This article was produced in partnership with the Pulitzer Center’s Rainforest Investigations Network.
BURITIS, Brazil — One morning this summer, Odilon Caetano Felipe, a rancher who raises cattle on illegally deforested land in the Amazon, met with a trader and signed over 72 newly fattened animals. With that stroke of the pen, Mr. Felipe gave his cattle a clean record: By selling them, he obscured their role in the destruction of the world’s largest rainforest.
Over lunch shortly after the July 14 sale, Mr. Felipe spoke openly about the business that has made him wealthy. He acknowledged cutting down the thick Amazon forest and that he had not paid for the land. He also said he structured his sales to hide the true origins of his cattle by selling to a middleman, creating a paper trail falsely showing his animals as coming from a legal ranch. Other ranchers in the area do the same, he said.
“It makes no difference,” he said, whether his farm is legal or not.
A New York Times investigation into Brazil’s rapidly expanding slaughterhouse industry — a business that sells not only beef to the world, but tons of leather annually to major companies in the United States and elsewhere — has identified loopholes in its monitoring systems that allow hides from cattle kept on illegally deforested Amazon land to flow undetected through Brazil’s tanneries and on to buyers worldwide.