Can South America’s Forests withstand Agricultural Expansion?

Key actors gather in Canada for the 2016 Global Conference on Sustainable Beef to share work being done on enhancing the sustainability of the beef sector.

Snow covered mountains in Banff, the site of the second annual Global Conference on Sustainable Beef. Photo by Nicole Flores/ NWF
What if beef could be produced in a way that was socially responsible, economically viable, and beneficial for wildlife, ecosystems, and climate? What if companies, producers, and governments were all dedicated to this same goal?

Last week in Banff, Canada, during the Global Conference on Sustainable Beef, the world’s leading beef producers, environmental organizations, processors, and retailers came together to discuss these exact issues and share regional progress towards enhancing the sustainability of the beef sector.

The Global Conference featured a series of breakout sessions dedicated to key sustainability issues. These sessions sought to identify ways to overcome some of the most pressing sustainability challenges and aimed to identify opportunities to drive progress.

Blue and Gold Macaws, iconic symbols of the Amazon Rainforest. Photo from Holley and Chris Melton/ Flickr

The National Wildlife Federation, in its role as the lead of the Joint Working Group on Forests (JWG), a group linking the GRSB and the Brazilian Roundtable on Sustainable Livestock (GTPS), led a breakout session that touched on one inescapable challenge in the world of sustainable beef – the issue of deforestation. This challenge is especially critical in South America, where large areas of forests have been cleared to make way for more cattle. Although the spotlight is typically focused on deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon, there are several other key regions at the forefront of the deforestation frontier.

The two part session first examined efforts from a high level, regional perspective. Representatives from Brazil, Paraguay, and Argentina spoke about national level efforts to address deforestation and promote “zero deforestation” beef production.

Speakers (from left to right) Ignacio Blanco-Traba, Mathias Almeida, Giovana Baggio, Nicolás Lucas, Marcos Medina, and Francisco Beduschi. Photo by Nicole Flores/ NWF

Francisco Beduschi Neto, President of the Brazilian Roundtable on Sustainable Livestock (GTPS) and Coordinator of Sustainable Livestock at Instituto Centro de Vida (ICV), highlighted how developments in both the public and private spheres in Brazil has enabled “zero deforestation” beef to become a reality. While these developments have helped promote sustainable cattle ranching and decrease deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon, Beduschi stressed the need to broaden focus to other biomes, including the Cerrado and the Gran Chaco.

The Gran Chaco, characterized by dry forests and savannahs, is less globally recognized compared to its photogenic, iconic, continental sister biome, the Amazon rainforest. But the Gran Chaco also supports high levels of biodiversity, with thousands of plant species and hundreds of bird, mammal, and reptile species. Spanning over 100 million hectares, the Gran Chaco sits in the middle of South America, crossing over the borders of Brazil, Bolivia, Argentina and Paraguay.

The Gran Chaco hosts an abundance of wildlife, including the ocelot. Photo by Avi/ Flickr

Deforestation for pastureland is a leading driver of land conversion in the Gran Chaco, especially in Paraguay, where 60% of land deforested from 2000-2010 was converted to cattle pastures. Paraguay’s Vice Minister of Livestock, Marcos Medina, highlighted the challenges in addressing these land use issues while at the same time promoting economic development, poverty alleviation, and improving the country’s strategic position in global beef markets. But Medina concluded with optimism, citing Paraguay’s commitment to sustainable beef production and climate goals.

Nicolás Lucas, a representative from the Ministry of Agroindustry of Argentina, echoed Medina’s sentiments, illustrating how agriculture lies at the heart of Argentina’s economy and development remains a top priority. While Argentina’s Chaco is the second most active deforestation front in South America, the Ministry is actively engaged in efforts to harmonize forest management with cattle ranching to lessen negative land use impacts and preserve biodiversity.

The first part of the breakout session revealed that at a national level, Brazil, Paraguay, and Argentina face unique challenges that require context-sensitive strategies. But these countries are tied together by a common thread – each stands at a critical juncture, poised to set the path for a sustainable future that enhances ecosystems and safeguards wildlife or one that slips down a path of rampant destruction, jeopardizing the stability of regional climate and the fate of local communities and wildlife

The second half of the session focused on how these national level commitments have been complemented by action on the ground. Giovana Baggio, Sustainable Agriculture Manager at The Nature Conservancy, shared results from a pilot project in the Brazilian Amazon, “From Field to Table”. Baggio illustrated how coordinated supply chain efforts, when supported by national level commitments and private sector actions, can successfully produce positive environmental, social, and economic outcomes for all stakeholders.

Panelists answer questions from the audience. Photo by Nicole Flores/ NWF

Wrapping up the session, two representatives from the private sector shared experiences regarding their respective company commitments and sustainable sourcing practices. Mathias Almeida, Sustainability Manager at Marfrig Beef, and Ignacio Blanco-Traba, Senior Director of Sustainable Sourcing at McDonald’s, demonstrated how “zero deforestation” commitments are expanding influence and having a positive impact.

Marfrig Beef, one of the largest meatpackers in Brazil utilizes sophisticated satellite-based deforestation monitoring and purchase control systems to avoid buying from suppliers that clear forest in the Amazon. McDonald’s is engaged in collaborative projects to source “zero deforestation” beef for their restaurants. Both speakers acknowledged key challenges. Yet they also highlighted several opportunities to collaborate across the supply chain and with government and environmental organizations to help advance progress towards the shared goal of a zero deforestation future for the beef sector.

The 2016 Global Conference on Sustainable Beef provided clear evidence that significant strides have been made towards advancing sustainability. On the critical issue of deforestation, there was a unified message of optimism conveyed by each of the six speakers. At this fork in the road, we must take the sustainable path forward.

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