At first glance, South America's Amazon region seems an unlikely a place to create a beef-production alliance. After all, the home of the vast and high-profile tropical forest ecosystems are about as far removed from the mainstream of organized “program” beef production as one might imagine.

Not any more.

The architects of Aliança da Terra believe the Amazon is the perfect place to demonstrate how environmental protection and a food-production economy can co-exist. This unique alliance joins a transparent set of economically viable land stewardship criteria with the rewards of market access for its participants.

“In the southern Amazonian agricultural frontier, such a union could have an enormous impact on the future health of the Amazon forest,” says cattle rancher John Cain Carter. The Texas native and his Brazilian wife Kika run cattle on about 20,000 acres along the eastern edge of the Xingu River Basin — an Amazon tributary especially hard hit by deforestation.

During a 2002-2004 spike in agricultural development — driven much by desire for cattle pasture and soybean plantations — the Amazon Basin lost more than 10,000 square miles of pristine forest annually. The Carters, both graduates of the Texas Christian University Ranch Management Program, are principles in Aliança da Terra and are working hard to promote its concept and implementation.

“This is a revolutionary concept that can turn landowners into saviors of the rainforest instead of its enemies,” Kika says. “By making this alliance work we can also save our cattle-ranching heritage for future generations.”

Frontier dynamics

Ironically, Brazilian ranchers and farmers operate under one of the strictest environmental codes in the world. For example, Brazilian law requires 80% of land and all riparian zones on private landholdings in the Amazon be maintained as environmental reserves. In the state of Mato Grosso, landowners are responsible for more than 25% of the future net forests reserves that the state will maintain once expansion is complete.

Brazilians commonly point out this is a conservation burden no other landowners in the world are forced to adhere to. But all too often, John says, little is obeyed in the Amazon due to its “frontier dynamics.”

“The environmental bar has been raised so high, a state of civil disobedience has arisen,” he says. “The world is concerned about the Amazon's future integrity as a viable ecosystem, and law-abiding Amazonian landowners are tired of being portrayed as criminals instead of as pioneers.”

A lot of the Amazon forest is still standing; all that's lacking is a mechanism to differentiate between those doing the right thing and those going against the grain.

“If the marketplace is going to demand all sorts of production criteria, to include social and environmental requirements, then we will produce what it wants,” John explains. “The best way for the international community to help protect the Amazon is to use its buying power to select between those going the extra mile and those who are not.”

He and other alliance organizers will be starting a marketing program targeting European beef consumers as soon as they get 100 ranches (more than 1.5 million acres) on board. They have developed a “stamp of quality” (at left) that will appear on all Aliança da Terra food products.

The social fabric

The requisite “transparency” in production standards is being co-developed by Aliança da Terra in conjunction with Massachusetts-based Woods Hole Research Institute (WHRI) and the Institute for Amazonian Environmental Research. These non-government organizations will provide third-party verification that participants operate in line with the program's environmental standards.

They're quick to point out that their attention to the Amazon's health extends beyond the environment and into the region's social fabric. Pressure on Amazon beef and soy producers is also coming from within Brazil, as domestic consumers increasingly demand beef produced with lower environmental and social impacts.

“Agroindustrial expansion also displaces small farmers and indigenous communities, and the diversified farming systems they have developed,” says WHRI's Dan Nepstad, Woods Hole, MA. Aliança da Terra has an overarching goal to serve as a model system, nationally and globally, to certify producers for their demonstrated commitment to environmental conservation, social justice and food safety.”

In those Amazon regions where cattle ranching and agroindustry are highly lucrative, Nepstad says it will be very difficult to achieve forest conservation purely through command-and-control approaches. He sees tremendous opportunity for political and financial support of beef and soy producers who can associate access to lucrative markets in southern Brazil or Europe with environmental compliance.

“It's a new era for Amazon development and conservation,” Nepstad says. “The rainforest and its ‘hamburger connection’ denounced two decades ago could become an important new mechanism for protecting, not destroying, the world's largest tropical rainforest.”

For more information, visit www.aliancadaterra.org.br/.