Brazilian authorities are seeking millions of dollars in damages and fines from the world’s largest meatpacker, JBS, and three smaller slaughterhouses, according to court filings accusing them of buying cattle grown on illegally deforested lands in the Amazon rainforest.
The lawsuits come as JBS pursues a listing on the New York Stock Exchange, which will give the company expanded access to capital. They are expected to increase pressure on the company, which was recently the subject of a Senate hearing due to its supply chains linked to deforestation. The United States is JBS’s largest market.
The 17 lawsuits, brought by Rondnia State, in western countries, say that the companies bought cattle raised in one of the Amazon’s most devastated protected areas, the Jaci- Paran Extractive Reserve, which has lost 77 percent of its forest since then. was created in 1996. Dozens of members of the traditional communities there have left in fear of land grabbers and ranchers who have taken over most of the reserve.
JBS is the largest buyer of cattle from the Amazon rainforest, and experts say ranching is the biggest driver of deforestation there. Deforestation, coupled with climate change, has already transformed humid ecosystems that store large amounts of planet-warming gases into drier zones that release greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. The result is a double whammy against efforts to combat climate change and biodiversity loss.
A Times investigation in 2021 found that leather from cattle raised in Jaci-Paran ended up in the seats of pickup trucks, SUVs and other vehicles sold by some of the world’s largest automakers. . JBS is a key leather supplier. At the time, it disputed allegations that it was buying cattle raised on illegal land clearings.
In a statement on Wednesday, JBS said it was running a robust monitoring system in Brazil covering an area three times the size of Britain to guarantee that the its supplier will not occupy any places illegally. JBS is committed to a sustainable beef supply chain, the company said.
Three of the 17 cases, which were first reported by The Associated Press and Agncia Pblica, are against JBS and a group of farmers who are accused of selling to the company cattle raised on reserve farms. The other charges are against three small meatpackers who are accused of buying hundreds of cattle raised in the reserve.
Rondnia State authorities said farmers sold 227 cows raised on about 1,000 hectares of illegally deforested land to JBS between 2019 and 2021. The state is asking for nearly $3.5 million damages from the company and the farmers. It also imposed a fine of more than $400,000 on JBS, although this could be challenged in court. State attorneys did not respond to a request for comment.
JBS has made some progress in compliance in recent years, after federal prosecutors in Par State filed lawsuits seeking environmental damages from a group of meatpackers in 2009. prosecutors did not win the case but continued to establish a program that audits cattle purchases.
An audit of JBS’s cattle purchases in Par found that 6 percent came from so-called irregular ranches, a steep drop from 2020, when a audit that 32 percent of the animals are from irregular sources. In the same audit in Rondnia this year, it was found that 12 percent of the cattle purchased by JBS did not comply with the law.
Under the administration of President Luiz Incio Lula da Silva, deforestation rates in Brazil’s rainforests fell to a five-year low in the past 12 months.
There are signs that things are improving, said Paulo Barreto, a researcher who focuses on cattle ranching at Imazon, a nonprofit research organization based in Belm, Brazil. But, he added, the change was not enough.
Governments come and go, he said, so this stronger commitment from companies is very important to signal to politicians that things will not go back to the way they were.
Lawsuits seeking to hold meatpackers responsible for deforestation are rare, Mr. Barreto said. That’s because the purchase of cattle raised on illegally destroyed lands is often difficult to trace; they go through middlemen who present documents that falsely prove that the animals are from legal farms, the 2021 Times investigation found.
Daniel Azeredo, a federal prosecutor who has investigated cattle ranching for more than a decade, said the Rondnia cases reinforce the need for the country to improve tracking. Without that, he added, we will continue to have the same problems.
A Rondnia judge, Pedro Sillas Carvalho, has expressed doubts about the cases brought by the state, according to a filing from last week. He wrote that state attorneys should factor in the economic effects of their actions, because the exit of illegal farmers from the reserve could cause a loss of income. The Times could not reach Judge Sillas Carvalho for comment.
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