Each time you bite into a steak, particularly in Europe, you might also be taking a bite out of the Brazilian rain forest. An explosion in cattle ranching in the Amazon has endangered thousands of rare plants and animals, sped up global warming, and deprived many Brazilians of forest products on which they depend.
At the heart of the problem is the world's hunger for beef: Brazil's beef exports have increased by more than five times since 1995 - 33 percent from 2002 to 2003 alone - making the country the world's largest exporter of beef, with Europe a notably important market. It's true that most of the exports are high-quality beef from Brazil's south, but that international demand has led to shortages on the domestic market that is being met by beef grown on ranches cleared from the Amazon rain forest. The impact has been considerable. Back in the mid-1990s, environmental analysts were optimistic because the rate of rain forest destruction had declined. That changed about five years ago, when the rates began to rise again, and in the last two years they skyrocketed. Last week, the Brazilian government announced that in 2003 alone the region lost enough forests to cover almost two-thirds of Switzerland. Since deforestation began in the 1970s, the government said, a sixth of the rain forest has been lost.
Why is this happening? Lately the news media has focused on illegal logging and on soybean cultivation in the Amazon. Both are serious problems. They pale, however, in comparison to the spectacular rise in cattle ranching. Over the last eight years, the number of cattle in the Amazon grew to 57 million from 37 million. For each new cow the region lost almost one hectare (about 2.5 acres) of forest – about the size of a soccer field. Overall, most of the growth during this period in Brazil's cattle herd, which made the explosion in exports possible, came from the Amazon.
Why has there been such a boom in Brazilian beef? Much of the growth is a result of Brazil's success in eradicating foot-and-mouth disease, which opened up major markets in Europe and the Middle East. It is also a result of concerns about mad cow disease in Canada and the United States as well as the spread of avian flu, which affects chicken.
The sharp devaluation of Brazil's currency, the real, has also bolstered beef exports. Thanks largely to the devaluation, the price that Brazilian ranchers receive for their beef doubled between 1999 and 2003, while their costs went up much less. That made it much more profitable to chop down more trees to plant more grass.
Within the Amazon, companies have invested heavily in modern slaughterhouses and meat packing plants, while the government has devoted large sums to roads. These changes have allowed the region's ranchers to produce higher-quality beef and ship it more cheaply. Some people argue that all this brings progress. But in fact, large ranchers provide few jobs and monopolize huge tracts of land that might otherwise benefit hundreds of thousands of small farmers. In addition, many ranchers are occupying government lands and clearing the forests illegally.
Last month, Brazil's president, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, announced a new plan to curb deforestation. It commits the government to work harder to prevent deforestation, and these steps - like improved monitoring, better land-use planning and more support for sustainable agriculture - go in the right direction. But putting these measures into effect will require more resources than the Brazilian government has so far been able to pledge. Deforestation of the Amazon will stop only when the government has the resources and the will to prevent the grabbing of land, to restrict road projects in undeveloped regions, to formally register government-owned lands as national forests, and to provide economic incentives to maintain land as forest.
Brazil is in a recession and the government faces heavy pressure to restrict spending. To get out of this mess will require international support. The destruction of the Amazon is a global problem fuelled by global markets. That calls for global solidarity with the Brazilian efforts. Our appetite for beef shouldn't be allowed to destroy the rain forest.
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