How Americans’ Appetite for Leather in Luxury SUVs Worsens Amazon Deforestation

BURITIS, Brazil — One morning this summer, Odilon Caetano Felipe, a rancher who raises cattle on illegally deforested land in the Amazon, met with a trader and signed over 72 newly fattened animals. With that stroke of the pen, Mr. Felipe gave his cattle a clean record: By selling them, he obscured their role in the destruction of the world’s largest rainforest.

Over lunch shortly after the July 14 sale, Mr. Felipe spoke openly about the business that has made him wealthy. He acknowledged cutting down the thick Amazon forest and that he had not paid for the land. He also said he structured his sales to hide the true origins of his cattle by selling to a middleman, creating a paper trail falsely showing his animals as coming from a legal ranch. Other ranchers in the area do the same, he said.

“It makes no difference,” he said, whether his farm is legal or not.

A New York Times investigation into Brazil’s rapidly expanding slaughterhouse industry — a business that sells not only beef to the world, but tons of leather annually to major companies in the United States and elsewhere — has identified loopholes in its monitoring systems that allow hides from cattle kept on illegally deforested Amazon land to flow undetected through Brazil’s tanneries and on to buyers worldwide.

Mr. Felipe’s ranch is one of more than 600 that operate in an area of the Amazon known as Jaci-Paraná, a specially protected environmental reserve where deforestation is restricted. And transactions like his are the linchpins of a complex global trade that links Amazon deforestation to a growing appetite in the United States for luxurious leather seats in pickup trucks, SUVs and other vehicles sold by some of the world’s largest automakers, among them General Motors, Ford and Volkswagen.

A luxury vehicle can require a dozen or more hides, and suppliers in the United States increasingly buy their leather from Brazil. While the Amazon region is one of the world’s major providers of beef, increasingly to Asian nations, the global appetite for affordable leather also means that the hides of these millions of cattle supply a lucrative international leather market valued in the hundreds of billions of dollars annually.

This leather trade shows how the wealthy world’s shopping habits are tied to environmental degradation in developing nations, in this case by helping to fund destruction of the Amazon despite its valuable biodiversity and the scientific consensus that protecting it would help to slow climate change.

To track the global trade in leather from illegal ranches in the Brazilian rainforest to the seats in American vehicles, The Times interviewed ranchers, traders, prosecutors and regulators in Brazil, and visited tanneries, ranches and other facilities. The Times spoke to participants at all levels of the illicit trade in the Jaci-Paraná Extractive Reserve, an area in Rondônia State that has been granted special protections because it is home to communities of people who, for generations, have lived off the land by tapping rubber trees.

These communities are now being forced out by ranchers who want the land for cattle. Over the past decade, ranchers have significantly expanded their presence in the reserve, and today some 56 percent of it has been cleared, according to data compiled by the state environmental agency.

The reporting is also based on analysis of corporate and international trade data in several countries and thousands of cattle-transport certificates issued by the Brazilian government. The certificates were obtained by the Environmental Investigation Agency, an advocacy group in Washington. The Times independently verified the certificates and separately obtained thousands of additional ones.

This enabled the tracking of leather from illegal farms in the Amazon to slaughterhouses operated by Brazil’s three biggest meatpackers, JBS, Marfrig and Minerva, and then to the tanneries they supply. JBS describes itself as the world’s largest leather processor.

According to Aidee Maria Moser, a retired prosecutor in Rondônia State who spent almost two decades fighting illegal ranching in the Jaci-Paraná reserve, the practice of selling animals reared in the reserve to middleman traders suggests an intent to conceal their origin. “It’s a way to give a veneer of legality to the cattle,” she said, “so slaughterhouses can deny there was anything illegal.”

The problem isn’t limited to Rondônia. Last month, an audit led by prosecutors in the neighboring state of Pará, home to the second-largest cattle herd in the Amazon, found that JBS had bought 301,000 animals, amounting to 32 percent of its purchases in the state, between January 2018 and June 2019 from farms that violated commitments to prevent illegal deforestation.

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BURITIS, Brazil — One morning this summer, Odilon Caetano Felipe, a rancher who raises cattle on illegally deforested land in the Amazon, met with a trader and signed over 72 newly fattened animals. With that stroke of the pen, Mr. Felipe gave his cattle a clean record: By selling them, he obscured their role in…

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