JACI-PARANA, Brazil (AP) — Meat processing giant JBS SA and three other slaughterhouses are facing lawsuits seeking millions of dollars in environmental damages for allegedly purchasing cattle raised illegally in a protected area in the Brazilian Amazon.
The lawsuits, filed December 5 to 12 by the western Brazilian state of Rondonia, target the exploitation of a protected area known as Jaci-Parana, once rainforest but now mostly transformed into grassland by decades of misuse by land-grabbers, loggers and cattle ranchers. Despite a law forbidding commercial cattle in the reserve, some 216,000 head now graze on pasture there, according to the state animal division.
The lawsuits contain a type of evidence that is getting the attention of deforestation experts and veterans of Brazil's illegal cattle trade: transfer documents showing cows going straight to the slaughterhouse from protected areas, with the information apparently provided by the illegal ranchers themselves.
"In two decades fighting illegal cattle-raising in the Amazon, I had never encountered a transit permit with the name of a conservation unit on it," said Jair Schmitt, chief of environmental protection at Brazil's federal environmental agency, Ibama.
Of the 17 lawsuits, three name JBS, along with farmers, who allegedly sold 227 cattle raised in Jaci-Parana. The suits seek some $3.4 million for "invading, occupying, exploiting, causing environmental damage, preventing natural regeneration, and/or taking economic advantage" of the protected lands.
JBS declined to answer questions from The Associated Press, saying it "has not been summoned by the court, which makes it impossible to conduct any analysis yet."
Three smaller meatpacking companies are also accused of causing environmental harm by buying cattle from the reserve. Frigon, Distriboi and Tangara did not respond to questions.
Frigon has ties to influential people in Rondonia politics and is accused of buying the largest number of cattle — almost 1,400 head from eight illicit ranches. The state's attorney is seeking $17.2 million from Frigon and those farmers.
Both Frigon and the two JBS plants allegedly involved have exported meat to the U.S., as well as to China, the largest buyer of Brazilian beef, Hong Kong, Russia, Egypt, Morocco, Spain, Turkey, United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, and others, according to data from Panjiva, a company that uses customs records to track international trade.
The lawsuits aim to put a price on the destruction of old-growth rainforest, a difficult task given that it is virtually irreplaceable except over decades. A court filing pegs damages in the reserve at some $1 billion. It is unclear whether the hundreds of other invaders in Jaci-Parana will also be sued for compensation.
"The invaders and their main business partners – loggers and meatpacking companies – make the profits their own while passing on to society the costs of environmental damage," the lawsuits say.
In one indication of the potential seriousness of the new lawsuits, a court officer trying to serve an eviction notice to one of the illegal farmers in the reserve said he was threatened with death.
Deforestation is a major concern in the Amazon rainforest, where many seek to profit from its vast resources through mining, timber harvesting, agriculture and more. Besides harming a critical biosphere, the development pressure also threatens a critical carbon sink for a planet that's warming dangerously from climate change. Two-thirds of Amazon deforestation results from conversion to pasture, according to the government.
Rondonia, on the border with Bolivia, is the most badly deforested state in the Brazilian Amazon.
The creation of Jaci-Parana Reserve and other state conservation areas was funded by the World Bank in the 1990s as a kind of atonement, the bank says. Years before, it had financed the construction of highway BR-364, a road that brought thousands of settlers into the forest from southern Brazil. In five decades, about 40% of it was gone, according to Mapbiomas, a Brazilian consortium of nonprofits, universities and technology startups.
Other conservation units were also invaded by land-grabbers, with little objection from authorities. Some Brazilian administrations even encouraged it. In 2010, President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, in his second term, reduced the Bom Futuro National Forest, adjacent to Jaci-Parana, by two-thirds. Land grabbers eventually gained title to what was supposed to be protected forest.
In 2019, far-right Jair Bolsonaro was elected president, as was his ally Marcos Rocha as governor of Rondonia, on campaigns promising to legalize illegal land holders. Land-grabbers plowed onto conservation lands.
With the political promises, 778 land invaders were induced to come forward and register the property they were occupying as well as their cattle for health inspection.
"It reveals the contradiction between public agencies, with the animal health agency validating cattle that are illegally raised," said Paulo Barreto, a senior researcher with Imazon, a non-profit that monitors cattle in the region. "It also reveals the fragility of JBS' control system."
The potential money to be made was irresistible. Privatization of Jaci-Parana would have meant adding swaths of public land to the real estate market. The 151,000 hectares (583 square miles) converted to grassland would be worth around $453 million, according to geographer Amanda Michalski, a researcher at Rondonia Federal University. And the new owners would have gotten that land for free.
In its statement, JBS declined to comment on its operations in Rondonia but said in the Amazon as a whole, 94% of purchases are of legal cattle, quoting an audit published in October by Brazil´s Federal Prosecution Service, which regularly scrutinizes cattle sales to counter deforestation caused by the meat trade.
Yet the same audit found that 12% of cattle purchased by JBS in Rondonia came from illegally deforested areas.
And those audits only examine direct purchases. They don't track the vast trade in cattle laundering in Brazil, transferring cows from an illegal area to a legal farm before selling to slaughterhouses, deliberately muddying traceability.
In November, a report by Imazon called JBS the company most likely to purchase cattle from illegally deforested areas based on a variety of factors, including where slaughterhouses are located and their buying areas.
"Companies must boycott cattle areas at high risk for illegal activity and lack of enforcement," Barreto, co-author of the study, said. "By purchasing cattle from these areas, companies endorse predatory and illegal behavior and strengthen the political power of these actors."
Last July, AP journalists visited Jaci-Parana and saw on the ground what satellite imagery detected from space: the only forested areas left were along two rivers. With almost 80% destroyed, it's the most ravaged conservation unit in the Brazilian Amazon.
Jaci-Parana is designated an extractive reserve, a type of protection in which forest communities are allowed to live their traditional ways without logging, protected from land-grabbing and cattle-ranching.
But the opposite happened. Dozens of families who once made their living by tapping rubber trees inside the reserve and harvesting Brazil nuts have been expelled by force. The few remaining live along the riverbanks — most afraid to be interviewed for fear of being attacked.
Lincoln Fernandes de Lima, 45, whose family has lived in the area for three generations, described land-grabbers who "remove all the timber and Brazil nuts trees. They get to the water source, already having cut down the trees around it, and keep cutting, cutting," he said in an interview in July. "When the residents leave their houses to do something in the forest, they shoot up the pots and pans. And many, many times the houses are cut down with a chainsaw."
In September, two men carrying guns paid a visit to de Lima, claiming their boss had acquired the area. They gave him 24 hours to leave. He took it as a death threat and complied — the third time he had been forced out of the reserve.
Five days later, his neighbor, rubber tapper Efigenio Mota da Silva, had his home burned down.
They fled to Jaci-Parana village, where scores of families of expelled subsistence gatherers have sought shelter. The village has also been the home of Rosa Maria Lopes. She was born 1952 in a rubber grove inside the reserve. Her family lived in the same area for over a century, but was also driven out by cattle farmers. Where she grew up is now pasture.
"There's nothing left there," she told the AP on the porch of her daughter's home. "No one talks about Brazil nuts, copaiba oil trees or rubber anymore. There's no talk about corn, pumpkin, or whatever is served on the table. It's only cattle, farms, and pasture. Are we only going to eat grass?"