21 February 2024, London – Brazil’s three largest meat companies have been linked to the destruction of an area of forest in Mato Grosso state bigger than Chicago, with the forest lost in the state’s Cerrado savannah nearly five times higher than in the Amazon, a new Global Witness investigation reveals.

The most biodiverse savannah in the world, the Cerrado is a vital ecosystem for the planet, with deep roots running underground allowing it to store vast amounts of CO2. As of 2017, it held around 13.7 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide - equivalent to China’s annual emissions in 2020.

But as environmental protections and greater scrutiny have decreased the rate of deforestation in the Amazon, official data shows that the destruction is spilling over into the Cerrado. In 2023 deforestation in the rainforest fell by half, while deforestation increased by 43% in the neighbouring Cerrado, where protections are comparatively lacking.

Global Witness’s investigation reveals that some of Brazil’s biggest meat companies are helping to drive this trend.

Using data from 2018 to 2019, the report analyses levels of deforestation in the supply chain of JBS, Marfrig and Minerva, who all operate in Brazil’s “cattle capital” Mato Grosso state - home to both Cerrado and Amazon territories.

Overall, it found that 42.8% of the cattle ranches in the Cerrado supplying the three meat companies included deforested land compared to just 9.7% of ranches in the Amazon.

It also found one in three cows that the three companies bought from Mato Grosso’s Cerrado came from farms with deforested land, compared to just one in 10 of than their Amazon counterparts.

Almost all of this deforestation we found to be illegal, through a lack of the permits required for deforestation under Brazilian law.

Veronica Oakeshott, Campaign Strategy Lead at Global Witness, said: “In the fight to protect the Amazon, the Cerrado is becoming an ecological sacrifice zone. Deforestation is spilling over into this region, with half the savannah now farmland. The world’s eyes are quite rightly on the rainforest – but this does not mean we can be blind to the ecological disaster unfolding right next door. 

“With the clock ticking on 1.5C, we cannot afford another deforestation crisis or to lose yet another critical carbon sink. The agribusinesses responsible urgently need to end the deforestation in their supply chains. Until they can prove this, their financial backers must stop bankrolling them.” 

Global Witness’s extensive deforestation analysis in the state finds:

  • The supply chains of three of the world’s largest meatpackers – JBS, Marfrig and Minerva – were responsible for an area of deforestation in Mato Grosso the size of Chicago. Deforestation of the Cerrado linked to the meatpackers’ supply chains was five times bigger than the Amazon region deforested in the same period (70,000 football pitches in the Cerrado vs 14,000 football pitches in the Amazon).
  • This is despite the three companies collectively sourcing almost three times as many cattle from the Amazon compared to the Cerrado in that period (around 1.2 million vs 438,000 cattle), highlighting the discrepancies in the levels of forest protection across the two biomes.
  • One in three cows that the companies bought from the Cerrado within Mato Grosso came from farms with deforested land, compared to just over one in 10 cows they bought from the Amazon (36% of Cerrado cows came from deforested land vs 12% of Amazon cows). More than 99% of this deforestation was illegal.
  • Of the three meat packers operating in Mato Grosso, JBS – the world’s largest meat company – was the biggest offender. It was linked to 41,481 hectares of the 59,890 hectares linked to all three meatpackers combined - and purchased around two thirds of the total deforestation-linked cattle bought by the three companies.
  • Beef demand in the UK and EU are playing a part in the destruction. The UK imported an average of 1,756 tonnes of beef products per year from Mato Grosso state over the last five years, with JBS, Minerva and Marfrig responsible for almost half of all beef sent to the country from Mato Grosso between 2018 and 2023. As of 2018 and 2019, at least 14 slaughterhouses owned by JBS, Marfrig, and Minerva had been authorisation to export to the EU.

JBS, Marfrig and Minerva all dispute Global Witness’s findings and our methodology. They said they are compliant with Brazilian law on deforestation and with their own individual supply chain agreements with Brazilian authoritiesi.

Deforestation is now the single biggest threat to the Cerrado, predominately driven by agricultural expansion for soy and cattle, and rates are currently at their highest in at least five years.

Joice Bonfim, Advisor to the National Campaign in Defense of the Cerrado, said:

“We urgently need to extend the protection of the Cerrado. For too long, the region has endured devastation for soy monocultures and intensive livestock farming - losing more than half of its original cover in the last 50 years.

“Dubbed the "cradle of waters”, the Cerrado is an essential part of South America’s water cycle, feeding major rivers, including the Amazon. It is also of huge importance to world cultural heritage, home to diverse cultures and communities. Current International initiatives are not enough – leaving the region at significant risk. If nothing is done, we will face a scenario of irreversible eco-genocide.” 

The investigation follows the EU’s adoption of deforestation regulations (EUDR) in 2023, which will soon require companies to prove certain products like beef and soy are deforestation-free. The UK and the US also hope to implement new regulation for products coming from illegally deforested land. 

But the majority of the Cerrado - classified as “other wooded land” and not “forest” due to the sparse nature of its trees – is currently excluded from all these laws.  The EU is set to assess this categorisation by June this year.

 Giulia Bondi, Senior EU Campaigner on Forests at Global Witness, said: 

“The EU must stick to its word and urgently extend its anti-deforestation law to protect the Cerrado. The consumption of products in the EU such as soy or beef is driving ecosystem destruction in one of the largest biodiversity hotspots in the world and leaving other woodland like it at risk. We need a robust update to the law to stop agribusinesses from simply shifting agriculture expansion from the Amazon to the Cerrado.”  

Last year, Global Witness analysis revealed that for every $1000 of investment in meat company JBS since 2010, there has been around one soccer field of forest destruction in Brazil linked to its supply chain. JBS is currently amid an attempt to list its shares on the New York Stock Exchange, which would open the company up to more capital to expand its operations - inevitably leading to yet more deforestation.