Greenpeace: putting trees before people

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.

14 thoughts on “Greenpeace: putting trees before people”

  1. I have just been watching match of the day 2. I know my soul is sapped as i do this. But I could not help but think, Man 1 tree 0….

  2. While, I cannot see why building with wood is not considered carbon capturing.
    The question of the Amazon deforestation is different, as it about decreasing or narrowing biodiversity, is it not. Loosing the ability to discover biological difference – that has revealed unique chemical compounds , that make up most known medical cures, does not ultimately help anyone. What is not in dispute, is that in the Amazon, species are disappearing quicker than new ones are evolving. Thia is of universal human significance. Who does it sometimes matters not as it of universal human significance.

    I don’t know what the answer is, as I would never blame anyone for taking what they can to feed their family. Even is this meant destroying virgin rain forest. I would do it myself. Yet also, paying people to do otherwise, ultimately stifles political choice and reaffirms historical material inequity.
    I for one, cannot see how to bridge this epistomologcal no mans land between politics and science.

    1. James — What is not in dispute, is that in the Amazon, species are disappearing quicker than new ones are evolving.

      In may not be the subject of dispute, but is that what makes it true?

      What is the ‘rate’ of ‘extinction’? What is the ‘rate’ of new evolution? What should they be?

      Biologists don’t even agree on what a ‘species’ is.

  3. Sorry for being obtuse, as you put it. But the question of biodiversity is ethically, morally, economically and politically important. Maybe even more so, than the question of climate change.
    Specism, for example, puts the emphasis on the continuation of a genomic strand, without concern for their relative success, in terms of population (i.e one Panda is worth ten million ants). Where as a moral approach, seams to suggest, that it does not matter about the survival of species, what matters is the protection of individuals, no matter what species they happen to be.
    If sentience is relative, and a matter of degrees – as I believe it is – when should we feel that we can kill one being to save another?

  4. I didn’t put it as ‘obtuse’… But if the cap fits…

    You say that biodiversity is morally, ethically, economically and political important, but then switch to the discussion of sentience! And we’re none the wiser as to what biodiversity is, nor why it is important, under any of those perspectives.

  5. It does fit. and its uncomfortable.
    I don’t think its a switch between issues when often, polar bears, whales or dolphins are ascribed with more “value” than other species. Value being the key question in the social sciences.
    A large part the climate debate revolves around saving species that most closely resemble ourselves; not really climate change itself.
    We need to ask why ecologism makes universal claims to all the things above, as it doesn’t really address any of it, and it can’t make useful comparisons.

  6. Should we ever exchange a human life for any number of trees? Is this a real question (I think not)? . Is it a zero sum game? Man versus tree… How many tree’s per person? How many tree’s am I worth?

    All I know right now is that all the trees in the world could die, only if that was the only way my family could survive. That doesn’t mean I want to kill tree’s.

    Count the number of people you know that claim to be environmentalists, who burn “wood” to heat and cook. How dare they.
    I use central heating which is more efficient by far, and I don’t drive. So fuck you and your wood burner. Until you use less carbon than me, do not get self righteous. and if you do you should justify it terms of need, not want,

  7. Should we ever exchange a human life for any number of trees? Is this a real question (I think not)? . Is it a zero sum game? Man versus tree… How many tree’s per person? How many tree’s am I worth?

    All I know right now is that all the trees in the world could die, if that was the only way my family could survive. That doesn’t mean I want to kill tree’s.

    Count the number of people you know that claim to be environmentalists, who burn “wood” to heat and cook. How dare they.
    I use central heating which is more efficient by far, and I don’t drive. So fuck you and your wood burner. Until you use less carbon than me, do not get self righteous. and if you do you should justify it terms of need, not want,

  8. Who wants to Bet the Coalition are going to SELL OFF the Met Office

    http://www.telegraph.co.uk/topics/weather/8880438/Chance-of-a-shower-You-decide-as-Met-Office-launches-new-style-weather-forecasts.html

    The biggest f–ck up The RENAMED Met Office ever made predicting the weather was not the last couple of severe winters and the no show summers that arrived late
    It was the last one THE ROYAL WEDDING
    The Met Office said it would rain on the day of the Royal Wedding
    What happened dull day no rain nice sunny afternoon and Kate and Wills going down the Mail in a nice open top MG surrounded by massive heavily armed surcurity (im a 100% Royalist celebrity The Queen and Celebrity Royal Family i brought it i love it i should be ashamed im not Sorry Ben)
    So what pissed of the eastablishment
    They predicted rain and crowd numbers were down wasnt as good on the Telly unlike Diana,s big day

    So the govenment wants to off load the Met Office get rid of a load of civil servants and thier pensions (which is what Wednesdays strike is about)
    So a Privatised Met Office will simply collect and post the weather data on a SUBCCRIPTION web site
    The media and corporates buy the Data and run their own forcasting programs and Apps
    The govenment makes and saves a bit of cash BUT what i suspect is
    The Establishment wants to DEPOLITICISES THE WEATHER
    The Govenment dosent want to kill the Frankensteins Monster that is Climate Change thats gots a lot bigger than they are and certainly they can no longer control
    No they just wants to Off load it

    So the Met Office changed its name to The Office for Meterology and Climate Change
    With those last 2 words they sold thier soul to the the politicians
    They gave up their scientific integrity and independance
    And how have they been rewarded
    Those meterolgists who used to do such a bad job of analysing the weather data
    See them in the Bracknell Job Centre soon

    Take heart at least they wont be hearing these word anymore
    “If you couldnt tell us if it would rain sleet snow or get sunburn yesterday how can predict Global Warming tommorow”

    They got into bed and then were surprised when they got well shafted by the politicians
    Its 2nd favourite political saying after Bill Murray in Ghostbusters “saving the lives of millions of potential voters”
    My 1st saying is from The Hunt for Red October
    The US Secretary for Defence played by Richard Jordan says to former Navy Seal and rising star CIA agent Jack Ryan played by Alec Baldwin before Harrison Ford got the gig
    “Im a politician when im not kissing babies im stealing their Lollypops”

    Which reminds me i must find that on Youtube and send it Dellingpole

  9. m Man Vs Tree
    Been thinking about this one for a while now since Ben posted it.
    I have decided that that I like trees. I hang out wit them in the park. If I see a tree getting cut down it makes me feel sad.
    The context in which they get felled is not necessarily important.
    j

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *