Tracing the trail of Amazon deforestation

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In July 2021, Manuela Andreoni, a Pulitzer Center reporter for the New York Times, camped for hours outside a slaughterhouse near the Jaci-Paraná reservation in Brazil. She was tracking down a truck she suspected of delivering hides from illegally cleared ranched cattle to a supplier of U.S. auto seat manufacturers. A few days earlier, Victor Moriyama, a photographer working for the Times, had almost stepped on a poisonous snake.

Thousands of miles away in New York City, Albert Sun, a graphics editor for The Times, analyzed data on the locations of cattle ranches in the Amazon. Hiroko Tabuchi, Times investigative reporter for the climate group, traced the leather supply chain to automakers.

Jesse Pesta, Times deputy editor for climate and environment coverage, guided the team of journalists, which had been investigating Brazil’s leather supply chain for months. The resulting article was published last week and revealed how Americans’ demand for leather seats in luxury cars and SUVs is worsening deforestation in the Amazon.

In a recent conversation, Ms Andreoni spoke about how the team conducted the investigation and how they persuaded people to open up. They included pastoralists raising cattle on illegally deforested land, a middleman who traded cattle and Lourenço Durães, a 71-year-old rubber tapper who said he faced a death threat because his land was precious. His answers have been edited for length and clarity.

Why did you decide to continue this story?
Amazon deforestation is a problem that affects the lives of the people of our planet, but understanding of the role played by multinational companies that supply products – such as leather car seats – to rich countries is still limited. We wanted to show it.

We’ve gotten years of data on livestock movements, which is really hard to come by, giving us a unique opportunity to expose the loopholes that allow leather from illegally cleared land to reach consumers in the States. -United.

How did data analyzes inform field reports, and vice versa?
It was funny because when I got to Rondônia, in the Amazon, there was this farmer who said to me, “Oh, yeah, come here and watch me sell cattle”, and the intermediary that we had been investigating ever since. months – I ‘had seen his Facebook page several times – was he there! This is why on-site reporting can be so valuable. We had done an analysis that showed evidence of livestock laundering, but we wanted to see if a farmer’s transactions that we observed in the data matched what we were seeing in the field. Could we see other businesses buying from the middleman on the same day they buy from the farmer we interviewed? Yes, we could.

What has been your biggest challenge?
The reserve in which we based our reporting is a conflict zone, and land disputes sometimes turn violent. The traditional community there is very scared, and it was difficult to try to contact them because there is no cell phone coverage. But finally I found someone [Lourenço Durães]. He told me he reported a death threat to the police, but no one investigated. So he was very happy that we were here and that someone cared what he was going through. It was an important part of the story.

How did the daily reporting of this story unfold?
We wanted to talk to as many people and see as many stages in the supply chain as we could. But there was a lot of driving and waiting, in order to get important facts and interviews from the field. I followed a truck for many hours looking for farms on these dirt roads that have no names. Then, getting to Lourenço was much more difficult than expected. I ended up getting there with this very old canoe with a lot of holes, and the motor broke a few times, so it took about five hours.

The rancher who raises cattle on illegally deforested land in the Amazon is remarkably candid, even consenting to be photographed and allowing you to observe transactions. How did you gain his trust?
When there was a dictatorship in Brazil in the 1960s to 1980s, the military government wanted to occupy the Amazon to secure the country’s borders, among other reasons. And they said to people, “Come to the Amazon, we’ll give you free land. It was a bit like the US rush to the West. That was decades ago, but that feeling that you can just take land and deforest it and own it to you is still very much present. Basically that’s how it’s been done for a long time, so people are willing to talk about it because basically they don’t see it as a bad thing, even though they maybe know that it is. is illegal.

How did the Brazilians react to this story?
The most powerful response we have had came the week after our story was published. A state attorney mentioned our report in oral argument before a local court that was assessing whether a law that had virtually extinguished the Jaci-Paraná reservation should stand. The court decided to overturn the law.

Where do we go from here?
I know a lot of people say they will never buy a leather seat again, but in reality what the specialists are saying is that we shouldn’t give up on them because the beef trade is so big here. in Brazil that not using leather means that much of it would simply go to landfills. But maybe people and businesses can use this knowledge to influence an extremely important supply chain that is a powerful driver of deforestation, especially in Brazil, but also elsewhere.

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