Greenpeace: putting trees before people

The claim that massive areas of rainforest are being cut down to make way for grazing pasture is a lot of bull dung.

Ben Pile

Topics Science & Tech

At the end of last month, the Guardian’s environment correspondent, David Adam, reported from Brazil on Greenpeace’s allegation that illegal deforestation in the Amazon Basin was linked to a number of giant UK food firms. But were Greenpeace’s claims all that they appeared?

The online version of Adam’s report features a video of his visit to Brazil. Pressing ‘play’ on the video, I expected to see Adam giving an account of the environmental Armageddon he was witnessing (and causing, given that the plane he travelled in would have emitted considerable quantities of greenhouse gases to get him there).

Instead I was greeted by one of the rotating adverts that appear ahead of the Guardian’s video features. ‘Kerrygold is owned by Irish dairy farmers, and this is our ad’, the farmers declare in broad brogue. It’s a curious advert to see ahead of a report about trees being illegally felled to make way for cattle. Over the course of centuries, Ireland been cleared of forest cover, and is now one of the least forested countries in Europe. It doesn’t seem to have done Irish farmers much harm.

Life isn’t as simple for people seeking an existence in Brazil as it is for the Kerrygold farmers, as Adam’s first article from the region illustrates. While the owners of one ranch have their estate and luxury accommodation protected by armed guards, squatters who live on the estate live much less rewarding lives. The possibility is raised that one of the squatters – the father of two young children – was recently shot in a dispute over land. We might expect Adam to continue describing the conditions and violence that the many people in Brazil have to endure. Instead, his article becomes confused and dominated by the issue of illegal deforestation – the subject of the Greenpeace report.

The story is that the Brazilian government has been unable and possibly unwilling to stop rainforest being illegally cleared to make way for cattle. Farms – some of which have illegally turned more than 20 per cent (the legal limit) of their land into pasture since 2006 – sell cattle to large companies that in turn supply UK retailers such as Tesco, Asda, Morrisons, Sainsbury’s and Marks & Spencer with a range of goods such as meat, leather and gelatine products. ‘British supermarkets are driving rapid destruction of the Amazon rainforest by using meat from farms responsible for illegal deforestation’, says Adam.

Sarah Shoraka, Greenpeace forests campaigner, is even blunter: ‘Shoes, handbags and ready meals aren’t normally associated with rainforest destruction and climate change, but we’ve found a smoking gun. UK companies are driving the destruction of the Amazon by buying beef and leather products from unscrupulous suppliers in Brazil. These products are ending up on our shelves.’

But is this ‘driving’ of rainforest destruction by UK firms quite as clear as Adam and Greenpeace are claiming? The suggestion is that these companies are complicit in illegal deforestation and therefore culpable. However, the ‘smoking gun’ which Greenpeace claims links companies to illegal deforestation amounts to no more than an allegation that trade that has been ‘contaminated’ with some beef from farms that had extended into rainforest. The evidence of this global conspiracy produced by Greenpeace are documents representing the sale of less than 9,000 head of cattle – hardly a huge amount given Brazil’s estimated stock of 200million.

To put that into perspective, there are 10million cattle in the UK, a country with a surface area less than three per cent of Brazil’s and with less than a quarter of Brazil’s human population. If Brazilian cattle were reared as intensively as their British counterparts, 9,000 cattle would occupy an area roughly one-tenth the size of the county of Oxfordshire.

Furthermore, it’s not true that the Brazilian government has ignored illegal clearing. In June last year, officials seized 3,100 cattle being illegally reared on an ecological reserve in the state of Para and a herd of 10,000 in Rondonia. The country’s environment minister estimates the size of the herd grazing illegally cleared land to be just 60,000. Are Greenpeace making mountains out of cow pats?

The story trades on the familiar line that, somehow, supermarkets and brand names are at the centre of all that is wrong in the world. But the government-funded National Health Service (NHS) was also named by Greenpeace’s report as a recipient of cattle products from illegal cleared rainforest, making it hard to sustain the idea that this is some kind of corporate conspiracy. Greenpeace’s aim with this exaggeration, aided and abetted by Adam’s reports, seems to be the establishment of international rules to regulate the trade in beef, pushed through on a wave of consumer guilt.

As Greenpeace’s report says: ‘The Copenhagen Climate Summit, to be held in Denmark in December 2009, is the key opportunity for governments to agree measures to drastically reduce [greenhouse gas] emissions. Any effective deal must include actions and funding to tackle deforestation.’

There may well be an argument that what happens to trees thousands of miles away is a problem. But the problems experienced by the poor in Brazil, and throughout the world, must surely be more pressing. Instead, it is squeamishness about what our shopping habits do to forests that drives the argument for international regulatory frameworks, and it is hard to see how focusing on land, trees and cows will raise the standard of living for people whose labour and lives are cheap. Such campaigns seem to express greater solidarity with wood than with people.

Greenpeace enjoys an increasingly cosy relationship with the establishment. As politicians find it harder to make arguments for themselves, they frequently turn to NGOs to give their policies credibility. For instance, the UK Conservative leader David Cameron recently launched his party’s energy policy at a press event held on the rooftop of Greenpeace’s London HQ (watch it here).

Journalists, too, look to such organisations for moral direction and sensational copy. This means that rather than holding them to account, the claims and broader agendas of NGOs often go without scrutiny or criticism. It is taken for granted that they are ‘ethical’, but no one ever voted for Greenpeace and there is no good reason to believe that the preoccupation with environmental issues is in the interests of people, either in the UK or in Brazil.

Ben Pile is an editor of the Climate-Resistance blog, and a philosophy and politics student at York University.

Previously on spiked

Rob Johnston said Amazon tribes are trapped in a prison of underdevelopment. Tessa Mayes read the green issue of Vanity Fair and thought it showed how pompous environmentalism is. Reporting from Germany, Thomas Deichman questioned just how ‘charitable’ Greenpeace is. Alex Avery wondered why the media swallowed Greenpeace’s toxic tales about GM food. Or read more at spiked issue Environment.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Science & Tech


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