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Commodity-driven deforestation, such as for pasture for cattle farming, is often synonymous with human rights abuses, including the displacement of Indigenous peoples and local communities as well as violent attacks.

Livestock ranching accounts for 50–80% of the Global GDP of the agricultural sector, and is growing – some projections show consumption could increase by 14% by 2030. Currently, 80% of land clearing in the Brazilian Amazon is associated with pasture expansion. This ecosystem conversion does not happen in isolation, it is linked to violence against Indigenous peoples and local communities (IPs and LCs), with labour rights also at risk.

Conflict associated with the conversion of land for industrial agriculture is a main driver of killings in Brazil. 324 lethal attacks were reported between 2012 – 2021 against land and environmental defenders, 85% of which happened within the Brazilian Amazon.

Global Canopy’s Forest 500 assessments have shown that too few of the most influential upstream beef companies (producers and processors), are setting human rights commitments to protect against potential abuses.

Upstream beef companies lagging behind on IPs and LCs rights

Companies in beef supply chains are performing poorly on both deforestation and human rights, especially those operating upstream (companies that produce or process a raw commodity), on the deforestation frontline. Only 30% (29/96) of companies assessed for beef have a deforestation commitment. Just 25% (6/24) of those operating upstream have a deforestation commitment.

Human rights abuses often precede or accompany deforestation. These can include labour rights violations, failure to secure free prior and informed consent (FPIC), failing to respect customary rights to land, resources, territory, and violence against forest, land and human rights defenders.

Illegal land grabbing is frequently linked to beef production. When beef is processed, labour rights can be at risk as work-related accidents, illness and injuries are common. Self-reported industry data showed amputations in meatpacking workers were 14 times the average for all industries. Further self-reported industry data revealed that several meat companies are among the most dangerous by ranking the highest, Tyson Foods, Cargill and JBS are 5th, 8th and 20th respectively.

Human rights abuses are so intimately connected to deforestation and ecosystem conversion, that companies can only eliminate deforestation if they also eliminate associated human rights abuses.

What are six of the most influential upstream beef companies with a deforestation commitment doing to address such abuses?

Only four (JBS, Marfrig Global Foods, Fuga Couros S/A and Minerva S.A.) of the six upstream beef companies with a deforestation commitment have committed to respecting internationally-recognised labour rights. In the Forest 500, a company can only score full points for labour rights if they have commitments on discrimination, child labour, forced labour and freedom of association. Two companies, Frialto and JBJ Investimentos, had a zero-gross deforestation commitment, but no labour rights commitment.

Of those with labour rights commitments, too few are taking steps to implement them. Of the four with a labour rights commitment, only Marfrig and Fuga Couros S/A publish evidence of actions taken to implement them. For the companies that do not monitor their commitments, they cannot check they are free from labour rights violations.

The uptake of commitments relating to FPIC and land use conflict is even lower. Only one of the six companies, Marubeni Corp., had a commitment to test for FPIC, and just one company, Vicentin S.A.I.C, had a commitment to respect customary rights to land, resources, and territory. Given the association of pasture expansion with land clearing, the lack of policies to recognise and respect Indigenous Lands is alarming.

Why this matters for the finance sector

The inadequate uptake and implementation of human rights commitments should ring alarm bells for the institutions financing these companies.

Last year, BNP Paribas received a formal notice as part of a complaint under France’s Duty of Vigilance Law for financing Marfrig, following allegations around illegal land grabbing of Indigenous Lands on the company’s cattle farms. This serves as a stark reminder of financial institutions’ legal obligations when it comes to human rights, but also the reputational risk of financing companies without human rights commitments and adequate implementation measures.

Steps that need to be taken

To effectively eliminate deforestation in beef supply chains, increased company action on associated human rights abuses is essential. As a matter of urgency, companies need to set human rights commitments to address the risk of violations in their supply chains. Companies must also ensure implementation and compliance on the ground. Harms that have already been caused due to deforestation or conversion, such as illegal land grabbing, must be remediated.

Financial institutions also have a key role to play in the prevention of human rights abuses in beef supply chains. They can utilise their unique leverage through their finance to companies, requiring their holdings to address human rights abuses related to deforestation by setting their own policies, as well as engaging companies on their preventative actions, driving change across supply chains.

This insight was originally published on the Forest 500 website.

For more information on the link between deforestation, land conversion and associated human rights, read our second annual human rights briefing, Deforestation and human rights: too many companies and financial institutions ignoring the critical link

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