In its 2021 investigative report Tainted Beef, EIA documented how beef from cattle illegally raised in Colombia’s protected forests ends up on the shelves of city supermarkets. The current lack of accountability, perpetuated through opaque supply chains, makes consumers unwitting contributors to the deforestation of Colombia’s protected areas and the financing of illegal armed groups.
An important new report by Dejusticia analyzes the challenges and roadblocks that prevent accountability and transparency in the Colombian cattle sector, and identifies solutions to overcome them. Among the biggest problems are the lack of traceability for cattle throughout the lifecycle, and the lack of information flow between the government agencies tasked with monitoring deforestation and the Colombian Agricultulture and Livestock Institute (ICA), which is responsible for vaccinations and the issuance of cattle transport permits. As cattle move through different hands during their lifecycle, only a traceability system that follows the animals from birth to slaughter can ensure that the beef sold in Colombia is not sourced from illegally deforested areas. Dejusticia’s report therefore recommends the establishment of an individual cattle tagging system that would provide this traceability throughout the supply chain. Further, the analysis recommends closing the information gaps between Ministries, so that government information systems can work in sync to identify illegal cattle ranching in National or Regional Parks and Forest Reserves and take action in a timely manner.
The Colombian government earlier this year took an important first step to address illegal deforestation: The ICA established measures to cancel the sanitary registration of cattle ranches within deforestation hotspots in National or Regional Parks. In the past, it was common for ICA to allow such activities to happen, including the issuance of cattle transport permits and vaccinations in these regions. The new measures mandated by ICA are a step that would help stop this practice and signal an encouraging move towards improved forest governance.
In addition, in the House of Representatives, congressman Juan Carlos Lozada, introduced a bill to make beef traceability mandatory in Colombia. The initiative is intended to consolidate existing government information systems and establish new ones where needed, in order to effectively fight deforestation. The proposed legislation would create an individual cattle identification system, mandating ICA to prioritize the installation of national identification devices in areas where deforestation is rampant. This bill has been endorsed by three other congresswomen, including Julia Miranda, who served for close to 17 years as the Director of National Parks in Colombia, and it has been recently approved in its first discussion.
As Colombia continues its discussions for the 2022-2026 National Development Plan and as Congress discusses a cattle traceability law, it should consider the following recommendations in order to effectively reduce deforestation for cattle ranching:
- In order to implement ICA’s recent measures in a socially equitable and beneficial manner, the Colombian government needs to develop and incorporate programs to support livelihood alternatives in forested regions, respecting the rights of rural and indigenous communities.
- A priority requirement for any effective cattle traceability system must be individual tagging systems that track ranching activity and cattle movements throughout the entire life cycle of the animal.
- New legislative initiatives should establish mandatory traceability and due diligence requirements for businesses and actors across the cattle supply chain. Such regulation should include guidance to conduct proper due diligence and provide concrete and enforceable measures for non-compliance in order to break the nexus between cattle ranching and environmental crimes.
- The Statute of Consumers should be modified to explicitly recognize the right of consumers to know the origin of the products they consume.
In a media interview*, Colombia’s new Environment Minister Susana Muhamad acknowledged the problem and announced that the government would prosecute those who fund land grabbing. In addition, she said the government would aim to improve the traceability of Colombian beef, 80% of which is currently of uncertain origin. “We will tackle the drivers of deforestation and not only those who are cutting down the trees”.
Colombia is sending out encouraging signs as it is embarking on a path to stop the pattern of deforestation, corruption and indirect financing of armed groups in its cattle sector, to protect the forests and bring peace to communities. The international community needs to support these efforts wholeheartedly while closely monitoring their implementation.