World Rainforest Movement

Brazil: The “hamburger connection” threatens forests today just as it did yesterday

Between 1950 and 1975, the area of human-established pasture lands in Central America doubled, almost entirely at the expense of primary rainforests. The numbers of cattle also doubled, although the average beef consumption by Central American citizens dropped. Beef production was exported to markets in the United States and in other Northern countries.

Between 1966 and 1978 in Brazil 80,000 km2 of Amazon forests were destroyed to give way to 336 cattle ranches carrying 6 million head of cattle under the auspices of the Superintendency for Amazon Development (SUDAM).

Similar initiatives have been implemented in the Amazon territories of Colombia and Peru, although not on such a vast scale, promoted in some cases by the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB), the World Bank and the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP).

In every case, many ranches became unproductive within less than ten years, because productivity of artificial grasslands declines. However, very often the ranchers obtained another plot of forest to clear.

During the eighties, two factors led to increased exports of beef from the tropical region of Latin America with the consequent aftermath of accelerated deforestation of the Amazon. On the one hand, increased consumption of beef in the countries of the North (particularly for fast food chains in the United States) and on the other, lower prices of land and labour in the tropical countries of Latin America, making the final product cheaper. As an example, in 1978 the price of a kilo of beef imported from Latin America averaged US$1.47, compared to US$3.3 a kilo of beef produced in the United States. This direct relationship between the advance of cattle ranching and deforestation was called the “Hamburger connection.”

At that time, Brazil was not a part of that “connection” because of its low rate of beef exports insofar as its production was mainly aimed at domestic consumption. However the country increased its heads of cattle from 26 million in 1990 to 57 million in 2002. The production was mainly concentrated in the States of Mato Grosso, Para and Rondonia –and over the same period, these states showed the highest rate of deforestation in the country. The new expansion of cattle ranching is not based in small or medium-sized farms but in large scale enterprises.

For decades the cattle production sector was aimed at domestic consumption, but factors such as devaluation of the Brazilian currency, the successful efforts to free cattle from foot and mouth disease, the mad cow disease affecting beef production in the countries of the North, and the chicken disease in Asia leading to a swing towards the consumption of other meat products, enabled Brazil to have access to new markets in Europe, Russia and the Middle East. Between 1997 and 2003, the volume of Brazilian exports in this field increased over five-fold.

A report published recently by the Centre for International Forestry Research –CIFOR– has identified this process of expansion of cattle raising as one of the factors responsible for the recent increase in the destruction of the Brazilian Amazon forest.

According to this research, with respect to deforestation the accumulated area of the Brazilian Amazon increased from 41.5 million hectares in 1990 to 58.7 million hectares in 2000, of which most ended up as pasture lands. The authors of the report state that although in recent years the expansion of soybean crops in the Amazon has been a cause of deforestation, this is only a part of the process, which to a great degree is due to the growth of cattle raising.

The CIFOR report was made known at the same time as new figures for deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon, which have shown a second historical record of loss of tropical forest. The new data submitted by the Brazilian Ministry of the Environment show that the loss of forests over the period of August 2002 to August 2003 reached 23,750 km2. The historical record corresponds to 1995 with a little over 29 thousand km2. The new record represents an increase of 2 per cent vis-à-vis the previous year. Since deforestation started to be monitored in 1988, a total of over 270 thousand km2 of tropical forest have been lost, that is to say, approximately the size of Ecuador.

The importance of consumption should be noted in this process, as one of the pillars of the current model of commercial agriculture and cattle-raising, and therefore another factor responsible for deforestation processes. This is not the production of large volumes of food to solve the hunger of many impoverished and underprivileged sectors. These are cash crops, ranging from coffee to beef, mostly aimed at consumers in the North who in many cases have been induced to change their food habits.

Historically, the countries of the South, rich in biodiversity, have played the role of export producers. Very often, the inhabitants of these countries do not consume what they export. After being colonized by bloodshed and fire, they have later been colonized by dollars, debt and exclusion … in addition to bloodshed and fire.

Article based on information from: “Conexión entre ganadería y deforestación Amazónica”, CLAES, ; “Hamburger Connection Fuels Amazon Destruction”, Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR), ; “Role of Cattle Raising in Conversion of Tropical Moist Forests”, CIESIN,