Visit to a sustainable cattle ranching project in Brazil

May 10, 2017

Written by Kate Dillon Levin, our VP North American Sales and Marketing, following her trip to Brazil for the Tropical Forest Alliance 2020 General Assembly. Kate and several other members of the TFA2020 including Ecosphere+ and Althelia Climate Fund colleagues, went on a site visit to Novo Campo, a sustainable cattle ranching project in the Mato Grosso state of Brazil. This is the first in a series of blogs about the team’s trip to Brazil.

When I was 14 years old my favorite t-shirt had a fast food restaurant logo on it, but instead of ‘Burger King’ it read ‘Burger Kill.’ I’d gotten the shirt from a Rainforest Action Network campaign to highlight the clearing of Amazon rainforest for cattle pastures that ultimately fed fast food supply chains. I only knew about what was happening in the Amazon because I had a couple of teachers who were avid social and environmental activists, and I used to sit in their rooms during lunchtime to read reports by RAN and Greenpeace and others.

I cared because I am naturally predisposed to care about things like trees and snakes and indigenous cultures – not because this destruction had any kind of immediate impact on my life. And I think many of us still feel that way. Intellectually, we understand that tropical forests are important and valuable, and yet it is hard to feel connected to that value in the every day sense. It was alarming, but it still felt very remote.

That was almost 30 years ago.

A few weeks ago, I went to the Brazilian Amazon for the first time. And it was pretty startling. You can see the deforestation from the plane, and from the air it looked much like other degraded tropical landscapes I’d visited in Asia, Africa, and Latin America, albeit more extensive. But on the ground the depth of destruction was shocking. This wasn’t a degraded forest – this was degraded pasture-land and some pastures were just plain dead. What was once teeming with life was now cleared, unproductive land. There were strip malls and roads, and were it not for the Portuguese on road signs and iconic views of the rainforest canopy on the distant horizon, I could have believed I was in the Midwestern United States.

This was farm country now, and if that were a model of economic development that was sustainably serving the region it would be ok. But the reality is poor agricultural practices and illegal deforestation for decades have left the area barren – to the detriment of the local people and the world.

Deforestation rates in Brazil dropped dramatically between 2003-2015 but are on the rise again, and land use pressure in the Brazilian Amazon isn’t going anywhere any time soon with global population expected to tip 8.4 billion by 2030 and the subsequent demand for food and animal feed like soy and beef. 60% of the Amazon rainforest lies in Brazil. Mato Grosso, the state we were in, is larger than the state of Texas and is over 40% deforested. Arresting deforestation in this region is critical as the Amazon rainforest contains 17% of the world’s terrestrial carbon, a critical ‘environmental service’ for regulating our climate.

“Sudden Death”

The Althelia Climate Fund, Ecosphere’s founder, has invested in the Novo Campo project in Mato Grosso. This project is a sustainable cattle ranching project which addresses the primary driver of deforestation in the state – the expansion of agricultural activities into virgin rainforest because previously cleared land is too badly degraded. The project implementers referred to this as ‘sudden death’ of the pasture. If that sounds apocalyptic then it is doing its job. Standing in what should be tropical rainforest and instead being surrounded by pastures for miles and miles was shocking. I had told my 6-year old son I was going into the Amazon jungle – and how excited I was – but I saw very little jungle. I didn’t even see a single mosquito – and this was the rainy season.

A New Model for Sustainable Agriculture in the Amazon

Cows

Sustainable-cattle Novo Campo means ‘New Field’ in Portuguese and the project aims to set an example for the entire state for how to do forest-friendly cattle ranching. Novo Campo, a programme pioneered by Brazilian NGO Instituto Centro de Vida (ICV) which is now being commercially implemented in partnership with Pecsa, deploys an approach called ‘intensification’. This sounded a bit scary to me at first. But what intensification does is increase and renew the productivity of already cleared land which accomplishes two things that are good for people, the economy, and for nature: first, increasing productivity reduces pressure on ranchers to clear new forest for pasture because the old pasture is functioning better; and second, increased productivity, along with an optimised diet, improves the quality of the beef and lowers the greenhouse gas intensity per kg.

Intensification Novo Campo style results from multiple interventions set to improve the ecological function of the pasture and as a result its capacity to support more cattle per hectare – in fact three times more cattle per hectare. These interventions include improving water supply and accessibility, diet, and restoration of the riparian zones on the ranches. Seeding a mixture of grasses leads to higher quality meat and the root systems increase soil carbon storage resulting in substantial reductions in greenhouse gas emissions per kg of beef produced. Precise estimates of the greenhouse gas savings from the project will be measured, but estimates based on the Embrapa Good Agricultural Practices figures suggest as much as -90% per kg of beef.

According to the ranchers we met, their increased productivity has caught the attention of neighbouring ranchers who want to copy their practices.

Zero Deforestation Commitments

I can’t help but feel really disappointed that we knew what was happening in Mato Grosso when I was a young teenager in 1988, and yet we chose to do nothing – or not enough. But its good to know that Pecsa is trying to bring a new model of agricultural production to the Amazon.

Read more about the Tropical Forest Alliance 2020 General Assembly meeting that Kate and the team were in Brazil for here, including a workshop run to help companies address deforestation risks in their supply chains.

Althelia Funds