Last month Earthsight published There Will Be Blood, a joint investigation with Brazilian agribusiness watch group De Olho nos Ruralistas linking fast-food giant KFC, UK supermarket chicken and German pet food to indigenous rights abuses in Brazil.
KFC, Sainsbury’s, Aldi, Lidl, Edeka and Netto, among others, were caught sourcing meat or pet food from firms that buy chicken linked to a controversial soy farm built on Takuara, the traditional land of the Guarani Kaiowá indigenous group, forcibly evicted in the 1950s. Takuara is now almost entirely denuded of its native forests, the result of decades of intense agribusiness exploitation.
The wealthy and well-connected Jacintho family, who own the farm, and Brazilian authorities have brutally suppressed the Guarani Kaiowá’s attempts to regain access to their ancestral land and livelihoods, including through violent evictions and the aggressive use of the courts to stymie them. One of the most tragic results of the violence was the murder of Kaiowá leader Marcos Veron, who had attempted to lead his community back to Takuara.
Here are four key takeaways from our investigation:
Guarani Kaiowá leader Marcos Veron addresses members of the indigenous group
The Jacinthos are not the only ones to profit from the Guarani Kaiowá’s misery.
Big businesses in Europe and Britain are taking their cut, knowingly or not, from the family’s farm, Brasília do Sul. Their complex supply chains mean unsuspecting shoppers may be abetting indigenous rights abuses thousands of miles away.
Local sources told Earthsight and De Olho nos Ruralistas that soybeans grown at Brasília do Sul are sold to large cooperatives and traders, including one of Brazil’s largest poultry producers, Lar Cooperativa Agroindustrial. Trade records show Lar exported tens of thousands of tonnes of chicken products to Western firms supplying the big EU and UK brands.
Earthsight and De Olho nos Ruralistas gave big-name brands and importers the opportunity to respond to our findings. Some issued blanket denials, without elaborating; others simply did not respond.
Not one company provided evidence to substantiate their statements, which were seemingly based on assurances they got from their suppliers with no further questions asked.
Retailers’ responses indicate that it was Earthsight and De Olho nos Ruralistas – not their own checks – that first alerted them to Lar’s links to both Brasília do Sul and their suppliers.
It fast became clear that the big brands’ ‘due diligence’ checks were wholly unsatisfactory.
Crucially, none could convincingly explain how or if they are able to stop chicken products linked to indigenous rights violations from entering their supply chains. This clearly falls well short of the rigorous monitoring necessary to ensure products in Europe are not tainted by the suppression of human rights elsewhere.
Harvesting a soy plantation
If European and British corporations won’t do the right thing, governments must make them.
We need strong laws to ban commodities and derived products linked to local communities’ rights violations and deforestation from entering the EU and UK markets. Luckily, efforts in this direction are under way. However, regulations under consideration need to be improved where still possible.
The EU Commission’s proposed law on deforestation-free products covers soy, but not chicken fed with soy. Campaigners have called on the EU to expand the scope of the legislation to cover all products that contain, have been fed with or have been made using any of the covered commodities.
In addition, the European Parliament and Council, currently debating the proposed regulation, should introduce stronger provisions on indigenous rights, which at the moment are only covered by inadequate references to local laws in producing countries. The regulation must demand that businesses take into account international human rights law and standards when assessing and mitigating risks related to local communities’ rights in their supply chains.
Meanwhile, the UK Environment Act, approved by Parliament last year, will ban the use of commodities linked to illegal deforestation in UK commercial activities when it takes effect. But unlike the EU’s proposals, the Act does not ban goods linked to legal deforestation.
It also does not directly address human rights violations – a glaring shortcoming for rules that should not only aim to tackle Britain’s role in driving forest loss but also the human cost of agribusiness expansion.
Sadly, it’s looking almost certain that the UK government, despite opposition by campaigners and civil society, will introduce loopholes to the Act’s secondary legislation that are likely to seriously undermine the law’s stated goals of minimising British consumers’ role in illegal deforestation.
The case of Takuara once again illustrates the importance of ambitious consumer-side legislation. With firms failing to cut ties to bad actors, governments are right to step in. However, policy makers must ensure these laws are guided by the urgent need to tackle the twin global crises of climate change and biodiversity collapse, as well as the impacts of economic exploitation of local communities’ lands.
European Parliament voting session
Several of the European companies that denied links to Brasília do Sul, the Jacintho family’s soy farm, nonetheless expressed little concern about doing business with its major domestic customer Lar, the Brazilian chicken exporting giant. They didn’t voice much anxiety about their commercial ties to a Brazilian exporter closely linked to a farm implicated in egregious violence against an indigenous community. However, some did say they would investigate.
Some of these firms had announced they were willing to end business with suppliers connected to indigenous rights abuses. Would they do so with Lar? It was unclear from their statements.
Others mentioned third-party certification as proof Lar complied with indigenous rights laws and standards – questionable claims, given the schemes in question related to food safety and workers’ conditions.
The indigenous community at the receiving end of violence and destitution would certainly like to see more meaningful action by the companies benefitting from Brasília do Sul’s soy. In a recent interview Valdelice Veron, a Kaiowá leader from Takuara, appealed for a halt to business dealings with the farm.
Yet firms in Europe have adopted a defiant attitude, denying wrongdoing or links to problematic suppliers. With no authorities checking, why wouldn’t they? The question is: once legislation on agri-commodities is in place, will enforcement authorities rely on such denials, or will they demand proper accountability from industry?
Guarani Kaiowá leader Valdelice Veron - the black face paint symbolises mourning for her father and other community members lost to the struggle
As the report made clear, the plight of the Guarani Kaiowá is just a small part of a wider tale of theft and devastation spanning Brazil and other major producer countries.
It documents how profits from Brasília do Sul helped the Jacintho family cement and grow its power and political influence, running roughshod over the Kaiowá and their ancestral lands in the process.
This case is emblematic of the underlying causes behind Latin America's wider deforestation calamity: the lack of respect for the rights of indigenous and other traditional communities, the undue and poisonous political influence of the agribusiness lobby, and the violence and impunity it breeds.
Experts interviewed by Earthsight and De Olho nos Ruralistas were not shy about using the terms genocide or extermination to describe the treatment of indigenous peoples in the Brazilian state of Mato Grosso do Sul, where the dispute over the Guarani Kaiowá’s land takes place.
Grave mistakes made by governments past and present, as well as a lack of political action to rectify them, usually means legal battles are the only recourse left to local communities. Yet courts are often inadequate spaces to rule on indigenous land disputes that frequently pit competing laws on private property and indigenous land rights against each other.
As such, the case reveals deeper structural issues that need to be tackled by a range of stakeholders, including governments in both producer and consumer countries. There Will Be Blood isn’t just a catchy title, it’s a warning of lessons yet to be learned.
So how do we end global forest loss and indigenous rights abuses?
For starters, global cooperation will be key. The consumer-side regulation mentioned above must be accompanied by global efforts to help producer countries strengthen forest governance and the protection of local communities’ rights, as well as tackle corruption, impunity and undue political influence.