A truck drives down a dusty road surrounded by cattle fields

Photo: streetsfilm/hr

EIA’s investigations into illegal cattle ranching in the Brazilian Amazon hit German TV

Updated May 3, 2024

Today Deutsche Welle released an English version of a documentary first broadcast in March by one of Germany’s largest public broadcasters, ARD. The film brings to light more evidence linking illegal deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon to international leather supply chains.

Investigative journalists from Streetsfilm Productions traveled deep into the Brazilian rainforest to uncover the connections between leather car seats used by German automakers like BMW and Mercedes and cattle-driven deforestation in the Amazon. With help from EIA analysts, they were able to track cattle raised illegally inside the Apyterewa Indigenous Territory – the most heavily deforested in the Brazilian Amazon – into the supply chain of JBS, the world’s largest meat company and a supplier of leather used in BMW’s cars seats.

The resulting documentary provides an inside look at how EIA combines data journalism and undercover field work to expose the links between environmental crime and international markets, as we previously documented in the Brazilian cattle sector through a three year investigation into illegal ranching in a protected area in the state of Rondônia and connections to the global automotive leather industry. 

The issues highlighted by our investigative findings have gotten the attention of Brazilian law enforcement and U.S. lawmakers. Last June, EIA was invited to testify at a Senate Finance Committee hearing on cattle-driven deforestation in the Amazon. The committee Chairperson, Senator Wyden, sent a letter to Lear Corporation – the world’s largest leather car seat manufacturer – citing our findings and asking the company what it’s doing to ensure that environmental crime and human rights abuses are not in its supply chains. And last December, public prosecutors in Brazil sued several of the meat companies exposed for the first time in our report as having purchased cattle directly from farms operating illegally inside a protected area.

But the unfortunate truth is that most companies have proven unwilling to voluntarily take the steps necessary to remove deforestation and crime from their supply chains. We need new laws in major consumer markets to bring about change at the scale needed and ensure that companies trying to do the right thing don’t face unfair competition from those that won’t. 

U.S. lawmakers have an unprecedented opportunity to pass such a law. In December, the FOREST Act was introduced with bipartisan support in the Senate and House. The bill, which has been endorsed by a broad set of U.S. environmental, human rights and faith-based NGOs as well as U.S. cattle ranchers, would prohibit imports of commodities produced on illegally deforested land and require importers to know the exact origins of products like beef and cowhides when sourcing from countries like Brazil and Nicaragua that are suffering high rates of illegal deforestation. A growing set of U.S. businesses, including Danone North America, Mars Inc., Nestlé USA, and Unilever United States, have expressed their support for such import regulations.

The EU has already taken action. A recently-enacted prohibition on key commodities produced on recently deforested land – including beef and cowhides – comes into effect at the end of the year, and a law requiring major companies to carry out human rights and environmental due diligence across their operations, while not as strong as we had hoped, appears likely to pass this year.

These demand-side laws, if fully realized, will play an important role in creating market incentives for the government and companies in Brazil to address the underlying issues that drive illegal deforestation and human rights abuses in the country’s poorly regulated cattle sector.