Illegal cattle ranching in protected Rondônia reserve has wiped out nearly half its forests

23.01.2019

Large-scale cattle ranchers are illegally rearing an estimated 100,000 heads of cattle at the Jaci-Paraná extractive reserve in the Amazon state

The Jaci-Paraná reserve, covering over 190,000 hectares and home mostly to subsistence farmers, is suffering from illegal land invasions. Photo: Marcio Isensee e Sá/O Eco

According to Ibama, Brazil’s environmental enforcement agency, Jaci-Paraná is one of Rondônia's most heavily deforested protected areas, having lost 49 percent of its forest cover.

Extractive reserves (reservas extractivistas) are state-owned, protected areas demarcated by the state or federal government in which local communities make a living through subsistence farming or traditional extractive activities, such as rubber tapping.

These reserves, which are safeguarded by federal law, are meant to protect the traditional ways of life and culture of extractive communities in the Amazon and elsewhere and guarantee the sustainable use of their natural resources. Large-scale agricultural activity or logging is not allowed.

The Jaci-Paraná reserve, covering over 190,000 hectares and home mostly to subsistence farmers, was created by the state of Rondônia in 1995.

Illegal invasions at the reserve allegedly began in 2002, first by loggers, then by land grabbers and cattle ranchers who cleared large areas of forest for pastureland. Today, Sedam – Rondônia's environmental protection agency – estimates that around 100,000 heads of cattle are being illegally raised at Jaci-Paraná.

Families living within the reserve have denounced being threatened and evicted from their houses by armed men working for the ranchers.

Paulo Bonavigo, from the conservation NGO Ecoporé, told O Eco that the ranchers invading the reserve are large landowners who have found a cheap way to raise cattle. “They don’t buy the land, their only cost is the invasion,” he said.

According to Bonavigo, farms at the reserve launder their illegal cattle in order to be able to sell them to meat processors. They do this by issuing transportation permits – which need to accompany the livestock as it’s moved from farms to slaughterhouses – on behalf of properties outside the reserve, making it seem that the cattle come from legal ranches.

By checking JBS’s online tracking system, O Eco was able to identify four farms operating illegally at the reserve – Olhos d`água, Minas do Sul, Gabriela and Fortaleza – that supply the company.

The organisation also found that six farms located less than ten kilometres from the reserve supply JBS. According to Sedam, these farms are close enough to the reserve that they could potentially be laundering cattle for farms at Jaci-Paraná.

In an e-mail sent to O Eco, JBS alleged that the farms’ locations on their tracking system had been wrong. The company also claimed that it had been working to correct this mistake on its database. When O Eco researchers checked JBS’s website again before publication, the four suppliers were no longer located within the reserve.

JBS is a signatory to the Beef TAC (TAC da carne) in Rondônia and other states, an agreement introduced by the Federal Public Prosecutor’s Office in Brazil in 2009. Meatpackers who sign the agreement commit to monitoring their suppliers in order to eliminate illegal cattle from their supply chains.

But the company, the world’s largest beef exporter, has been embroiled in a number of illegalities in recent years. In March 2017, JBS was fined $8 for buying nearly 50,000 heads of cattle from ranches found to have committed illegal deforestation. 

The same year, the company was accused of purchasing cows from a notorious land grabber and illegal deforester in Pará state. More recently, the brothers Wesley and Joesley Batista, who together control 42% of JBS, have been under investigation in connection with one of the largest corruption scandals in Latin American history.

Enforcing the law at the Jaci-Paraná reserve has been a challenging task for government agents. Speaking to O Eco, a former Sedam staff claimed that threats from local politicians against the agents is a common occurrence, and that in one occasion some state government officials forced the agents to lift a check point blocking ranchers from moving supplies into the reserve.

Rondonia’s public prosecutor, who has also received numerous threats, has filed over 70 lawsuits against the farmers. But no one has been convicted.

Rondonia’s sanitary inspection agency – Idaron – has continued to vaccinate the illegal herds and issue sanitary permits for the ranchers at Jaci-Paraná. 

Speaking with O Eco, a Sedam agent accused Idaron of colluding with the ranchers and raised suspicion that local politicians may own some of the cattle through the use of intermediaries.

In 2014, a state court ordered the farmers to remove their cattle from the reserve. However, shortly afterwards Rondônia's state assembly passed legislation scrapping Jaci-Paraná and three other protected areas in the state. 

This vote was overturned by a court decision in 2016 on grounds of unconstitutionality, saving Jaci-Paraná. But the cattle have remained at the reserve.

Under the new government of President Jair Bolsonaro, who has come to power with heavy support from the agribusiness lobby in the national congress, the future of protected areas in Brazil hangs in the balance. 

One of the new president’s first measures after being inaugurated on 1 January was to move new demarcations of indigenous lands and other protected areas from the Ministry of Justice to the Ministry of Agriculture, currently led by Tereza Cristina, a former leader of the powerful Parliamentary Agricultural Front in congress.

While indigenous lands and other protected areas have suffered invasions by land grabbers, farmers, loggers and miners for several years, many fear that Bolsonaro’s hostile attitude to the protection of forests will embolden illegal deforesters. 

New invasions by loggers and cattle ranchers were reported in indigenous lands in Rondônia and Maranhão in the first weeks of January.

At Jaci-Paraná, residents are not optimistic about their future. Laudicéia Soares, who has been forced to leave her house after being threatened by armed men, says that “what [the cattle ranchers] are doing is a crime.” But with little protection from the authorities, Laudicéia does not see how she can get her life back. “It’s all over.”

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