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Opinion

Accountability for agricultural, commercial & financial drivers of illegal deforestation & an opportunity to avoid risks: a case study from Brazil

An increasing number of organizations fighting the climate emergency use legal and advocacy tools to target agricultural, commercial and financial drivers of tropical deforestation. This is so for several reasons:

First, deforestation, especially in tropical regions, accounts for a significant share of global greenhouse gas emissions. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change in its recent report on Climate Change and Land estimated that deforestation accounts for about 12-15%. It further found that the preservation of existing tropical forest coverage is the most cost-effective way how land use can contribute to achieving the Paris Agreement’s goals.

Second, most of this deforestation is illegal. For instance, Map Biomas established that 95% of Brazil’s deforestation in 2019 was not authorized or took place on indigenous or protected land, and was thus illegal. INTERPOL, the UN Environment Program and the World Bank further found that deforestation is often associated with other illegal activities, such as violent attacks on indigenous people or environmental defenders, organized crime, slave labour and financial offences.

Third, tropical deforestation is primarily driven by agribusiness. For instance, 80% of deforestation pressure in the Brazilian Amazon is due to cattle farming and the related conversion of forests into grazing land. Many of the largest corporations that have illegal deforestation commodities from Brazil in their supply chains are either based in Europe or North America or they have relationships with financial institutions from those regions (see here, here and here).

Because illegal deforestation is demand-driven, its responses need to focus on the agricultural, commercial and financial corporations that meet this demand.

The Center for Climate Crime Analysis (CCCA) is set out to do exactly that. CCCA—to which the authors of this blog entry belong—is a group of prosecutors and law enforcement professionals. It strategically coordinates with and supports grassroots communities, NGOs and expert organizations in their efforts to generate, preserve and collect information relevant to illegal conduct that harms the climate. This information is then analysed, compiled into case files and shared with the competent authorities for law enforcement, with civil society to support strategic litigation and advocacy, and with private corporations to assist them in complying with their due diligence or voluntary sustainability obligations.

To address illegal deforestation in Brazil, CCCA has built a broad and diverse network of partners, ranging from Brazilian and foreign law enforcement authorities including Europol, local and international NGOs, as well as Brazilian grassroots and indigenous organizations. CCCA works with its partners to inspect the up-stream supply chain of some of Brazil’s major slaughterhouses and assesses whether the cattle processed in those slaughterhouses originates from land that has been illegally deforested, whether the land is under a federal embargo or whether there are other illegalities in the supply chain. In addition, we examine the financial structures of those slaughterhouses, as well as their trade links both within Brazil and abroad.

As one example of this approach, CCCA provided information and analysis to the Federal Prosecution Service (“MPF”) of Amazonas to enable a public civil action against the slaughterhouse Frigorífico Amazonas. The MPF alleges that Frigorífico Amazonas has caused illegal deforestation by buying cattle deriving from illegally deforested areas in the State of Amazonas. This lawsuit prompted Frigorífico Amazonas to sign a Conduct Adjustment Term Agreement with the MPF. In it, Frigorífico Amazonas committed not to buy, process or trade any cattle deriving from farms that include illegally deforested land, that are mentioned in the Ministry of Labour’s slave labour list or are otherwise infringing the rights of indigenous peoples. The MPF announced that more cases of this nature will follow in cooperation with CCCA.

In another example, CCCA provided evidence and analysis to support litigation in France against supermarket giant Casino over deforestation and human rights violations. CCCA established that Casino regularly bought beef from three slaughterhouses owned by JBS, a multinational meatpacker. The slaughterhouses sourced cattle from 592 suppliers responsible for at least 50,000 hectares of deforestation between 2008 and 2020. This is the first time that a French supermarket chain has been taken to court over deforestation and for indigenous organizations from Brazil and Colombia to request indemnity for the damages done to their customary lands and their livelihoods.

These examples illustrate how corporations driving illegal deforestation can be held accountable for it. Accordingly, any slaughterhouse, their trading partners or financiers should proactively analyse the slaughterhouses’ supply chains. By ensuring that their own supply chains or portfolios do not include any illegal deforestation commodities, those corporations can avoid legal, financial and reputational risks and comply with their due diligence or voluntary sustainability obligations.

Much of the information and data tools upon which CCCA’s analysis relies are either open source or publicly available upon request for access. There is no reason why agricultural, commercial and financial corporations would not be able to access and analyse this same information. And if needed, CCCA stands ready to provide support to those who are genuinely committed to protecting the environment and the climate.

To reach out to CCCA, please contact [email protected]

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Reinhold Gallmetzer is Appeals Counsel, Office of the Prosecutor (OTP) of the International Criminal Court, and Founder of Center for Climate Crime Analysis (CCCA). The views expressed in here are not necessarily the OTP’s.

Rhavena Terto Madeira is Project Manager of CCCA’s Forest Initiative in Brazil .