Sue Branford is a specialist on Brazil and is currently working for the BBC World Service. She has spent long periods in Brazil (1971-79, 1985-86 and 1992-93), working for the Financial Times, The Economist, The Times, the Guardian and the BBC. She has published three books, including one on the Amazon (The Last Frontier - Fighting over Lami in the Amazon, Zed Books, 1985), which she wrote jointly with Oriel Glock (now deceased).
Sue Branford was interviewed in 1997 by One-Off Productions for their TV documentary, McLibel: Two Worlds Collide.
Other relevant links
Other relevant links
In our book (see above), we looked at the violent struggle over land in the north of Brazil, a struggle that involves cattle companies, peasant families and Indians. We travelled extensively throughout the region. As we wrote in our introduction, we were horrified at the scale of the lawlessness and violence accompanying the occupation, its cost in human suffering. People everywhere - in buses, bars, pensions - spoke of murders, brutal beatings, threats, bullying. Very often the violence was the result of land disputes, with powerful landowners and land thieves sending in gunmen to clear peasant families off the land. We were also alarmed at the scale of the environmental damage. Again as we say in our book, the pace of forest destruction by the cattle companies was so fast that it seemed that the whole forest would be obliterated within a decade or two.
"The pace of forest destruction by the cattle companies was so fast that it seemed that the whole forest would be obliterated within a decade or two."
One of the areas of tropical forest that suffered greatest devastation was Acre, in the north-west of Brazil. When we first visited the region in 1971, most of the state was primary tropical forest, occupied only by Indians. Indeed, three-quarters of the land was classified by the government as "terra devoluta", that is, unoccupied public land. But a road link was created, for the first time, with the rest of Brazil. The state government undertook a big advertising campaign in Sao Paulo and Rio de Janeiro to attract cattle companies. By 1975, after just four years, four-fifths of Acre's land belonged to companies from the south. These companies carried out horrifying environmental damage, cutting down primary tropical forest to plant pasture, and were involved in violent land conflicts with peasant families and Indians. One of the most active companies was the meat-packing group, Bordon. We, personally, saw forest being cut down by Bordon employees and gathered evidence from peasant families that they had been forcibly evicted from their plots by Bordon employees.
Another region that was being devastated at the time lay to the north of Culaba, the capital of
Mato Grosso. After the construction of the BR-I 63 (the highway linking Santarem, a port on the
Amazon river, with Cuiaba) in the early 1970s, numerous new ranches were opened beside this
road. The incentives were tax-breaks from the federal government and the new transport link that
meant that the ranches could now take their cattle to meat packing plants in Cuiaba.
"It really is heart-rending when I remember these areas which were wonderful forest just twenty years ago, and when I went there last year and flew over the region now...and it's devastated -just pockets of forest left"
Well it is difficult to define what is 'former rain forest land', because so much of Brazil was
originally, five hundred years ago when the Portuguese arrived there, covered by forests, but I
think within my lifetime, just twenty years ago when I first visited the region - I think this comes
within the definition of recently cleared forest, and it's certainly some of the areas where they're
buying beef now - certainly was forest then.
I mean, I don't actually think McDonald's are one of the main culprits. I think they actually form part of a whole industry which is moving on into the forest taking away land from the original inhabitants; the rubber tappers, the Indians, cutting down this forest and creating these big cattle ranches which are very, very destructive - they're part of a whole industry. I don't think they're actually more culpable than any of the other cattle ranchers and in fact probably they do take more care than many of the other beefburger producers in Brazil. But this whole industry has been moving in and has been fuelling this extraordinary destructive process which is doing so much damage to the Amazon forest.
It really is heart-rending when I remember these areas which
were wonderful forest just twenty years ago, and when I went there last year and flew over the
region now...and it's devastated -just pockets of forest left. They've cleared the land to create
these cattle ranches, and then there's been so much soil leaching, so much erosion that you're
actually looking at barren land which doesn't support anything now. It is actually an enormous
waste of what was one of the world's most wonderful resources.
"I think on the basis of the regions that I visited they are actually lying, and they are buying beef from areas which were once tropical forest - which I saw as tropical forest."
Well, I actually think McDonald's are lying. I think it's virtually impossible for a beefburger producer in Brazil to be operating without buying some beef which comes from areas of Brazil which have been involved in serious environmental damage. It may be eviction of small peasant families, it may be destruction of tropical forest, it may be forcing the few remaining indigenous groups back deeper into the jungle - the whole industry is having a devastating effect on the ecology of Brazil, and I think it is actually very misleading, or really lying - it's a lie of McDonald's to actually say that they are separate: that the rest of the industry may be doing damage, but they are taking care and they are not involved in this destructive process. I don't think actually think that is at all... that is really possible.
I think on the basis of the regions that I visited they are actually lying, and they are buying beef from areas which were once tropical forest - which I saw as tropical forest.
From McDonalds' list of the collection points the areas that I remember very well are San Miguel
del(lots of Portuguese names follow) which are all small areas, and when I first went there in
1974 and then again in 1975 they were covered with tropical forest, and if McDonald's is
actually buying beef these areas, which they admit they are, then they are buying beef from areas
which I consider recently cleared tropical forest.
Well I don't really understand this argument that McDonald's are making. They are buying cattle,
buying beef, from areas which were cleared. These areas were cleared to produce beef for the
beefburger industry. So of course, it is this demand for beefburgers in Brazil which is fuelling the
destruction of the forest. I do not think that they can actually distinguish this...I think this is a
very artificial argument.
"One of of the main reasons why they clear the forest is to produce soya, soya beans for export, and these soya beans go largely to Europe, to transform into animal feed to feed to our cattle here to fatten them up for all of us who eat beef here."
What contribution do you think consumers in the west are making?
I think consumers in the west are contributing to the devastation of the tropical forest, but I think it's in a more general way. One of of the main reasons why they clear the forest is to produce soya, soya beans for export, and these soya beans go largely to Europe, to transform into animal feed to feed to our cattle here to fatten them up for all of us who eat beef here. So, all of us here, in fact form part of a destructive industry which is doing an enormous damage to the tropical forests in Brazil.
Well I think Brazil has transformed its way of life over the last hundred to a hundred and fifty years very much emulating our way of life - they now consume a lot of wheat - because they're very fond of bread now. Well, they have to import the wheat because Brazil produces very little wheat, so they're caught up in having to export their own products, many of which are produced on land which they've had to actually cut the forests down to plant the crops.
Brazil is copying the way of life of the west, and this includes eating a lot of beef - which the original inhabitants did not consume - and to do this they actually have to clear their land and make cattle ranches to actually produce the cattle to have the beef. It would be a much more ecologically viable way of life if they were vegetarians, as many of them were two hundred years ago. They are emulating a way of life which is destructive. But of course we can't blame Brazilians any more than we must blame ourselves for actually sustaining a way of life which is not ecologically sustainable.
"I think companies like McDonald's, by strongly promoting their products, not just in Brazil, but here, are promoting strongly a way of life which is actually doing enormous environmental damage."
I think companies like McDonald's, by strongly promoting their products, not just in Brazil, but here, are promoting strongly a way of life which is actually doing enormous environmental damage. What I find particularly annoying about McDonald's is that they do this pretending that they're an ecologically friendly company. I mean I eat beef, even now, I do sometimes eat beef, but if we do it we've actually got to think - we've got to recognise that we are doing damage doing this and I think we should try to adopt a way of life which is more ecologically viable, and McDonald's, I think is actually responsible for being hypocritical in this: they're actually encouraging us in a way of life which is doing an enormous amount of environmental damage.
I would be much happier with them if they were honest about it and saying 'Well it's not up to us, it's up to the consumers, and if the people want beefburgers then we're supplying them' - but people have got to recognise that they're doing damage. This is the problem that we've got to face: that this way of life is not, in the long term, sustainable.
There has been a change in awareness in Brazil over the last ten years. When I was doing research for my book twenty years ago, people didn't know what 'Ecology' was. I remember actually visiting the Volkswagen ranch, and I timidly brought up the question of ecological viability and the manager of the ranch, a German, actually banged on the table and said to me "Don't you speak to me about ecology! Ecology is some new-fangled invention of out of work sociologists. Don't come to me with these arguments!" And now this mentality has disappeared, Brazilians are now very aware of the damage they're doing. On my last trip last year I visited some sawmills and I went there and started talking to the employees there, and before I'd asked any questions they were saying to me "I know we shouldn't be cutting down Mahogany, I know that this is doing a lot of damage to the world climate, I know we're doing harm to the forest, but I've got to have a job, I've got to bring up my family.." There is a growing awareness of the seriousness of the problem. What has not evolved at the same speed has been a viable alternative.
"What the West now needs to help fund and to help promote are ecologically viable ways of occupying this forest; help the rubber tappers who tap the natural rubber trees in the region without damaging them, help protect the Indians, help indigenous groups set up Eco-Tourist projects, help promote these ways in which the local inhabitants can generate an income from the forest but without destroying it."
What the West now needs to help fund and to help promote are ecologically viable ways of occupying this forest; help the rubber tappers who tap the natural rubber trees in the region without damaging them, help protect the Indians, help indigenous groups set up Eco-Tourist projects, help promote these ways in which the local inhabitants can generate an income from the forest but without destroying it. So what we've seen in both the West and in Brazil is a growing awareness of the problem, but people are loathed to come forward with solutions, and I think solutions have to be dynamic - have to be moving - we can't expect the people in the Amazon to be condemned forever to a life of extreme poverty - they've got to make an income from the forest - but it's possible now to create an income without destroying the forest, but we've got to come in, and we've got to use our consumer power to buy these products which come from areas of the forest which are being exploited on a sustainable basis.
I certainly have seen progress over the last twenty years, but I don't think we've gone by any means far enough , and I think McDonald's is reflecting this change. McDonald's is today more careful than it was ten years ago about the areas of former forest where is it purchasing beef. But I think McDonald's should go a lot further and actually face up honestly to the problems that beef consumption creates for the forest and perhaps come up with other forms of food, other forms of fast food which are actually not doing damage to the forest. New alternatives do exist: we've got Soya burgers, we've got all kinds of alternative products which can be done with causing far less damage to the environment. We need to take this change to actually the way we live - not just in Brazil, but of course in the whole of the world.
I would say to the president of McDonald's that he's been dishonest, he's been misleading, he
forms part, an important part, of an industry which is doing untold damage to the forest - not just
in Brazil, but in many developing countries.
When Helen and David approached me for the first time, I did hesitate, but it was mainly because I was not at that stage convinced that they were right. I actually thought at that time that McDonald's was not destroying tropical forest, I thought McDonald' had taken sufficient care to make sure that they did not buy beef from areas of recently cleared forest and I also knew from my whole experience in the Amazon that cattle rearing has not been a success there - that they have devastated a huge area of forest but have actually produced relatively few cattle. So I thought it was unlikely in fact that McDonald's would be buying beef from this region, but nonetheless I agreed to be a witness warning them that possibly my testimony would not help them greatly. It was for these reasons mainly that I hesitated.
"It was over the subsequent twenty years that this region has been cleared and there are now cattle ranchers there and apparently, McDonald's are buying some of the beef from ranches in this area - which surprised me."
Finally - it was just a few days before I gave my testimony - McDonald's finally supplied the list of the districts where they were buying the cattle, and I was quite surprised to find that there were some in the north of Goias - and these are actually regions that I travelled in twenty years ago on one of my first trips into the Amazon - and I very distinctly remember them as being covered with rich amazon forest - you know that kind of lush forest that we all picture to be in the Amazon. It was over the subsequent twenty years that this region has been cleared and there are now cattle ranchers there and apparently, McDonald's are buying some of the beef from ranches in this area - which surprised me.
I felt pretty sympathetic to the whole initiative for the fact that there were two unemployed people which were standing up to the mighty McDonald's, but I was not at that stage convinced that they were right in all the claims that had been made in the leaflet, and it was only when evidence came in actually showing concretely where McDonald's has been buying its beef that rather to my amazement I discovered that they had been buying beef from areas of the forest that I had known as tropical forest.
No. For one thing I made it clear I was talking in my personal capacity, and secondly I think McDonald's will think seriously before they get involved in suing somebody else for making allegations about their behaviour in the Amazon forest.
I also felt that the evidence I was presenting was straightforward, simple. I was recounting my
own personal experience of the region. I thought it would be very difficult for McDonald's in
any way to come back and challenge the kind of testimony I was making.
Well, I was expecting some quite tough questioning, but in fact I don't think he made a single
question. I made a long testimony - I think it was over two hours - the Judge made some
questions, Helen made a lot of questions, and I gave a long and detailed testimony. The only
thing that the McDonalds' barrister did was challenge the
technical viability of my testimony. I was actually giving direct
testimony that they had bought beef from areas that
were previously, within my lifetime, tropical forest. So in fact all the McDonald's barrister was doing was trying to challenge my evidence from a technical point of view - not actually the actual essence of what I was saying.
"Well at the end of my testimony the judge said this was the most important evidence we've heard so far in this trial - it's the first direct evidence that McDonald's have been directly involved in clearance of tropical forest."
What about the judge saying it was real, direct evidence?
Well at the end of my testimony the judge said this was the most important evidence we've heard so far in this trial - it's the first direct evidence that McDonald's have been directly involved in clearance of tropical forest, and actually that took me by surprise as well. I didn't actually realise that my evidence had been so important.
I think Helen and David are absolutely wonderful people and it's been an enormous sacrifice for them, it's over two years now I think that they've been going in nearly every day, they've been working in the evenings preparing evidence - they've had to find their way through a complicated legal system - and I think the repercussions of their defence has been wonderful, now that the all the evidence is on Internet, now that they've been able to talk to lots of people, there have been articles in many different publications...and I think it's made people think seriously about the repercussions of an industry like McDonald's.
I think it's really irrelevant whatever the final outcome of the trial, I think they've won the battle
from a moral, from a political, from a propaganda point of view - there's been so much publicity -
it's such a wonderful story - two people who'd had no experience at all in appearing in a court
defending themselves, learning how to do it day by day, finding their way through a very
complicated system. I think they've been a wonderful example to all of us of what you
actually can achieve.