Multimillion pound beef washing conspiracy means Amazons rainforest destroyed so the world can eat meat

You can hear the clanking of hooves and the mooing of a hundred or so head of cattle crammed into a transporter truck, from a long way off. 

In the stifling muggy heat of the port town of Santarem, deep in the Amazon, cowboys and river bargemen are preparing to move another load of steers downriver as they are slowly but surely – and completely illegally – entered into the world’s food chain.

These steers are unregistered; they have no legitimate markings, just the occasional yellow tag indicating they have been sold.

The cattle have been raised on ranches with “irregularities” including illegal deforestation, but once they leave port they get mixed in with legitimate cattle, enabling the sale of their meat on the global market.

They are Amazon rainforest cattle and part of a multimillion-pound beef washing conspiracy with Brazil’s Amazon at its heart.

This unregulated and illegal business is rarely seen but Sky News gained unparalleled access into this murky world of beef production in Para State by unrepentant farmers who believe it is their right to cut down the trees to grow their businesses.

The vital link between climate change and cattle is simple

80% of the Amazon rainforest is being cut down by ranchers who want more pastureland, a figure based on data from a 2019 study by the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies. Other studies put the figure at closer to 90%.

We started our journey at the main port in Santarem and traced the transit of cattle in reverse – from the port in the north to the ranches in the south.

Cassiano Rech was overseeing the load at the port. He explained that farmers are trying to legalise some of the ranches by acquiring land rights to the rainforest – they’re doing this, he said, because the beef here is in high demand.

He blames overpopulation.

“The expansion of humankind has increased a lot, and the proportion of food production in the world has not kept up with this increase in population,” he told us.

“So it is necessary for us to produce food in the Amazon; what ranchers in the region produce here is food, protein, to satisfy the planet’s hunger.”

Mr Rech says he doesn’t like other nations telling Brazil what to do with the rainforest especially when they’ve chopped down forests in their own countries.

Brazil is the world’s number one exporter of beef and corn, and it produces half the world’s soy crop – much of it is at the expense of the forest.

Government data from 2019 shows that nearly 40% of Brazil’s cattle population were in the Amazon region.

The trees have disappeared

Here in Para, you don’t have to look far to see the effect this type of farming has had.

A recent audit by federal prosecutors in Brazil showed that a third of the cattle bought from Para State by the world’s largest meatpacking company in the United States – over 300,000 head of cattle – had “irregularities”.

To put it simply – the Amazon is being destroyed so we can eat beef.

At the centre of the beef industry in Para State is the town of Novo Progresso. It is a quintessential cowboy town.

Dusty sidewalks, men in Stetsons and cowboy boots, brothels rubbing shoulders with steak houses filled every day with farmworkers gorging themselves on huge cuts of beef.

It was literally cut from the rainforest by settlers in the 1980s.

Brazil needed to increase its production of food and support a migration to the region of hardy farmers prepared to take on the forest, the indigenous groups, and the mosquitos that wiped out many of the first arrivals.

The uninformed would be hard-pressed to guess that the rolling farmlands, white picket fences, palatial farmsteads and horses and cows as far as the eye can see have completely replaced thousand-year-old trees and a huge swathe of the most biodiverse place on the planet.

There is a sinister air about the place

Outsiders are treated with suspicion, journalists with hostility, and environmentalists with deadly hatred.

The ranchers of Novo Progresso have a fearsome reputation for protecting their self-determined right to cut down the forest to create more grazing land.

The only indigenous people you see – and there aren’t many – work as labourers on the farms.

Out here the ranchers believe they have a duty to produce food, no matter the cost to the environment.

Out here the right-wing populist president of Brazil, Jair Bolsonaro, who supports the exploitation of the forest, is revered as a genius and worshipped as their all-conquering hero against leftie environmentalists and Western governments interfering in Brazil’s internal politics – even if that includes saving the planet.

One of the most important men in Novo Progresso is Agamenon da Silva Menezes. He is the head of their association of cattle ranchers.

We have met a couple of times, and to be frank, it is important people in town know we know him, and that he has given us interviews. Without his blessing visiting camera crews could expect a pretty rough reception.

The demand for beef never disappears

Mr da Silva Menezes is adamant that the production of beef is vital for Brazil and indeed the rest of the world because demand for beef never abates.

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He told us: “I would like to say the following, pay attention to this number, 23 million people, there are 23 million people here in the Amazon, this number alone to feed is already significant, that’s not even including what goes abroad, so if we don’t produce here, we won’t be able to feed these people, so there are two sides to it…”

He denied the Amazon is in danger but concedes it needs assistance if it is to survive and blames other factors for climate change. I asked him if he was aware of COP26, and that the preservation of the Amazon rainforest is a big topic at the conference.

In response, he made a simple point many around here agree with.

If the world wants the rainforest at the expense of agricultural development – then it needs to pay for it.

That means paying billions to stop the farmers farming.

“The Amazon is not the vector for this [climate change], it’s the car pollution that is causing it, the industries, the garbage in the sea, the rivers where it’s being dumped,” he passionately argued.

“If they really don’t want us to deforest anymore so there is no development, pay for it!”

Parked outside a garage in the town we came across two trucks full of cattle.

We had passed them earlier in the day, but hours later they still hadn’t moved so we decided to investigate.

Within minutes one of the drivers of the trucks came over to ask what we were doing.

After a friendly chat where we explained we were filming a story on the beef business in the region he relaxed and explained he was waiting to drop the cows off at a ranch near the town.

He said he had been travelling with the cows for seven days. In that time they had been given no food or water of any description. He explained that the cattle can lose more than 35 kilogrammes each in transit alone.

Each truck had 105 steers on board. The metal of the truck was so hot you couldn’t touch it.

He told us that if any of the cattle died or were seriously injured because of his driving he would have to pay for it out of his own pocket.

But, he added, if they died because of a lack of food or water it wasn’t his problem. “I’m just the driver,” he said.

In this cutthroat end of the business, animal welfare doesn’t get a look in

Tens of thousands of Amazonian cattle are distributed to the wider world through the tributaries of the Amazon, much of it through the port in Santarem where we started our journey.

The cattle, exhausted from days in a truck, were rested for a few hours before the next part of their journey – a river transporter barge.

We watched as they were driven towards the metal loading ramp of the barge, slipping and sliding and trampling on one another.

With no regulation, no controls, and certainly no vets, their wellbeing appeared to be utterly ignored.

As we were filming, we noticed one of the steers was struggling to get up the ramp and collapsed in the shallow water. And so began over an hour of brutal efforts to get him to move.

The ranchers and port workers started by kicking him in his face, trying to rile him to stand. This didn’t work, he could barely move and was slipping continuously on the metal.

Clearly in terrible distress, the men then forced its head under the water. They do this because they hope the steer, fearing he is drowning, will be spurred on to get up.

The animal was terrified. He got up, struggled forward, and then collapsed with his legs splayed out. They continued to taunt him, twisting his tail, and grabbing his horns in an attempt to make him angry enough to move. But this steer was badly injured and defenceless – and he still wasn’t on board.

Finally, they resorted to a block and tackle. We watched as they tied ropes around the horns and slowly started to haul the steer on to the barge.

It was very hard to watch. And unimaginable to think this beef from this steer will eventually be certified and exported possibly to Britain, the United States, China, Argentina, and Europe.

None of us will ever know it came from the Amazon, produced to satisfy demand at the expense of the rainforest the world wants Brazil to protect.

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