Can Nike and Wal-Mart save the Amazon?

An ambitious commitment by some of the world's largest companies not to buy beef or leather products from the Brazilian Amazon may falter if a strong monitoring system isn't put in place.

A recent decision by a group of multinational companies that include Nike, Adidas, and Timberland to boycott beef and leather products from the Brazilian Amazon -- the largest cattle-ranching area in the world -- might sound like a good way to reduce deforestation.

"These companies are ... telling their suppliers they expect to see zero deforestation or they will stop buying from them," says Tatiana Carvalho, an Amazon campaigner at Greenpeace, one of the moratorium's main coordinators. "That is a big step forward."

The shoemakers and the Brazilian subsidiaries of supermarkets Wal-Mart and Carrefour agreed that as of June 22, they would not purchase beef or leather from suppliers who cut down rainforest trees to open up new cattle pasture.

But without a strict monitoring and labeling system, the moratorium on beef products from the Brazilian Amazon could amount to little more than a publicity stunt, environmentalists warn. Brazil's beef producers' association has dismissed the moratorium as "meaningless."

A tracking system that clarifies where beef or leather has been produced is not yet in place, making it difficult for producers to know whether a steak or a piece of shoe leather came from deep in the Amazon or from grazing lands in the south of the country. When the European Union looked at farms' traceability procedures last year, it approved beef exports from only 1,376 of the country's estimated 5,000,000 cattle farms.

Leather is more problematic, since it is sold on the open commodities market and is even harder to trace.

Reassuring consumers

"[The moratorium] shows the industry is concerned and wants to assure the consumer that it is doing its part. But the criteria are difficult to implement, and, in the end, may be shown to have been ineffective," says Peter May, an assistant director at Friends of the Earth Brazil. "But for the time being, it may reassure consumers."

Some of the companies that have signed on acknowledge that they don't yet have enough information to guarantee they're not using products from the Amazon. Shoemakers Nike and Clarks both said they would give suppliers until 2010 to put full traceability procedures in place.

Many of the companies were prompted by a June report from Greenpeace that named and shamed supermarkets, shoe manufacturers, automakers, and other blue-chip companies whose "blind consumption of raw materials fuels deforestation and climate change."

They were also encouraged by a similar, albeit more limited, moratorium on soybeans that stopped traders from buying beans from recently deforested areas in the Amazon. The moratorium was judged a success and was extended for a fourth consecutive year in July.

Rainforest stampede

But beef is where real environmental gains can be made, since very little soy is grown in the Amazon. For years, cattle farmers have been selling their most productive pastures in the south to soybean and sugar-cane producers and using the cash to buy cheaper land in the Amazon, which is deforested and populated with cattle.

That practice, spurred by surging global demand for beef as incomes in countries such as India and China have risen, has led to a stampede into the rainforest.

Three of every 4 new additions to Brazil's cattle herd between 2003 and 2008 came in the Amazon, according to a 2008 Friends of the Earth report. The beef industry is one of the main drivers of deforestation and one of the world's main sources of greenhouse gases. Brazil boasts around 200 million cattle and is the world's biggest beef exporter.

Under Brazilian law, Amazonian farmers may clear just 20 percent of their land and must keep the rest as natural forest. But the law is rarely enforced. Today, around 17 percent of the Brazilian Amazon's original tree cover is gone.

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