Tuesday, August 08, 2006

How Chicken McNuggets are destroying Mato Grosso

Mato Grosso is a state in Western Brazil. The name ‘mato grosso’ means thick jungle in Portuguese and the state is at the heart of Amazonia. Apart from the state capital, Cuiabá, there are few cities. However, Mato Grosso is the site of some of the worst deforestation in the world. In 2005, the Brazilian federal government said that 48 percent of Amazon deforestation that took place in 2003 and 2004 occurred in Mato Grosso. Although some deforestation is part of the country’s plans to develop its agriculture and timber industries, other deforestation is the result of illegal logging and squatters. Because the forest is so large and is difficult to access or patrol, the government uses satellite images to detect illegal deforestation. The images taken by the Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) on NASAs Terra satellite can provide an initial alert that tells officials where to look for illegal logging.

Mato Grosso is an agrarian state with economy based on cattle-raising in the land-cleared areas. The area is also the major producer of soybeans in Brazil. The Agricultural Federation of Mato Grosso said Thursday they oppose a decision made last month by the nation's soy crushers and traders, prohibiting purchases of soybeans grown in recently deforested regions of the Amazon biome. On July 24, the Brazilian Vegetable Oils Industry Association announced they would not buy soy from recently deforested Amazon forest for the next two years. The decision comes on the heels of an announcement by the European branch of McDonald's to stop buying soy meal for chicken feed made from soybeans in the Amazon. The company said they made the decision following a report titled "Eating the Amazon" by Greenpeace International, which put much of the onus on Amazon deforestation on McDonald's as well as the US-owned agricultural giants Cargill, ADM (Archer Daniels Midland) and Bunge. Europe is the main export market and imports 18 million tons of Amazonian soya beans mainly for use as animal feed. The Mato Grosso soya beans ultimately ends up inside the British, French and German consumers in the form of McDonald’s chicken nuggets.

In 1977 the state was split into two halves, with Mato Grosso do Sul becoming a new state. Mato Grosso is now the northern half of the region and is sparsely populated with barely a million inhabitants. Most of the state of Mato Grosso do Sul, which is marginally more populous, is either seasonal flood plain or open scrubland. The Pantanal wetlands is one of the world’s great swamps and extends into both states. It is one of the largest nature reserves in the world and has the greatest concentration of fauna in the Americas. But it too faces an uncertain future stemming from a series of socioeconomic pressures. United Nations University experts warn that the Pantanal is at growing risk from intensive peripheral agricultural, industrial and urban development – problems expected to be compounded by climate change.

Some of the local indigenous tribes are fighting back. For decades, the 7,000 strong Kayapó nation have defended their 113,000-square kilometre, Cuba-sized homeland in Mato Grosso and Pará from incursions by speculators, ranchers, gold miners, loggers and squatters. Today the Kayapó fight two new threats: five huge hydroelectric dams planned on their lifeline Xingu River, and completion of the second half of BR-163, the road that slices through Amazonia north to south. Brazil's government is preparing to let private companies embark on a $417 million paving project to turn BR163 into a modern two-lane toll highway stretching 1,800kms. That would link Brazil's most important soy-growing region with a deep-water Amazon River port.

The 1,000 strong Bororo tribe also live in Mato Grosso. They been constricted to an ever-shrinking territory but the agricultural and ranching activities of the settlers have altered the environment so much that the former subsistence activities of the Bororo have become increasingly less productive. With many of the old cultural traits no longer practiced or forgotten, and with a dwindling population, the modern-day Bororo bear little resemblance to their forebears.

The flora and the fauna and the indigenous tribes all face the same rapacious enemies. With the combined threat of roads and dams for farmers, and soya beans for Chicken McNuggets, it is unlikely to be too long before Mato Grosso becomes a thick jungle in name only.

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