Mass starvation is humanitys fate if we keep flogging the land to death | George Monbiot

The Earth cannot accommodate our need and greed for food. We must change our diet before its too late, writes Guardian columnist George Monbiot

Brexit; the crushing of democracy by billionaires; the next financial crash; a rogue US president: none of them keeps me awake at night. This is notbecause I dont care Icare very much. Its only because I have a bigger question onmy mind. Where is all the food going to come from?

By the middle of this century there will be two or three billion more people on Earth. Any one of the issues I am about to list could help precipitate mass starvation. And this is before you consider how they might interact.

The trouble begins where everything begins: with soil. The UNs famous projection that, at current rates of soil loss, the world has 60 years of harvests left, appears to be supported by a new set of figures. Partly as a result of soil degradation, yields are already declining on 20% of the worlds croplands.

Now consider water loss. In places such as the North China Plain, the central United States, California and north-western India among the worlds critical growing regions levels of the groundwater used to irrigate crops are already reaching crisis point. Water in the Upper Ganges aquifer, for example, is being withdrawn at 50 times its recharge rate. But, to keep pace with food demand, farmers in south Asia expect to use between 80 and 200% more water by the year 2050. Where willit come from?

The next constraint is temperature. One study suggests that, all else being equal, with each degree celsius of warming the global yield of rice drops by 3%, wheat by 6% and maize by 7%. These predictions could be optimistic. Research published in the journal Agricultural & Environmental Letters finds that 4C of warming in the US corn belt could reduce maize yields by between 84 and 100%.

The reason is that high temperatures at night disrupt the pollination process. But this describes just one component of the likely pollination crisis. Insectageddon, caused by the global deployment of scarcely tested pesticides, will account for the rest. Already, in some parts of the world, workers are now pollinating plants by hand. But thats viable only for the most expensive crops.

Then there are the structural factors. Because they tend to use more labour, grow a wider range of crops and work the land more carefully, small farmers, as a rule, grow more food per hectare than large ones. In the poorer regions of the world, people with fewer than fivehectares own 30% of the farmland but produce 70% of the food. Since 2000, an area of fertile ground roughly twice the size of the UK has been seized by land grabbers and consolidated intolarge farms, generally growing crops for export rather than the food needed by the poor.

While these multiple disasters unfoldon land, the seas are being sieved of everything but plastic. Despite a massive increase in effort (bigger boats, bigger engines, more gear), the worldwide fish catch is declining by roughly 1% a year, as populations collapse. The global land grab is mirrored by a global sea grab: small fishers are displaced by big corporations, exporting fish to those who need it less but pay more. About 3billion people depend to a large extent on fish and shellfish protein. Where will it come from?

All this would be hard enough. But as peoples incomes increase, their diet tends to shift from plant protein to animal protein. World meat production has quadrupled in 50 years, but global average consumption is still only half that of the UK where we eat roughly our bodyweight in meat every year and just over a third of the US level. Because of the way we eat, the UKs farmland footprint (the land requiredto meet our demand) is 2.4 times the size of its agricultural area. If everyone aspires to this diet, how exactly do we accommodate it?

Graph from Our World in Data.

The profligacy of livestock farming is astonishing. Already, 36% of the calories grown in the form of grain and pulses and 53% of the protein are used to feed farm animals. Two-thirds of this food is lost in conversion from plant to animal. A graph produced last week by Our World in Data suggests that, on average, you need 0.01m2 of land to produce a gram of protein from beans or peas, but 1m2 to produce it from beefcattle or sheep: a 100-folddifference.

Its true that much of the grazing land occupied by cattle and sheep cannot be used to grow crops. But it would otherwise have sustained wildlife and ecosystems. Instead, marshes are drained, trees are felled and their seedlings grazed out, predators are exterminated, wild herbivores fenced out and other life forms gradually erased as grazing systems intensify. Astonishing places such as the rainforests of Madagascar and Brazil are laid waste to make room for yet more cattle.

Because there is not enough land to meet both need and greed, a global transition to eating animals means snatching food from the mouths of the poor. It also means the ecological cleansing of almost every corner of theplanet.

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I see the last rich ecosystems snuffed out, the last of the global megafauna lions, elephants, whales and tuna vanishing. Photograph: Douglas Klug/Getty Images

The shift in diets would be impossible to sustain even if there were no growth in the human population. But the greater the number of people, the greater the hunger meat eating will cause. From a baseline of 2010, the UNexpects meat consumption to rise by70% by 2030 (this is three times the rate of human population growth). Partly as a result, the global demand for crops could double (from the 2005 baseline) by 2050. The land required to grow them does not exist.

When I say this keeps me up at night, I mean it. I am plagued by visions of starving people seeking to escape fromgrey wastes, being beaten back byarmed police. I see the last rich ecosystems snuffed out, the last of the global megafauna lions, elephants, whales and tuna vanishing. And when I wake, I cannot assure myself that it was just anightmare.

Other people have different dreams: the fantasy of a feeding frenzy that neednever end, the fairytale of reconciling continued economic growth witha living world. If humankind spirals into societal collapse, these dreams will be the cause.

There are no easy answers, but the crucial change is a shift from an animal- to a plant-based diet. All else being equal, stopping both meat production and the use of farmland to grow biofuels could provide enough calories for another 4 billion people anddouble the protein available for human consumption. Artificial meat will help:one paper suggests it reduces water useby at least 82% and land useby 99%.

The next green revolution will not be like the last one. It will rely not on flogging the land to death, but on reconsidering how we use it and why. Can we do this, or do we the richer people now consuming the living planet find mass death easier to contemplate than changing our diet?

George Monbiot is a Guardian columnist

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2017/dec/11/mass-starvation-humanity-flogging-land-death-earth-food

Insectageddon: farming is more catastrophic than climate breakdown | George Monbiot

The shocking collapse of insect populations hints at a global ecological meltdown, writes Guardian columnist George Monbiot

Which of these would you name as the worlds most pressing environmental issue? Climate breakdown, air pollution, water loss, plastic waste or urban expansion? My answer is none of the above. Almost incredibly, I believe that climate breakdown takes third place, behind two issues that receive only a fraction of the attention.

This is not to downgrade the danger presented by global heating on the contrary, it presents an existential threat. It is simply that I have come to realise that two other issues have such huge and immediate impacts that they push even this great predicament into third place.

One is industrial fishing, which, all over the blue planet, is now causing systemic ecological collapse. The other is the erasure of non-human life from the land by farming.

And perhaps not only non-human life. According to the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation, at current rates of soil loss, driven largely by poor farming practice, we have just 60 years of harvests left. And this is before the Global Land Outlook report, published in September, found that productivity is already declining on 20% of the worlds cropland.

The impact on wildlife of changes in farming practice (and the expansion of the farmed area) is so rapid and severe that it is hard to get your head round the scale of what is happening. A study published this week in the journal Plos One reveals that flying insects surveyed on nature reserves in Germany have declined by 76% in 27 years. The most likely cause of this Insectageddon is that the land surrounding those reserves has become hostile to them: the volume of pesticides and the destruction of habitat have turned farmland into a wildlife desert.

It is remarkable that we need to rely on a study in Germany to see what is likely to have been happening worldwide: long-term surveys of this kind simply do not exist elsewhere. This failure reflects distorted priorities in the funding of science. There is no end of grants for research on how to kill insects, but hardly any money for discovering what the impacts of this killing might be. Instead, the work has been left as in the German case to recordings by amateur naturalists.

But anyone of my generation (ie in the second bloom of youth) can see and feel the change. We remember the moth snowstorm that filled the headlight beams of our parents cars on summer nights (memorialised in Michael McCarthys lovely book of that name). Every year I collected dozens of species of caterpillars and watched them grow and pupate and hatch. This year I tried to find some caterpillars for my children to raise. I spent the whole summer looking and, aside from the cabbage whites on our broccoli plants, found nothing in the wild but one garden tiger larva. Yes, one caterpillar in one year. I could scarcely believe what I was seeing or rather, not seeing.

Insects, of course, are critical to the survival of the rest of the living world. Knowing what we now know, there is nothing surprising about the calamitous decline of insect-eating birds. Those flying insects not just bees and hoverflies but species of many different families are the pollinators without which a vast tract of the plant kingdom, both wild and cultivated, cannot survive. The wonders of the living planet are vanishing before our eyes.

Well, I hear you say, we have to feed the world. Yes, but not this way. As a UN report published in March explained, the notion that pesticide use is essential for feeding a growing population is a myth. A recent study in Nature Plants reveals that most farms would increase production if they cut their use of pesticides. A study in the journal Arthropod-Plant Interactions shows that the more neonicotinoid pesticides were used to treat rapeseed crops, the more their yield declines. Why? Because the pesticides harm or kill the pollinators on which the crop depends.

Farmers and governments have been comprehensively conned by the global pesticide industry. It has ensured its products should not be properly regulated or even, in real-world conditions, properly assessed. A massive media onslaught by this industry has bamboozled us all about its utility and its impacts on the health of both human beings and the natural world.

The profits of these companies depend on ecocide. Do we allow them to hold the world to ransom, or do we acknowledge that the survival of the living world is more important than returns to their shareholders? At the moment, shareholder value comes first. And it will count for nothing when we have lost the living systems on which our survival depends.

To save ourselves and the rest of the living world, heres what we need to do:

1 We need a global treaty to regulate pesticides, and put the manufacturers back in their box.

2 We need environmental impact assessments for the farming and fishing industries. It is amazing that, while these sectors present the greatest threats to the living world, they are, uniquely in many nations, not subject to such oversight.

3 We need firm rules based on the outcomes of these assessments, obliging those who use the land to protect and restore the ecosystems on which we all depend.

4 We need to reduce the amount of land used by farming, while sustaining the production of food. The most obvious way is greatly to reduce our use of livestock: many of the crops we grow and all of the grazing land we use are deployed to feed them. One study in Britain suggests that, if we stopped using animal products, everyone in Britain could be fed on just 3m of our 18.5m hectares of current farmland (or on 7m hectares if all our farming were organic). This would allow us to create huge wildlife and soil refuges: an investment against a terrifying future.

5 We should stop using land that should be growing food for people to grow maize for biogas and fuel for cars.

Then, at least, nature and people would have some respite from the global onslaught. And, I hope, a chance of getting through the century.

George Monbiot is a Guardian columnist

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2017/oct/20/insectageddon-farming-catastrophe-climate-breakdown-insect-populations

Goodbye and good riddance to livestock farming | George Monbiot

As the artificial meat industry grows, the last argument for farming animals has now collapsed, writes Guardian columnist George Monbiot

What will future generations, looking back on our age, see as its monstrosities? We think of slavery, the subjugation of women, judicial torture, the murder of heretics, imperial conquest and genocide, the first world war and the rise of fascism, and ask ourselves how people could have failed to see the horror of what they did. What madness of our times will revolt our descendants?

There are plenty to choose from. But one of them, I believe, will be the mass incarceration of animals, to enable us to eat their flesh or eggs or drink their milk. While we call ourselves animal lovers, and lavish kindness on our dogs and cats, we inflict brutal deprivations on billions of animals that are just as capable of suffering. The hypocrisy is so rank that future generations will marvel at how we could have failed to see it.

The shift will occur with the advent of cheap artificial meat. Technological change has often helped to catalyse ethical change. The $300m deal China signed last month to buy lab-grown meat marks the beginning of the end of livestock farming. But it wont happen quickly: the great suffering is likely to continue for many years.

The answer, we are told by celebrity chefs and food writers, is to keep livestock outdoors: eat free-range beef or lamb, not battery pork. But all this does is to swap one disaster mass cruelty for another: mass destruction. Almost all forms of animal farming cause environmental damage, but none more so than keeping them outdoors. The reason is inefficiency. Grazing is not just slightly inefficient, it is stupendously wasteful. Roughly twice as much of the worlds surface is used for grazing as for growing crops, yet animals fed entirely on pasture produce just one gram out of the 81g of protein consumed per personper day.

A paper in Science of the Total Environment reports that livestock production is the single largest driver of habitat loss. Grazing livestock are a fully automated system for ecological destruction: you need only release them on to the land and they do the rest, browsing out tree seedlings, simplifying complex ecosystems. Their keepers augment this assault by slaughtering large predators.

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Sheep supply around 1% of our diet in terms of calories. Yet they occupy around 4m hectares of the uplands. Photograph: Murdo MacLeod for the Guardian

In the UK, for example, sheep supply around 1% of our diet in terms of calories. Yet they occupy around 4m hectares of the uplands. This is more or less equivalent to all the land under crops in this country, and more than twice the area of the built environment (1.7m hectares). The rich mosaic of rainforest and other habitats that once covered our hills has been erased, the wildlife reduced to a handful of hardy species. The damage caused is out of all proportion to the meat produced.

Replacing the meat in our diets with soya spectacularly reduces the land area required per kilo of protein: by 70% in the case of chicken, 89% in the case of pork and 97% in the case of beef. One study suggests that if we were all to switch to a plant-based diet, 15mhectares of land in Britain currently used for farming could be returned to nature. Alternatively, this country could feed 200 million people. An end to animal farming would be the salvation of the worlds wildlife, our natural wonders and magnificent habitats.

Understandably, those who keep animals have pushed back against such facts, using an ingenious argument. Livestock grazing, they claim, can suck carbon out of the atmosphere and store it in the soil, reducing or even reversing global warming. In a TED talk watched by 4 million people, the rancher Allan Savory claims that his holistic grazing could absorb enough carbon to return the worlds atmosphere to pre-industrial levels. His inability, when I interviewed him, to substantiate his claims has done nothing to dent their popularity.

Similar statements have been made by Graham Harvey, the agricultural story editor of the BBC Radio 4 serial The Archers he claims that the prairies in the US could absorb all the carbon thats gone into the atmosphere for the whole planet since we industrialised and amplified by the Campaign to Protect Rural England. Farmers organisations all over the world now noisily promote this view.

A report this week by the Food Climate Research Network, called Grazed and Confused, seeks to resolve the question: can keeping livestock outdoors cause a net reduction in greenhouse gases? The authors spent two years investigating the issue. They cite 300 sources. Their answer is unequivocal. No.

It is true, they find, that some grazing systems are better than others. Under some circumstances, plants growing on pastures will accumulate carbon under the ground, through the expansion of their root systems and the laying down of leaf litter. But the claims of people such as Savory and Harvey are dangerously misleading. The evidence supporting additional carbon storage through the special systems these livestock crusaders propose (variously described as holistic, regenerative, mob, or adaptive grazing) is weak and contradictory, and suggests that if theres an effect at all, it is small.

The best that can be done is to remove between 20% and 60% of the greenhouse gas emissions grazing livestock produce. Even this might be an overestimate: a paper published this week in the journal Carbon Balance and Management suggests that the amount of methane (a potent greenhouse gas) farm animals produce has been understated. In either case, carbon storage in pastures cannot compensate for the animals own climate impacts, let alone those of industrial civilisation. I would like to see the TED team post a warning on Savorys video, before even more people are misled.

As the final argument crumbles, we are left facing an uncomfortable fact: animal farming looks as incompatible with a sustained future for humans and other species as mining coal.

That vast expanse of pastureland, from which we obtain so little at such great environmental cost, would be better used for rewilding: the mass restoration of nature. Not only would this help to reverse the catastrophic decline in habitats and the diversity and abundance of wildlife, but the returning forests, wetlands and savannahs are likely to absorb far more carbon than even the most sophisticated forms of grazing.

The end of animal farming might be hard to swallow. But we are a resilient and adaptable species. We have undergone a series of astonishing changes: the adoption of sedentarism, of agriculture, of cities, of industry.

Now it is time for a new revolution, almost as profound as those other great shifts: the switch to a plant-based diet. The technology is depending on how close an approximation to meat you demand (Quorn seems almost indistinguishable from chicken or mince to me) either here or just around the corner. The ethical switch is happening already: even today, there are half a million vegans in the land of roast beef. Its time to abandon the excuses, the fake facts and false comforts. It is time to see our moral choices as our descendants will.

George Monbiot is a Guardian columnist

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2017/oct/04/livestock-farming-artificial-meat-industry-animals

Vast animal-feed crops to satisfy our meat needs are destroying planet

WWF report finds 60% of global biodiversity loss is down to meat-based diets which put huge strain on Earths resources

The ongoing global appetite for meat is having a devastating impact on the environment driven by the production of crop-based feed for animals, a new report has warned.

The vast scale of growing crops such as soy to rear chickens, pigs and other animals puts an enormous strain on natural resources leading to the wide-scale loss of land and species, according to the study from the conservation charity WWF.

Intensive and industrial animal farming also results in less nutritious food, it reveals, highlighting that six intensively reared chickens today have the same amount of omega-3 as found in just one chicken in the 1970s.

The study entitled Appetite for Destruction launches on Thursday at the 2017 Extinction and Livestock Conference in London, in conjunction with Compassion in World Farming (CIFW), and warns of the vast amount of land needed to grow the crops used for animal feed and cites some of the worlds most vulnerable areas such as the Amazon, Congo Basin and the Himalayas.

The report and conference come against a backdrop of alarming revelations of industrial farming. Last week a Guardian/ITV investigation showed chicken factory staff in the UK changing crucial food safety information.

Protein-rich soy is now produced in such huge quantities that the average European consumes approximately 61kg each year, largely indirectly by eating animal products such as chicken, pork, salmon, cheese, milk and eggs.

In 2010, the British livestock industry needed an area the size of Yorkshire to produce the soy used in feed. But if global demand for meat grows as expected, the report says, soy production would need to increase by nearly 80% by 2050.

The world is consuming more animal protein than it needs and this is having a devastating effect on wildlife, said Duncan Williamson, WWF food policy manager. A staggering 60% of global biodiversity loss is down to the food we eat. We know a lot of people are aware that a meat-based diet has an impact on water and land, as well as causing greenhouse gas emissions, but few know the biggest issue of all comes from the crop-based feed the animals eat.

With 23bn chickens, turkeys, geese, ducks and guinea fowl on the planet more than three per person the biggest user of crop-based feed globally is poultry. The second largest, with 30% of the worlds feed in 2009, is the pig industry.

In the UK, pork is the second favourite meat after chicken, with each person eating on average 25kg a year in 2015 nearly the whole recommended yearly intake for all meats. UK nutritional guidelines recommend 45-55g of protein per day, but the average UK consumption is 64-88g, of which 37% is meat and meat products.

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2017/oct/05/vast-animal-feed-crops-meat-needs-destroying-planet

Sixth mass extinction of wildlife also threatens global food supplies

Plant and animal species that are the foundation of our food supplies are as endangered as wildlife but get almost no attention, a new report reveals

The sixth mass extinction of global wildlife already under way is seriously threatening the worlds food supplies, according to experts.

Huge proportions of the plant and animal species that form the foundation of our food supply are just as endangered [as wildlife] and are getting almost no attention, said Ann Tutwiler, director general of Bioversity International, a research group that published a new report on Tuesday.

If there is one thing we cannot allow to become extinct, it is the species that provide the food that sustains each and every one of the seven billion people on our planet, she said in an article for the Guardian. This agrobiodiversity is a precious resource that we are losing, and yet it can also help solve or mitigate many challenges the world is facing. It has a critical yet overlooked role in helping us improve global nutrition, reduce our impact on the environment and adapt to climate change.

Three-quarters of the worlds food today comes from just 12 crops and five animal species and this leaves supplies very vulnerable to disease and pests that can sweep through large areas of monocultures, as happened in the Irish potato famine when a million people starved to death. Reliance on only a few strains also means the worlds fast changing climate will cut yields just as the demand from a growing global population is rising.

There are tens of thousands of wild or rarely cultivated species that could provide a richly varied range of nutritious foods, resistant to disease and tolerant of the changing environment. But the destruction of wild areas, pollution and overhunting has started a mass extinction of species on Earth. The focus to date has been on wild animals half of which have been lost in the last 40 years but the new report reveals that the same pressures are endangering humanitys food supply, with at least 1,000 cultivated species already endangered.

Tutwiler said saving the worlds agrobiodiversity is also vital in tackling the number one cause of human death and disability in the world poor diet, which includes both too much and too little food. We are not winning the battle against obesity and undernutrition, she said. Poor diets are in large part because we have very unified diets based on a narrow set of commodities and we are not consuming enough diversity.

The new report sets out how both governments and companies can protect, enhance and use the huge variety of little-known food crops. It highlights examples including the gac, a fiery red fruit from Vietnam, and the orange-fleshed Asupina banana. Both have extremely high levels of beta-carotene that the body converts to vitamin A and could help the many millions of people suffering deficiency of that vitamin.

Quinoa has become popular in some rich nations but only a few of the thousands of varieties native to South America are cultivated. The report shows how support has enabled farmers in Peru to grow a tough, nutritious variety that will protect them from future diseases or extreme weather.

Mainstream crops can also benefit from diversity and earlier in 2017 in Ethiopia researchers found two varieties of durum wheat that produce excellent yields even in dry areas. Fish diversity is also very valuable, with a local Bangladeshi species now shown to be extremely nutritious.

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2017/sep/26/sixth-mass-extinction-of-wildlife-also-threatens-global-food-supplies

Wild Amazon faces destruction as Brazils farmers and loggers target national park

The Sierra Ricardo Franco park was meant to be a conservation area protecting rare wildlife

To understand why the Brazilian government is deliberately losing the battle against deforestation, you need only retrace the bootmarks of the Edwardian explorer Percy Fawcett along the Amazonian border with Bolivia.

During a failed attempt to cross a spectacular tabletop plateau here in 1906, the adventurer nearly died on the first of his many trips to South America. Back then, the area was so far from human habitation, the foliage so dense and the terrain so steep that Fawcett and his party came close to starvation.

He returned home with tales of a towering, inaccessible mesa teeming with wildlife and irrigated by secret waterfalls and crystalline rivers. By some accounts, this was one of the stories that inspired his friend Arthur Conan Doyle to write The Lost World about a fictional plateau jutting high above the jungle that served as a sanctuary for species long since extinct elsewhere.

In their wildest fantasies, however, neither Fawcett nor Conan Doyle are likely to have imagined the modern reality of that plateau, which can no longer be certain of protection from geography, the law or Brazils international commitments.

Today, orange dirt roads, cut into the forest by illegal loggers, lead you to the north-western flank of the elevated hilltop. Now called the Serra Ricardo Franco state park, this is nominally a conservation area set up with support from the World Bank. Instead of forest, however, you find swaths of land invaded by farmers, stripped of trees, and turned over to pasture for 240,000 cows. There are even private airfields inside the parks boundaries, which exist on maps only.

Far from being an isolated area where a wanderer might starve, this is now despite its dubious legal status one of the worlds great centres of food production. In recent months, it has also emerged as a symbol of the resurgent influence of a landowning class in Brazil who, even more than in the US under Donald Trump, are cashing in on the destruction of the wild.

Locals say a member of President Michel Temers cabinet chief of staff Eliseu Padilha owns ranches here on hillsides stripped of forest in a supposedly protected park. The municipal ombudsmen told the Observer the cattle raised here are then sold in contravention of pledges to prosecutors and international consumers to JBS, the worlds biggest meat-packing company, which is at the centre of a huge bribery scandal.

These allegations are denied by farmers but there is no doubt the government is easing controls as it opens up more land for ranches, dams, roads and soy fields to meet the growing appetite of China. Last year, Brazil reported an alarming 29% increase of deforestation, raising doubts that the country will be able to meet its global commitments to reduce carbon emissions. Rather than an aberration, this appears to mark a return to historical norms for a country that has been built on 500 years of land seizures that were later legalised by the politicians who benefited from them.

The concurrent erosion of legal authority and natural habitat can be seen in many Brazilian states: the newest soy frontiers of Maranho, Tocantins and Bahia; the hydropower heartland of Par and the wild west mining and logging regions of Rondnia and Acre. But it is in Mato Grosso that the political forces behind deforestation associated with corruption, violence, weak regulation and deliberate obfuscation of land ownership reveal themselves most clearly.

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The 158,000-hectare Serra Ricardo Franco state park is supposed to be a conservation area, but farmers and loggers moved in to clear the land. Photograph: Phil Clarke Hill/Corbis via Getty Images

The 158,000-hectare Serra Ricardo Franco state park sits at the intersection of three great biomes; the Amazon rainforest, the Cerrado tropical savanna and the Pantanal wetlands. Its western neighbour, separated only by the narrow Rio Verde, is Bolivias dense Noel Kempff Mercado National Park, which covers an area five times larger. Together, they make up one of the worlds biggest and most biodiverse ecological reserves.

To the east are the light green plains of Mato Grosso a state bigger than the combined area of the UK and France which was named after the once thick bushland that has now mostly been cleared for soy fields and cattle ranches.

The plan to establish a park in this geologically and biologically important landscape was agreed amid the giddy optimism of the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, which was hailed as a breakthrough for international cooperation on the environment.

Ricardo Franco was one of nine conservation areas promised by the Mato Grosso government in return for a $205m loan from the International Bank for Reconstruction and Development. The primary source of funds was the World Bank, which noted at the time that the money was to be used for vehicles, staff training and salaries, office construction and research. The envisaged Ricardo Franco park was supposed to cover 400,000 hectares.

The reality was very different. After several years of studies, the park that was eventually established in 1997 was less than half the expected size. At least 20,000 hectares of it had already been cleared by farmers who were supposed to be compensated and removed. This never happened. Nor could the Observer find evidence of fences ever being erected, or administrative centres built either in the park nor the nearest town of Vila Bela da Santssima Trindade.

The only signs and boundary markers are for fazendas (plantations). Although the park is supposed to be publicly owned and used only for ecotourism or scientific research, many areas could only be accessed after paying an entrance fee or requesting a key from the owner of the farm occupying the property.

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Serro Ricardo Franco is in one of the worlds biggest and most diverse ecological reserves. But reality on the ground is different, putting many animals at risk, such as Yacare caiman and giant river otters. Photograph: Angelo Gandolfi/Getty Images/Nature Picture Library

A quarter of the land has been cleared over the past four decades, but there are still areas of immense natural beauty and biodiversity that have changed little since Fawcetts time. Over two half-days, the Observer spotted an armadillo, spider monkeys, capuchins, otters, fish leaping a waterfall, clouds of butterflies, and a hand-sized spider that was slowly succumbing to the sting of a giant vespa wasp. Local guides report sightings of panthers, pumas, anaconda, pink dolphins and six-metre long alligators.

Trails now lead up to the previously undisturbed heights, but they are rarely used. The 5km hiking route to the 248-metre high Jatoba waterfall was deserted, as were the sapphire waters of the Agua Azul canyon. It was not, however, well maintained. Rubbish and used toilet paper littered one area. Another clearing was scarred with the charred remains of a barbecue (likely to be prohibited as a fire hazard in a well-run conservation area). On the banks of the Rio Verde, fishing lines were tangled on the rocks despite signs declaring Strictly no fishing or hunting. But it is undoubtedly the 20,000 to 39,000 hectares of farmland (the size is disputed) that has had the biggest environmental impact.

What is happening in the park is very sad, said a local biologist, who asked for her name to be withheld because she fears repercussions. This area is very important. There are species here not found anywhere else. But its degrading year by year.

Ranchers inside the park disagree. Ademir Talini, the manager of the Fazenda de Serra, boasts of boosting production of soy and beef on what he claims is the third most fertile land in the world.

Our municipality has the biggest abattoir in Brazil, the best beef comes from here and farms here contribute greatly to GDP, he says. He then points toward the nearby border with Bolivia. Over there is the biggest conservation area in the world. So what difference does 39,000 hectares make?

He points out that many of the farms preceded the creation of the park a refrain echoed by other ranchers.

The state government created a virtual park to get money, said Donizete dos Reis Lima, who owns the farm next to the border. Nobody here is against the park. I want a future for my children. But lets have a decent park. If we go, who is going to pay us compensation.

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About 240,000 cattle graze within the cleared forest in the park. This farm is owned by government chief of staff Eliseu Padilha. Photograph: Jonathan Watts for the Observer

The issue is not black and white. The burly farmer says he is the legal owner of the land, having arrived in the area long before it was a park. But he also recounts how he opened up the roads to the region as part of his work as a logger. The area he cleared was later regularised by the land agency (Incra).

Then, as now, this process often involved corruption and collusion with the authorities. Elsio Ferreira de Souza, a retired municipal employee, recalls the illegal origins of land clearances in the 1970s. It was done with the connivance of local politicians and only later legalised, he says.

Regiane Soares de Aguiar, the public prosecutor who has filed multiple lawsuits against the farmers, agrees. All of the land was cleared illegally, she says. Even the landowners that were there before the creation of the park would not have had permission to deforest the land. Satellite data shows the problem has since worsened, she said, as more farmers moved inside the park, bringing more cattle that needed more pasture.

This illegal activity has done spectacular damage to forest and water sources. According to the prosecutor, JBS should share the blame because the meat company has bought livestock from inside the park despite a pledge to public prosecutors, foreign buyers and environmental NGOs not to source cattle from illegally cleared land. To get around this, it briefly launders the animals at untainted farms outside the park before taking them to the slaughter.

In a statement to the Observer, JBS said it had blocked sales from farms inside the park after being requested to do so by the prosecutors office. The company said it used data from satellites, the environment agency, ministry of labour and other sources to monitor its 70,000 cattle suppliers. The results, it said, were independently audited.

Since 2013, more than 99.9% of direct suppliers located purchases of cattle in the Amazon region comply with the Public Commitment of Livestock and agreements signed with federal prosecutors, it noted.

But cattle laundering is rife. Regulation is a challenge at the best of times. Even when the authorities impose a penalty for forest clearances or other violations, very few fines are ever paid.

I penalise them, but they challenge me in the courts and justice is so slow, says Laerte Marques, from the State Secretariat for the Environment (Sema). It has been very difficult. There is pressure from all sides. On one side there is the public prosecutor, on the other are the farmers.

The landowners have launched a campaign for the park to be abolished. Prosecutors, however, have urged the conservation area be administered on a more formal footing. Last month, they appeared to have won a victory when the Mato Grosso government announced a two-year study to determine the status of the park and what should become of its farms. But there are fears this will simply shrink the boundaries and allow the farms to be excluded.

Powerful landowners are trying to use this opportunity to reduce the limits of the park, said Aguiar. That would only benefit those who cleared forest. But there is a lot of economic power behind them, she warned.

Near the entrance of the Paredon 1 Fazenda is an overgrown airstrip and a dirt road that cuts through the state park to fields of cattle grazing among tree stumps on an otherwise bare hillside overlooking the Bolivian forest. This is one of several farms in the park owned directly or indirectly by Eliseu Padilha, the chief of staff. Locals in Vila Bela say he is an intimidating presence. He is not the only one. Several of Brazils richest businessmen as well as local politicians own land inside the park.

The forces lined up against conservation have deep roots. The post-colonial history of Brazil is, to a large extent, the history of deforestation. Following the arrival of European ships, settlers carved out roads into the jungle in search of gold. Since then, massive fortunes have been made by the clearance of forest, initially for coffee and rubber plantations and more recently for cattle and soy. Landowners happily backed the 1964-85 military dictatorship, which ensured that campaigners for indigenous rights and agrarian reform did not get in the way of farm and ranch expansions. The return of democracy initially made little difference. The first president under the new constitution was Jos Sarney, an old-school coronel who ruled the northern state of Maranho as if it were his personal fiefdom. Deforestation surged to new peaks at the turn of the 21st century.

The first time the problem came close to being brought under control was during the initial Workers party administration of Luiz Incio Lula da Silva (2003-06). His environment minister at the time, Marina Silva, put in place tougher penalties and a monitoring system that used satellites in the sky and rangers on the ground to identify farmers who burned or cut down forests. This resulted in an impressive slowdown that lasted nearly a decade, winning kudos from the international community and putting Brazil in an influential position in global climate talks.

But the effectiveness of this system weakened under Lulas Workers party successor as president Dilma Rousseff, who was much closer to the ruralista lobby than her predecessor. She had little choice. Increased demand for soy and beef, particularly from China, had made agriculture the main driver for economic growth and a political force to be reckoned with.

With 200 seats, the bancada ruralista had become the most powerful caucus in Congress. To placate them, Rousseff approved a relaxation of the Forest Code, which was the main legal tool against tree felling. It was a disaster for the Amazon.

Before that change in 2012, deforestation rates had been creeping down. After it, rates increased by 75%, according to Paulo Barreto, a senior researcher at Imazon, an independent monitoring organisation. He said this put at risk the commitments Brazil had made in international climate talks to reduce annual clearance to 3,800 square kilometres per year by 2020. At one point, we were on the right path. But last year, 8,000 square kilometres were cleared, double the goal for 2020, he points out. Two-thirds of Brazils carbon emissions come from this source.

Meanwhile, beef and soy barons have strengthened their grip on power. After last years impeachment of Rousseff, her replacement, Michel Temer, appointed several ruralistas to his cabinet and moved to dismantle and dilute the institutions and laws that slowed forest clearance.

His pick as agriculture minister is Blairo Maggi, the owner of the countrys biggest soy producer, Amaggi Group, and a former governor of Mato Grosso, who supported moves to abolish the Ricardo Franco park. The justice minister, Osmar Serraglio, is at the forefront of the beef lobby, which was his main campaign donor, and a fierce opponent of indigenous land demarcation (the most effective method of forest protection).

Under his watch, the National Indian Foundation (Funai) has seen its finances and personnel gutted. The foundations president, Antnio Costa, was sacked earlier this year. In a parting speech, he described Serraglio as a dictator. He is the minister of one cause: agro-business, he warned.

The counterbalance ought to be the environment ministry, which is headed by Jos Sarney Filho, the son of the top landowner in Maranho state. Although his ideals are widely praised by conservationists, his ability to act has been neutered. Last year, the environment budget was cut by 51% (compared to a 31% reduction of the Environmental Protection Agency in the US under Trump).

In March, the ministers weak position was apparent when he issued a grovelling public apology to JBS after inspectors embargoed two meat-processing factories that were alleged to have bought tens of thousands of cattle from illegally deforested areas of the Amazon. Rather than assess the rights and wrongs of the case, the minister said the action was badly timed because it could hurt a major exporter that was already bogged down in scandal.

Almost every week, there is a new roll back of forest protections. Last Tuesday, the Senate approved a bill that slashed protected areas in the Amazon by 597,000 hectares (about four times the area of Greater London). The previous week, the lower house of Congress paved the way for the legalisation of land that had been illegally occupied by grileiro a move that is likely to encourage more seizures and forest clearance. Environmental licensing requirements for agriculture have been emasculated.

Temers unhealthily close ties to the agriculture lobby may yet, however, come to be his undoing.

Earlier this month, the attorney-general formally accused the president and his aides of accepting bribes and colluding with top executives from JBS to buy the silence of witnesses in a corruption scandal. Temer has denied all wrongdoing. The evidence was provided in a plea-bargain by the owners of the beef company, which is reportedly looking for a clean bill of legal health so that it can relocate its headquarters to the US. If so, its links to Padilha and the cattle raised inside Ricardo Franco and numerous other conservation areas also deserves more scrutiny, as does the process for deciding whether farms will be excluded from the soon-to-be regularised park.

Foreign adventurers and Brazilian bandeirantes helped to pave the way for this development, even if their intention was to escape fazendas and cities alike. As Fawcett said: Deep down inside me a tiny voice was calling. At first scarcely audible, it persisted until I could no longer ignore it. It was the voice of the wild places, and I knew that it was now part of me forever.

With each day that passes, that voice is becoming harder to hear.

The
The tatu-bola armadillo was last year reclassified as at risk of extinction. Photograph: belizar73/Getty Images/iStockphoto

World Cup mascot is now at risk as forests disappear

The tatu-bola armadillo, the mascot for the 2014 World Cup, is now a symbol for a very different phenomenon in Brazil: the growing impact of deforestation on biodiversity.

The small armoured mammal was chosen to represent the tournament because it rolls up into the shape of a football when threatened, but its ability to protect itself has been undermined by a loss of habitat that is also devastating thousands of other species.

Late last year, the International Union for Conservation of Nature raised the alarm by reclassifying the creature also known as the three-banded armadillo from vulnerable to at risk of extinction.

This has prompted the group that led the campaign for its selection as a mascot to launch a crowdfunding drive last month to raise $500,000 to save the animal.

Samuel Portela, co-ordinator of protected areas at the Caatinga Association, estimates the tatu-bola population has declined by 30% in the past decade due to deforestation and hunting.It is fundamental that steps be taken towards the conservation of this species and its habitat, because under the present conditions, the tatu-bola could be extinct in 50 years, he said.

The animal is mainly found in the northeastern Brazil in the caatinga (an indigenous term for white or desert forest) and cerrado tropical savannas. Even more than the Amazon, these two ecosystems have been diminished by the expansion of farmland.

Scientists warn that many other animals face similar or worse threats and the risks are rising along with the pace of land clearance in Brazil, the worlds most biodiverse nation. Last year, the government reported a 29% increase in deforestation the sharpest rise in more than a decade. Forest clearing in Brazil has already condemned at least 20 species of birds, 10 species of mammals and eight of amphibians to regional extinction. Scientists estimate this is just a fifth of those that will die out due to habitat loss. Among the most endangered are giant otters and bare-faced tamarins. A 2015 study predicted half of the 15,000 tree species in the Amazon could be lost if current rates of deforestation continue.

According to the Chico Mendes Institute for Biodiversity Conservation, the tatu-bola faces a particularly hard struggle to recover its population because of the animals low metabolic rate, small litter size, prolonged parental care and long gestation periods.

WILDLIFE OF THE LOST WORLD

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2017/may/27/brazil-wild-amazon-faces-destruction-farmers-loggers-sierra-ricardo-franco-park