Credit: Matt Hall

Car giants fuel illegal destruction of South American forests inhabited by uncontacted tribe

30.09.2020

  • BMW and Jaguar Land Rover cars fitted out with leather linked to illegal deforestation of South American forests inhabited by one of the world’s last uncontacted tribes
  • Illegal clearances occurred in the Chaco region of Paraguay, which is losing forest faster than anywhere else on earth
  • Earthsight’s report, Grand Theft Chaco, traces how land is illegally razed for cattle ranching to produce leather that enters auto industry supply chains
  • Findings ‘tip of iceberg’, as none of Europe’s 10 largest manufacturers of leather-clad cars able to fully trace origins of leather used in their vehicles 
  • Demonstrates urgent need for EU and UK legislation to tackle corporate complicity in environmental and human rights abuses 

London, 30 September 2020 – Major European car manufacturers including BMW and Jaguar Land Rover are using leather linked to the destruction of a protected tract of South American forest inhabited by one of the world’s last uncontacted tribes, an Earthsight report reveals.

Grand Theft Chaco exposes how cattle ranchers in the Chaco region of Paraguay illegally cleared land inhabited by the Ayoreo Totobiegosode - the only indigenous peoples living in voluntary isolation anywhere in the Americas outside the Amazon.

Slaughterhouses buying cattle from these ranches were found to be selling cow hides to tanneries that supply some of Europe’s biggest car companies, the report uncovers.

Paraguay’s biggest tannery is supplied by facilities buying cattle from illicitly cleared Totobiegosode forest, and executives revealed to undercover researchers their leather is used by Jaguar Land Rover, including for its Range Rover Evoque series. Jaguar Land Rover did not deny the claims and has now opened an investigation.

Two slaughterhouses also discovered to purchase cows from ranches guilty of illegally stripping Totobiegosode forests were confirmed by BMW as supplying it with hides. When presented with the findings the company said that “so far, we have no information that [our] leather supply chains in Latin America are affected by the problems [Earthsight exposed]”.

Both firms are clients of Italian tannery giant Pasubio, a leading global supplier of leather to the automotive industry and the world’s biggest consumer of Paraguayan leather.

The findings are the result of an 18-month investigation involving undercover meetings with tanneries, visits to remote ranches, scrutiny of thousands of records, and interviews with government whistleblowers and indigenous activists.

The investigation focused on the forests of the Gran Chaco, home to jaguars and giant anteaters, which are being decimated by cattle ranching firms to meet global demand for beef and leather. This destruction is occurring most rapidly in the Paraguayan Chaco, which is losing forest faster than anywhere on earth. Earthsight estimated one football pitch was cleared every two minutes in 2019.  

Grand Theft Chaco exposes how this environmental crisis is being enabled by corruption and influence-peddling by powerful government and business interests across Paraguay. Failures of the Paraguayan state to protect Totobiegosode lands, inhabited for centuries by semi-nomadic Totobiegosode people, have been widely condemned by watchdogs, including the UN.

In February 2018, Paraguay’s forestry institute suspended all land management plans in the Totobiegosode protected area (PNCAT), rendering any clearance unequivocally illegal. However, bulldozers continued to raze Totobiegosode land. Between April 2018 and July 2020, more than 2,600 hectares of illegal land clearances occurred within PNCAT, Earthsight found.

The PNCAT case study and car firm links are just the ‘very dirty tip of a much larger iceberg’ of deforestation and human rights abuse risks in leather supply chains, the report warns. The automotive industry, which uses up to 60 million cow hides each year, is also a major leather buyer from the Brazilian Amazon, where illegal forest clearances are widespread.

Yet when asked about their traceability systems, none of Europe’s 10 largest producers of leather-clad cars – others of whom also buy from Italian firm Pasubio - said they could fully trace their leather supplies back to source.

Grand Theft Chaco highlights again the urgent need for EU and UK laws mandating companies to conduct due diligence to ensure supply chains are not tainted by such abuses.

Worryingly, the report details how influential lobby groups claiming to represent the interests of automotive and other industries have lobbied EU authorities to curtail such legislation plans and dilute environmental requirements that could be asked of companies.

Sam Lawson, director at Earthsight, said: “No car owner is going to feel comfortable in their plush leather seat knowing that the last forest refuge of an uncontacted tribe was illegally cleared to make it.

“This simply should not be allowed to happen. And this is far from an isolated case. Europe is awash with the products of deforestation and human rights abuses. Corporations have utterly failed to do the right thing. It is high time governments made them.”

Notes to editors:

  • Earthsight is a UK-based non-profit organisation that uses in-depth investigations to expose environmental and social crime, injustice and the links to global consumption. 
  • The full report, Grand Theft Chaco: The Luxury cars made with leather from the stolen lands of an uncontacted tribe, and company responses can be read here and as a PDF.  Online versions available in Spanish and German.
  • For full supply chain connections, see charts and related information on pages 24-30 of the report.
  • The Gran Chaco is a lowland plateau spread across four countries in the heart of South America, composed of salt flats, wetlands, and the continent’s second largest forest.
  • Known by its Spanish acronym, PNCAT is a protected area of Chaco forest recognised as the territory of uncontacted Totobiegosode groups since 2001. However, since 2005, 53,000 hectares of Totobiegosode forest have been bulldozed and converted to cattle pasture.
  • In February 2018, authorities suspended all land management plans in the Totobiegosode protected area (PNCAT), rendering any clearance unequivocally illegal. Yet between April 2018 and July 2020, Earthsight identified clearances of more than 2,600 hectares. 
  • Paraguay exports around 50,000 tonnes of wet-blue leather (an early-stage product processed from raw cattle hides) each year. Almost two-thirds of these leather exports are shipped into the EU, and nearly all goes to Italy. Large tannery firms there then supply the finished leather used in cars.
  • Skins of 50-60 million cows are used every year to fit out cars for the world’s wealthiest, in an industry worth $29 billion. The leather used in cars each year could blanket Manhattan three times over. 

For more information please contact press@earthsight.org.uk. 

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