Slavery beef, anyone?

From slavery to mass deforestation, Leonardo Sakamoto highlights the devastating impact of cattle ranching in Brazil.

Credit: Piqsels

Historically, cattle ranching enslaves the highest number of workers in Brazil and is one of the main drivers of deforestation in the Amazon.

During the past 10 years, pressure from civil society and the media has forced meat producers and supermarkets to take steps to stop their supply chains being contaminated by slavery and deforestation. Some companies check ‘dirty lists’ and have even put in place sophisticated satellite monitoring systems.

However, the problem persists. Repórter Brasil – an NGO set up by investigative journalists and which I now lead – has since 2003 been tracking the flow of beef from farms in order to establish public and corporate policies to combat slave labour and illegal deforestation.

Today a coalition of Brazilian, French and American environmental and civil society organizations is suing the French corporation Casino for buying meat whose production has involved environmental damage and human rights violations. The lawsuit relies on information from Repórter Brasil’s investigations.

In our latest report, released earlier this year, we focus on new case studies. In April 2020, Pai e Filho farm, located in Cariri, Tocantins state, purchased cattle for fattening from Umuarama farm in Aliança do Tocantins. At the time, Umuarama was on the ‘dirty list’, a Brazilian government register of those charged with using slave labour.

In October 2020, Pai e Filho sent cattle to be slaughtered by Cooperfrigu Foods, which exports to over 100 countries. Umuarama farm also supplied meatpacker Boi Brasil, sending animals for slaughter there a month after being included on the ‘dirty list’.

The same farm was fined by the Tocantins State Environment Department in 2018 for illegal deforestation of 60 hectares. Neither the farms nor the meat companies responded to Repórter Brasil’s requests for comment.

Another recent case involves the Rodoserv IV farm, found by the federal government to be using slave labour. Six workers – including four Paraguayan migrants – were rescued in a government operation. In 2019 and 2020 Rodoserv IV supplied animals directly to a unit of JBS – the world’s largest meat packing company – in Mato Grosso do Sul.

The manager of the Rodoserv Group, Valdir Teixeira da Silva Júnior, denied that farm workers were subjected to slave-like conditions. JBS, meanwhile, stated that it blocked cattle purchases from suppliers on the slave labour dirty list.

Over the past 18 years, Repórter Brasil’s investigations have shown that products from deforestation, slave labour, human trafficking and overexploitation have been sold in leading supermarket chains in Europe and the UK. In 2017 Waitrose took its own-brand corned beef off supermarket shelves amid concerns that the product could contain meat linked to slave labour on Brazilian cattle farms. Corned beef from Brazil, supplied by JBS, has been sold by Lidl and Sainsbury’s in their British stores. JBS was also implicated in several investigations linking its supply chain to illegal deforestation.

A spokesperson for Lidl told Repórter Brasil: ‘We take this topic very seriously and are in close contact with suppliers such as JBS about social and environmental aspects such as deforestation.’ A Sainsbury’s spokesperson said: ‘If we identify suppliers which are either unwilling to recognize issues with their production or to work to remedy them, we will review our commercial relationships and sever ties if necessary.’

Such international partnerships with media and NGOs are keeping consumers informed and helping to bring about change.