On one side of the fence, in dense forest, the Mỹky people grow their crops: cassava, pequi and cabriteiro fruit. On the other side, ranchers raise cattle on devastated land. That land is the Mỹky’s, they say.
Xinuxi Mỹky, the village elder, says this region used to be a forest where different villages thrived. Only one now remains and the farms have cut into that land as well. “This pasture, where the whites live, was also our village, but now they are raising cattle. The land belonged to us: Indigenous peoples.”
Although the Mỹky people have lived here for centuries, the Menku territory – on the border of the Amazon rainforest and the Cerrado savanna in the state of Mato Grosso – was only recognised by the Brazilian government in the mid-1970s. Even then, only a small proportion of their land was fully recognised.
For decades, the Mỹky have been fighting for the acknowledgement of the full extent of their territory, as established by technical studies. Amid the legal uncertainty, farmers have moved on to the land and the federal government has not evicted them. Under Jair Bolsonaro, the process of formally recognising the land froze. Until very recently, little progress had been made.
But an investigation can now reveal that cattle raised here ended up at an abattoir linked to a global supply chain that includes the food and drink company Nestlé – which uses beef in baby food, pet food and seasoning. Other major companies in this supply chain have included McDonald’s and Burger King.
The abattoir in question is owned by Marfrig, Brazil’s second-biggest beef company, which states that it does not purchase livestock from farms that illegally encroach on Indigenous land or destroy sections of rainforest.
But research by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism (TBIJ), O Joio e O Trigo, NBC News and the Guardian found hundreds of cattle raised inside the claimed Menku Indigenous territory were taken to Marfrig’s Tangará da Serra abattoir.
A number of the more than 700 Marfrig cattle suppliers analysed were linked to 150 sq km (58 sq miles) of deforestation in recent years.Marfrig said it could not respond to the allegations without more detailed information.
The findings raise fresh concerns about the impact of the beef trade on the world’s largest rainforest – a vital buffer against climate change – and cast doubt on industry pledges to monitor supply chains and combat deforestation.
Land and livelihoods
The farmers on the disputed land are pushing back against the Mỹky’s claims, contesting the demarcation of the territory, and they have the support of some local politicians.
The small Indigenous community that lives there – comprised of 130 people – feels under pressure as a result. André Lopes, an anthropologist who works with the Mỹky people, said the community was frequently threatened. “The relationship with local farmers is unstable, unpredictable, and can be one of persecution and open hostility in some cases,” he said.
The expansion of big agriculture in the region has also affected the Mỹky’s ability to feed themselves, restricting fishing and hunting areas, and contaminating the land with heavy-duty pesticides, Lopes added.
For Paatau Mỹky, the farm fences present a barrier to her craft by impeding access to tucum palm trees. Traditionally, women use tucum fibres to make handicrafts such as fishing nets and baskets.
“We used to live in that space, but the whites came and took our land and the forest,” she said. “It is from that farm that we took tucum to make the ropes for our nets, and which nowadays has become a place for cattle raising.”
Marfrig is one of Brazil’s biggest meat producers, with 32,000 workers and revenues in 2021 of about $15bn (£13.3bn). It slaughters as many as 5 million cattle per year in South America. Shipping records show the Tangará da Serra abattoir has exported more than £1bn of beef products since 2014 to various buyers. Destinations include China, Germany, Spain, Italy, the Netherlands and the UK.
Details about Marfrig’s suppliers are kept under wraps, but our investigation has obtained information on some of the hundreds of properties in the Amazon and Cerrado from which it buys for its Tangará da Serra plant.
Cross-referencing the imagery with public records identified two properties overlapping the territory claimed by the Myky, one of which – Cascavel farm – directly transported cattle to Marfrig in 2019, according to documents obtained by TBIJ. The farm did not respond to the bureau’s requests for comment.
Marfrig told TBIJ that it only considers Indigenous lands to be those that have received presidential approval. Since Bolsonaro came to power in 2019, he has not approved any.
Nestlé says it “phased out” Marfrig as a meat supplier in 2021 and that this will be reflected in an annual suppliers’ list update. The company said 99% of the meat it sources is “assessed as deforestation-free” and that it is taking further steps to help ensure no meat ingredients from Marfrig enter its supply chain.
McDonald’s said it did not source meat from farms overlapping the Menku territory in 2021 and 2022. Burger King said it does not discuss strategic suppliers.
Meanwhile, a comparison of satellite imagery and land registry documents shows forest loss over a six-year period inside the perimeters of many of the ranches that supply the abattoir, with more than 150 sq km of deforestation visible in that period.
Marfrig has repeatedly been linked to illegal deforestation through its vast supply chain, which includes about 10,000 ranchers in Brazil. In 2020, a Repórter Brasil investigation reported how it directly and indirectly sourced cattle from ranchers who raised animals illegally inside the Apyterewa Indigenous territory in Pará state – one of the most deforested Indigenous lands in recent years.
Marfrig claimed at the time that the equipment used by authorities to demarcate land was not precise and allowed for a margin of error. Marfrig told TBIJ that it “ended operations in the state” in March 2020.
Last year, TBIJ reported that beef from farmers accused of illegal deforestation had been making its way into global supply chains, including those serving Marfrig.
Marfrig says “it has been working continuously to mitigate any link between illegal deforestation and other irregularities in [its] production chain”. The company now monitors 100% of its direct suppliers and is able to monitor 72% of its indirect suppliers in the Amazon. Marfrig says it uses all information available and blocks any suppliers that do not conform to its standards.
The company says that without more detail about the properties involved, it cannot check whether those farms have been compliant or not.
Law of the land
The Mỹky’s land dispute is being heard in Brazil’s supreme court. A recent preliminary ruling favoured the community over the farmers but the case has yet to be concluded, the supreme court told TBIJ.
The state environment authority for Mato Grosso confirmed to the bureau that the farms in question are on Indigenous land but said that, because the land has not yet been formally demarcated according to a policy put in place under Bolsonaro’s administration, the properties are not illegal.
Cristina Leme, a senior legal analyst at the Climate Policy Initiative thinktank, sees no foundation for the farmers’ argument. “Brazil’s constitution protects all lands traditionally occupied by Indigenous people,” she said. “There is no justification, from the constitutional point of view, to allow the registration of a property that overlaps the Menku territory.”
In Brazil, land registration in rural areas is self-declaratory. As Ricardo Pael, a federal public prosecutor in Mato Grosso, said: “Anyone can claim they own a patch of land, wherever that is. What needs to be done is a quick review by competent governmental bodies to verify the legality of that self-declaration.”
Tupy Mỹky, an Indigenous teacher, said: “There is much talk about conservation and people concerned about climate change. But in practice, we don’t see any kind of concrete action. We Indigenous people are fighting alone.”
This story was produced with the support of the Pulitzer Center