2022 Feature, Large Newsroom finalist

Devouring the rainforest


About the Project

If the Amazon is to die, it will be beef that kills it – and America will be an accomplice. The cultivation of cattle is driving the illegal deforestation that’s propelling this vital global resource toward a climate change-threatening tipping point. Increasingly, Washington Post Rio de Janeiro bureau chief Terrence McCoy reports, that cultivation is aimed at satisfying the world’s second-largest and fastest-growing market for Brazilian beef: The United States.

How is beef raised on illegally deforested land able to reach the United States, when Brazilian meat producers and the Brazilian and U.S. governments have pledged to stop the practice? Through an opaque process known as cattle laundering – moving the animals from illegally deforested land to legally permissible land, where it may be purchased by companies such as global giant JBS for processing and export.

For “Devouring the rainforest,” McCoy pored over satellite imagery and analyzed thousands of purchase and shipment logs to track the process, showing for the first time the movement of beef step by step from land cited for illegal deforestation to the United States, where it may be sold unlabeled to the often unwitting American consumer.

He interviewed dozens of sources in Brazil and the United States, from government officials to environmentalists to industry leaders to ranchers who denied raising cattle illegally – until they were shown satellite imagery of the animals.

The custom presentation created by Post journalists and optimized for both desktop and mobile phone documents the process visually, with mapping showing the link between cattle cultivation and ranching, animation showing the progress of deforestation over decades in Matto Grosso state and satellite imagery zooming in to show animals on illegally deforested land. An accompanying FAQ provided background and context.

During the reporting JBS said it was cutting ties with ranchers shown to be raising cattle illegally. The supermarket chain Kroger said it had a “no-deforestation commitment” and had “engaged the JBS team to further review the situation.”

The Post’s public relations team promoted the package to officials, journalists, environmentalists and influencers concerned with the Amazon and in Latin America. It was shared on social media by Sen. Cory Booker and “Don’t Look Up” co-creator David Sirota, among others.