Postscript: This article is dedicated to the memory of Osvalinda Maria Alves Pereira who passed away on 12th April 2024.

Note: This is a version of an article first published in The Scotsman on Friday 3rd May, 2024

Main Image: Orangutans orphaned by logging or fires are rehabilitated by Borneo Orangutan Survival Foundation | Credit: Paulina L. Ela / BOSF

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