Accessibility Settings

color options

monochrome muted color dark

reading tools

isolation ruler
An aerial view of the border between virgin forest and agricultural land. Image: Courtesy of Fernando Martinho
An aerial view of the border between virgin forest and agricultural land. Image: Courtesy of Fernando Martinho

An aerial view showing how agricultural land is encroaching on the forest in Brazil, with illegal burning in the background. Image: Courtesy of Fernando Martinho



Investigating ‘Cattle Laundering’ and Deforestation in the Amazon: Interview with the 2024 Goldman Prize Winner

Read this article in

For years Brazil’s rainforests have been under attack, with satellite imagery showing the borders of the Amazon jungle slowly, but steadily, receding.

In 2022, deforestation in the country was the highest of anywhere in the world, according to data on tropical primary forest loss from Global Forest Watch.

There are many motivations for transforming forests into fields, ranging from mining to the construction of hydroelectric plants, but the main driver is converting forest to pasture for raising cattle.

Brazil also tops another list, as the world’s largest exporter of beef, exporting to more than 150 countries according to government figures. Last year alone, around 2.5 million tons of fresh and processed beef were sent abroad.

But although the link between deforestation and the sale of beef is widely understood, especially among Brazilians, finding documentary evidence in the paperwork — and tracking the supply chain from point of origin to consumer — is not as simple as it seems.

Often, animals pass through several farms, in different states of the country, before being slaughtered. It’s a process called “cattle laundering” and it makes tracking the livestock practically impossible.

In a multi-year investigation, journalists from Repórter Brasil — a GIJN member since 2018 — worked with researchers from different countries to document the supply chain back from the supermarket to the fields where the cattle are raised, and used data on environmental fines and satellite images on farm locations to track the movement of cattle and beef products to deforestation in Brazil.

That eventually helped the outlet reveal links between supermarket chains in Europe and the United States with Brazilian slaughterhouses supplied by livestock farmers charged with illegal deforestation in different biomes, such as the Amazon, Cerrado, and Pantanal.

After the story was published in 2021, six large retail groups from Belgium, France, the Netherlands, and the United Kingdom suspended the sale of products from the Brazilian meat companies in question.

Marcel Gomes, executive secretary of Repórter Brasil. Photo: Courtesy of Goldman Environmental Prize

“About 65% of the deforestation in the Amazon region is caused by cattle ranching,” explained Marcel Gomes, the executive secretary of Repórter Brasil, who led the project. “It’s our duty in journalism to expose these problems, to hold the authorities and companies accountable.”

The exposé earned Gomes the 2024 Goldman Environmental Prize. Known as the “Nobel of Environmentalism,” Gomes is the first Brazilian journalist to win the award, which is usually given to activists and environmental defenders.

Repórter Brasil’s dogged investigations into topics including deforestation, the environment, and human rights have also earned the outlet a number of journalism awards and recognitions, including a 2023 Gabriel García Márquez Prize and a finalist nomination for the 2023 Javier Valdez Prize.

We spoke with Gomes to understand how the project was carried out, the tips and tools they used to follow the cattle trail, and the risks of reporting on this topic where huge profits — and reputations — are at stake.

Marcel Gomes and colleagues at the Reporter Brasil office (Photo: Goldman Environmental Prize)

Marcel Gomes and colleagues Natália Suzuki (left) and Tatiana Chang Waldman at the Reporter Brasil office. Photo: Courtesy of Goldman Environmental Prize

GIJN: Your investigation dug into meat supply chains and deforestation. In general, how important is the issue of livestock farming in environmental coverage?

Marcel Gomes: It is very important because it is a sector that has a lot of impact. The sector is responsible for deforestation in the Amazon, cases of work similar to slavery, and is also relevant in the country’s economy, both for meat, as we are the largest exporter of meat, and also for the export of biodiesel, which is made with animal fat, and leather, from clothing to automobiles.

Our innovation was to address the issue by considering the entire production chain. It is a very long chain: a cow is born on a farm, from this farm it goes to another farm to be raised, then to another farm where it is fattened, and it often passes through others until it reaches the slaughterhouse. This means that something very important is lost when we talk about the production chain, which is traceability. You don’t know the path this animal has taken throughout its life. At the same time, you have a series of social and environmental impacts linked to this chain. Without traceability you hardly have any influence to improve the situation.

This investigation won awards because we went a step further: we involved the supermarkets. We hired researchers in several countries, including here in Brazil, who went to shops to photograph the barcodes on the packaging. We fed that information into a large spreadsheet that took us to the slaughterhouses where these Brazilian meats spread around the world had originated.

GIJN: Your team created software to track the ‘meat route.’ How did you go about that?

MG: We have had a Public Information Law here in Brazil since 2011. This law requires public bodies to digitize their information. This means that you have a huge volume of information, but this data is super disorganized. Each [piece of data] is on a different server, in a different language, organized in different formats and even in different formats: one is in PDF, another in Word, another in Excel.

Repórter Brasil has been creating databases from the beginning. In 2013, we launched a database on the textile chain in Brazil, Moda Livre, which showed the companies’ links with slave labor and other labor relations. This is available and updated periodically. The secret is to have the ability to organize the data in a way that allows you to perform faster searches and identify headlines and stories. Our partners have access to this database so they can access and search for information. Our database on cattle is updated once a year for those who support Repórter Brasil.

Aerial view of cattle confinement used by farms in the Amazon (Photo: Fernando Martinho)

Aerial view of cattle confinement used by farms in the Amazon. Photo: Courtesy of Fernando Martinho

GIJN: The cattle deforestation report had an economic impact as companies stopped buying meat from Brazil. Did you face any retaliation?

MG: The methodology that Repórter Brasil used was to listen to everyone involved. We had a very frank dialogue, both with the meatpacking sector and with supermarkets… [where we presented] data, proof, and evidence.

We did not suffer any type of pressure or retaliation. The biggest risk in this type of investigation is with livestock farmers… and we have had some lawsuits filed by livestock farmers from other reports.

This is a tip I always give: it is essential to have a good team of legal professionals. It is very difficult to do this type of work independently, without the support of legal professionals, because companies in the private sector, or even politicians, sue you. Some of our publications are evaluated by lawyers beforehand, as was the case with this material. That’s why we have a lot of security when we publish material like this. We believe in justice.

GIJN: Do you think that environmental journalism brings a double risk: that of legal harassment and danger in the field?

MG: If you do a risk analysis, there are many things involved with a field trip, with safety in relation to criminals or accidents, right? And in the period after you have the risk of legal harassment, lawsuits, threats. We have a security policy, a risk checklist. We have a security policy that is very time-consuming, but it is essential to avoid tragedies. Recently Repórter Brasil reporters were detained by police thugs who had ties to the militia. We had to send a lawyer to the scene once to free one of our reporters. After the death of Indigenous researcher Bruno Pereira and journalist Dom Philips, we didn’t travel for a long time. Then we strengthened our security policy. We introduced even more criteria that ended up making travel even more expensive. But it’s necessary.

Watch Marcel Gomes discuss his investigation into how cattle ranching fuels illicit deforestation in the Amazon, on YouTube below. 

GIJN: How would you describe Repórter Brasil?

MG: Repórter Brasil is an organization that was created when we were still students at the journalism faculty at the University of São Paulo. We started to discuss the possibility of creating a vehicle that could work on social and environmental topics, topics we thought that the mainstream press did not adequately cover. Repórter Brasil was founded in 2001 and is a unique organization because it does journalism and at the same time is an NGO. We have a research program, an education program, and a political advocacy program. One of the strategies we have is to try to enhance journalistic content so that it really causes impact and social transformation. So, when we carry out an investigation, this material is often used not only by other areas of Repórter Brasil but by our partners. We are producing journalistic work, but at the same time we are fighting for that content to change something in a real way. RB is seen as an outlet, we don’t have copyright, and supply material to UOL, Folha de S. Paulo, and the Guardian. I think it’s a very interesting organizational model.

GIJN: How does this model differ from that of traditional media organizations, and how does that help you?

MG: For us, the ethical issue is fundamental. Although Repórter Brasil is part of a coalition of non-governmental organizations and participates in conversations, our journalism program is independent. Our content is ours, produced by us, and edited by us. We insist on maintaining this way, which is to protect journalistic work so that it is independent. This is why Repórter Brasil has an excellent reputation and is able to supply material to traditional press organizations. The agendas are defined based on the coverage we provide, the perspective we have on the problems: thinking about human rights, labor, and environmental rights.

Juliana FaddulJuliana Faddul is a freelance journalist and documentarist from Brazil. She has received grants from the Earth Journalism Network, the Amazon Rainforest Journalism Fund in partnership with the Pulitzer Center, and UNESCO. She has also worked as a senior producer for CNN Brazil and as a field producer in TV Globo. Faddul is currently working on a documentary about environmental disasters in Latin America.

Republish our articles for free, online or in print, under a Creative Commons license.

Republish this article

Material from GIJN’s website is generally available for republication under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International license. Images usually are published under a different license, so we advise you to use alternatives or contact us regarding permission. Here are our full terms for republication. You must credit the author, link to the original story, and name GIJN as the first publisher. For any queries or to send us a courtesy republication note, write to

Read Next