Leather and the Amazon, again!

Redwood Comment
Published:  10 July, 2019
Credit: Juliana Amorim

In the Autumn of 2018 National Geographic magazine took a look at the prospects for the Amazon forest amid the political upheaval in Brazil. It did look good.

“Bolsonaro has a very strong anti-environmental discourse, and I have zero doubt that his discourse will direct policy,” says Scott Mainwaring, a Brazil expert at Harvard University’s Kennedy School. “I don’t see that this government is going to want to tell landowners not to chop down this part of the forest because it’s on indigenous land. It doesn’t seem there will be any major effort to protect the Amazon.” The leather industry has struggled with this subject a decade ago when the Greenpeace Report “Slaughtering the Amazon” attacked major leather using brands for the tropical deforestation. While there was some truth in this the major culprit at the time, according to author Simon Fairlie, was soya -  largely driven by a huge upsurge in European demand for soya meal demand to feed pigs. Greenpeace chose to attack the leather industry since they made better target from a publicity point of view.

Backwards step

Regardless, big changes were made by leather businesses in Brazil to add in new reporting processes and technologies, including satellite tracking in some instances, to put integrity and transparency into the system. It led, too, to traceability approaches being introduced in many parts of the world and in some celebrated instances consumers can trace the leather in their footwear, their handbags and even their bicycle saddles directly back to the farm. So, to be reading and watching the news about recent incursions into forest lands in order to bring in livestock is deeply depressing. Farmers being interviewed on the edge of apparently pristine jungle arguing that it belongs to Brazil, rather than the rest of the world, and is “too much” to be left to the indigenous peoples when all the farmers want is a field or two.

Guilty by association

While the tanners’ work is to process a by-product and they are not involved in decisions about husbandry they are inevitably complicit here. As an industry we work with farmers and abattoirs to ensure that hides and skins are as good as they can be and know that good husbandry is vital everywhere in the world. We also know that an industry is only as strong as the weakest link in the chain. The leather industry has quite a few “weak” links that need more focus but the Brazilian Rain Forest is one that attracts high levels of media attention. The worldwide leather industry will inevitably become collateral damage. The leather industry does in fact support an increase in livestock farming in Brazil but not via this intensely unacceptable approach of slash and burn. The work by Rafael de Silva* published in Science Direct in 2018 was incorporated in the Brazilian Government Climate Change Mitigation Plan:

"Agricultural intensification is a key component of the offer, potentially allowing the country to make credible mitigation commitments that are aligned with a national development strategy of halting deforestation in the Amazon, and increasing livestock production. This apparent contradiction is potentially resolved by understanding the technical, economic and policy feasibility of intensification by pasture restoration".

In simple terms, increasing demand for meat provides an incentive for Brazilian farmers to improve degraded pastures. Over 50% of the grassland is in very poor condition. Appropriate levels of livestock grazing is the best way to restore and maintain long term grassland. It would boost the amount of carbon stored in the soil and increase cattle productivity. It would require less land for grazing and reduce deforestation, potentially lowering emissions. Brazilian savannah grass is exceptionally good at sequestering carbon dioxide, better than grass types found in the EU and the U.S..

The concept of a need to destroy forest to graze livestock when much of the longstanding grassland needs more and better managed grazing seems inconceivable. And de Silva’s work clearly indicates that for his team’s approach to be valid as Brazil has to ensure that tropical forest is not being cut down. This is the moment we must look to our national and international organisations to rise to the challenge. The CICB in Brazil have had an exceptional few years in promoting the Brazilian leather industry, but also in defending their 1965 Leather Law and highlighting sustainability. The global industry now needs their help in this challenge, and in this major task they should be supported by their major tanners and backed by the International Council of Tanners’ (ICT).

What is most important is that all elements of the industry do not try and sit this one out. We now tell an ethical and an environmental sustainability story and cannot sidestep what is a direct challenge. In an email exchange I had with Rafael de Silva in 2016 he said I would say there is robust evidence that pasture expansion …is no longer… linked with deforestation in Brazil, since around 2005.  Hopefully it will keep that way, but might not...”  In this instance the future is worrying.

Dr Mike Redwood

July 9, 2019

mike@internationalleathermaker.com

Follow Dr Mike Redwood on twitter: @michaelredwood

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* https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0308521X17307655  and see Reducing beef production in Brazil would increase global greenhouse gas emissions - Redwood Comment  Published:  01 March, 2017