We at the EcoPol project have focused heavily on the Hazaribagh tanneries in Bangladesh, and with good reason: the atrocious treatment of the environment and employees there is so shocking, so dramatic that it deserves the attention of the world. But many of us also recall another heinous environmental practice also committed in the name of bovine leather from the news reports that we saw as children in the 80s and 90s. Who can forget the appalling images of lush Amazonian rainforest belching forth billows of opaque smoke, blotting out the blue sky from the background of the TV screen as bulldozers tore from fertile soil the still living roots of fresh-cut tree stumps? Although the amount of attention given to this practice has decreased dramatically, the deforestation of South American rainforests continues to this day in the name of increased production of bovine light leather. Although the topic is old, it deserves a new look, as recent developments and changes to Brazil's Forest Code could herald the widespread return of the grisly scenes like those we saw on TV as children, rather than causing such practices to fade into memory as one more of humanity's never-to-be repeated industrial nightmares.
Brazil is a nation of opposites; a country that at times seems to be comprised almost solely of stark contrasts stitched together like a quilt of clashing opposites. Brazil is marked by seemingly impossible comparisons: poverty-stricken favelas mere minutes from the metropolis of São Paulo, high tech private hospitals that rival developed western nations' state-of-the-art medical facilities standing alongside the appallingly understaffed and unsanitary public versions. Even when seen from far above the Earth, from distances at which socioeconomic differences all appear to blend together, Brazil's polar nature is on display; in satellite photos, the country is a colorful patchwork. Vibrant greens and blues bloom from vast tracts of rainforest, spreading until they butt-up against the sharply defined lines drawn in the ashen blacks, tarry browns, and dusty grays of the cities: favelas and fifth avenues, slums and skyscrapers, asphalt and jungle. Indeed, Brazil is a nation typified by extremes, where leaders of drug trafficking gangs are recruited by fashionistas to trade in their life of slums and slinging drugs for red carpets and catwalks.
Taking into account the frequency with which polar opposites like these co-exist in close proximity inside the South American nation, it becomes less surprising to consider that a country where over one in five citizens lives below the poverty line also has a thriving middle class that has boosted the country to a global economic power. But with this increased presence in the global market and the subsequent boon for Brazil's economy, the other side of the ever-rotating coin that is Brazil comes with a tragic turn for the environment. A turn which, with few exceptions, seems to exist to this day without its opposite alongside.
Many of those aforementioned spans of rainforest are being clear cut, burned, and converted into space for cattle ranching. Starting in 2006, Brazil became the world's 2nd most prolific exporter of bovine leather. Between 2006 and 2008, the nation was exporting between 1,500,000,000 and 2,000,000,000 square feet of leather. Greenpeace reports that during that same time period, over 80% of the deforestation devastating the rainforests within Brazil was done in the name of expanding the amount of acreage viable for cattle. Consequently, with 80% of the deforestation caused by the demand for leather, the vast majority of leather exported from Brazil during this time period was likely to be from cows raised on what once was rainforest.
Today, Brazil is still second only to China in the amount of leather exported. In fact, Brazil is the source of much of the tanned leather that luxury Italian brands purchase, re-tan, re-purpose, and re-brand as Italian leather. Although Brazilian deforestation is down 76% from its all time high in 2004, much of what once was rainforest is still de-forested, and most ranchers continue to ignore the Forest Code the country established in 1965 which mandates that the ratio of trees to heads of cattle must remain at or above 80:20. A 2012 Guardian report finds that most cattle ranches have this ratio inverted.
It seems that when it comes to deforestation, despite public governmental posturing against the practice exemplified by the nation's 2004 vow to cut deforestation by 80% within 16 years, there is a disturbing amount of consistency in the practice of deforestation. The only polar opposites within the Brazilian leather industry seem to be those seen in the conflict between politicians' publicly made statements and their actions that follow.
For example, a 2009 Greenpeace study found that nearly two and a half acres of Amazon rainforest are lost every 18 seconds to cattle ranch related deforestation. The study further reported that although then president Lula publicly denounced the practice, this massive biome upheaval was sponsored by the dollars of state-funded banks (THERE'S the contrast). Recent changes to the Forest Code have greatly diminished the federal government's ability to enforce the code, and between 2010-2011, deforestation increased by 30%. According to a 2011 Greenpeace report, these changes to the Forest Code will not only prevent the country from achieving its 80% reduction in the rainforest destruction by 2020, but will actually increase the amount of deforestation by almost 50% by the time the deadline is reached. Furthermore, Brazil intends to double its nation's cattle production by the year 2018.
Thankfully, despite the nearly overwhelming homogeneity seen in the socio-political and economic stances taken towards the destruction of Brazilian rainforests, Brazil is still a nation of opposites. Although comparatively diminutive, there do exist groups proposing and providing alternatives to the widespread and short-sighted demolition of Brazilian rainforest- standing as a tiny speck of contrast against over a decade of environmental destruction.
One such example is the Brazilian Roundtable on Sustainable Livestock (BRSL), a group dedicated to a zero-deforestation future for Brazil's bovine leather industry that seeks realistic approaches to achieving such goals through a comprehensively widespread methodology such as economic incentives offered to those who participate in sustainable means of cattle farming and leather production. The BRSL has just signed an agreement with the Brazilian government that will work towards restoring 37 million acres of destroyed and degraded pastures.
Brazil may have sharp contrast in close proximity in its social status, economic standing, quality of housing, and even in the colors that comprise its landscapes in satellite photos, but a balanced contrast that sustains a nearly equally sized opposite is something that just does not exist in the area of Brazilian bovine ranching and the deforestation that has become the preferred method of feeding this industry's expansion. If this continues unchecked, then it may not be long before we all see TV reports again of green rainforests reduced to black ash, yellow bulldozers, and white cattle, but this time, these horrific images would be seen via high resolution HD broadcasts. But thanks to the efforts of groups like the BRSL and others like them, there are ways to prevent this regression to total deforestation. In the meanwhile, we must not look away until these nightmares are alive again on news broadcasts, and instead, turn our attention, and the attention of everyone around us, to the development of deforestation-related legislation in the land of stark contrast.