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Indigenous groups demonstrate against changes to the laws protecting their territory


Are beef and soy companies doing enough to protect indigenous rights in Brazil?

Indigenous peoples have long been recognised as stewards of nature, whose homelands contain 80% of the world’s remaining biodiversity - but these lands are increasingly threatened by expanding agriculture.

by Bronwen Fraser


Indigenous peoples have long been recognised as stewards of nature, whose homelands contain 80% of the world’s remaining biodiversity - but these lands are increasingly threatened by expanding agriculture.

International law provides some protection, requiring companies to obtain the free, prior and informed consent (FPIC) of indigenous communities before encroaching on their land. But are companies doing enough to respect this human right?

Recognising the importance of indigenous rights, Global Canopy’s Forest 500 project assesses companies not only for their deforestation commitments, but for their stance on ensuring FPIC is guaranteed in their supply chains. The latest assessment, however, reveals that most companies are falling short of the mark.

The hidden impacts of beef and soy  

This is particularly problematic in Brazil, where deforestation has accelerated under President Bolsonaro’s regime, with rates of forest loss in the Brazilian Amazon 28% higher than last year.

The impact of this on indigenous groups is disproportionately high, as Bolsonaro has restricted the powers of FUNAI, Brazil’s indigenous protection agency, and cut its budget by 90%.

With FUNAI’s activities curbed, and encouragement from Bolsonaro’s aggressive anti-indigenous rhetoric, illegal deforestation on some protected indigenous lands has soared by 80%  between 2018 and 2019 - a far higher increase than in Brazil as a whole.

The most powerful driving force behind this trend is agriculture - particularly pasture expansion for cattle ranching and soy production, which together account for 81% of deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon.

Investigations by Amnesty International reveal that illegal land seizure by cattle ranchers is now the biggest driver of deforestation in indigenous territories. Meanwhile, in Brazil’s biodiverse Cerrado region, pesticide use on soy plantations has been shown to contaminate protected indigenous lands, with devastating health consequences.

Brazilian beef and soy are ultimately sold to consumers in Brazil and around the world, who are largely unaware that their shopping may be linked to illegal deforestation and human rights violations.

One recent study, for example, indicates that up to half of Brazilian beef and a quarter of soy imported into the European Union is produced on illegally cleared land, where there is an increased risk that indigenous rights may have been disregarded.

How many companies recognise indigenous rights? 

Despite these risks, the latest Forest 500 assessment reveals that less than 20% of major soy and beef companies have committed to securing FPIC in their supply chains, compared to 40% of palm oil companies. This blind spot means that many companies sourcing Brazilian beef and soy are not doing anything to check whether their supply chains are linked to indigenous rights violations.

FPIC commitments in Forest 500 companies

For example, JBS, a major Brazilian meat producer, has no commitment to ensure FPIC in its supply chain - and has been found to have been sourcing beef produced on illegally seized land belonging to the Uru-Eu-Wau-Wau people.

Even companies with FPIC commitments often fail to implement them. Cargill, one of the world’s largest soy traders, has committed to ensuring FPIC in its supply chain, but has been shown to be sourcing soy grown on illegally seized lands. According to Greenpeace, some of Cargill’s soy comes from the Agronegócio Estrondo estate, where local families were violently evicted  to make way for soy plantations, despite their legal entitlement to the land.

Cargill exports its soy to countries such as the Netherlands, where it is processed into animal feed and makes its way into the meat aisles of European supermarkets.

What needs to change?

While attention is focused on Brazil’s devastating coronavirus outbreak, Brazilian Congress may pass a new bill that would legalise land grabs in indigenous territories.  Now more than ever, it is vital that companies involved in Brazilian soy and beef supply chains step up their efforts to protect the rights of indigenous peoples.

The first step is for companies to improve the transparency of their supply chains. Tracing soy and beef all the way back to the original farm enables companies to make the basic step of identifying and boycotting farms where illegal deforestation has taken place. Once legal farms have been pinpointed, companies can then ensure that those located in or near indigenous lands are adhering to the FPIC principle. 

This potential, however, is far from fulfilled. Although JBS and Cargill are both working towards fully traceable supply chains, JBS has not yet coupled this with a commitment to ensuring FPIC - and neither have 87% of the other Forest 500 companies assessed for beef.

Although slightly more soy companies have committed to FPIC, only four of these also have traceability plans, and none are currently able to trace all of their soy back to the farm. This means that it remains a challenge for most soy companies to implement their FPIC commitments effectively.

Wider recognition of the FPIC principle among companies is clearly needed, but this must be coupled with robust traceability mechanisms and close monitoring to ensure that illegal encroachment on indigenous lands is not taking place.

In doing so, companies sourcing Brazilian soy and beef have huge potential to safeguard indigenous rights - instead of unwittingly being linked to their abuse.


Image: Indigenous groups demonstrate against changes to the laws protecting their territory, Nilo D'Avila

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