Gobbling The Rainforests
As the McLibel trial edges towards its conclusion, dramatic new court disclosures have provided the strongest evidence yet linking the McDonald's Corporation to the destruction of tropical rainforest. Jim Carey reviews the latest successes in the coup against the Corporation.
Squall 13, Summer 1996, pg. 20.
Much to the world’s increasing alarm, an area the size of England is stripped of primary rainforest each year.
Such forest provides the planet’s largest single source of both oxygen and medicines, and is vital in the maintenance of our steadily thinning ozone layer. The major economic force behind the clearances is the global beef market and its insatiable appetite for the huge profits obtainable from cheap cattle raised on cheap land.
As the world’s largest single user of beef, the McDonald’s Corporation has been accused of having its foot firmly on the accelerator. However, given its economic reliance on public relations, the Corporation has gone to extraordinary lengths in order to extricate itself from any responsibility in the eyes of the world’s public.
For the two defendants in this longest ever civil court case, rainforest destruction was also one of the subjects most difficult to prove from the allegedly libelous ‘What’s wrong with McDonald’s?’ factsheet.
The chainsaws invariably belong to a multitude of small companies, whilst the money driving the market process comes from huge multinational corporations. Distanced from the actual chainsaws, corporations portray an environmentally concerned image whilst still being highly implicated in the destructive market process.
Before a jury, corporate culpability in this practice might have been easier to establish. However, one of McDonald’s first moves was to apply for a non-jury trial. Much to the defendants dismay, the judge agreed that the evidence might be too complicated for a jury to understand; the judge alone will make a decision on whether the criticisms of McDonald’s have been proven in court.
Following an incident involving the Duke of Edinburgh over ten years ago, the McDonald’s Corporation thought they had successfully countered allegations of any involvement in rainforest destruction.
Prince Phillip, as President of the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), was introduced to a McDonald’s executive at a 1983 WWF function in Canada. According to a letter disclosed during the McLibel trial, the Duke said to the executive: “So you are the people who are tearing down the Brazilian rainforests and breeding cattle.” The executive told Prince Phillip he was mistaken, to which the Duke replied: “Rubbish” and, according to the letter, “stormed away”.
When word of this exchange got out, the McDonald’s camp took immediate steps to avert the potential PR disaster. Fred Turner, chairman of the McDonald’s Corporation, sent out a world-wide edict saying no McDonald’s plant was to use Brazilian beef. The Corporation then sent a letter to the World Wildlife Fund saying: “McDonald’s world-wide is not involved in any manner in dealing with rainforests or their removal or in buying beef as a result of cattle that have been grazing in areas that formerly were rainforests.” The World Wildlife Fund subsequently wrote back saying the Corporation was “exonerated”.
In an obvious attempt to affirm this exoneration in the minds of the general public, McDonald’s and WWF later collaborated on a co-promotional schools campaign.
However, a letter mistakenly disclosed by McDonald’s during the trial reveals that, despite the “political” ramifications of ignoring the worldwide edict, the Managing Director of McDonald’s UK gave covert permission to McKey meat suppliers to provide its UK burger bars with Brazilian beef. Furthermore, letters from McDonald’s Costa Rican meat suppliers revealed that the company reared cattle on ex-tropical rainforest land.
The court was also shown film footage in which the sales director of that company stated they had supplied beef for use in McDonald’s US outlets. Cross examination of McDonald’s International Meat Purchasing Manager, Dr Gomez Gonzales, also revealed that Brazilian beef has also been exported for McDonald’s use in their Swiss and Argentinean burger bars during the 1990’s.
By May of this year, it had been assumed most of the significant rainforest evidence had already been heard. Although establishing that the Corporation’s statements were inconsistent with practice, would it convince the judge of a direct involvement in rainforest destruction? Then, on one day at the end of May, an additional witness unexpectedly delivered a killer punch.
The telling testimony came from Sue Brandford, an expert on the Amazon region, and currently working for the BBC World Service. She had already entered a signed witness statement to the court which both sides in the case had been aware of for some time. However, her powerful eye witness accounts of rainforest destruction included regions of Brasil only recently disclosed as sources for McDonald’s beef.
Brandford described how the cattle ranching industry had caused widespread environmental damage to the area and had violently displaced small farmers and indigenous peoples. She specifically described the rainforest areas of Mato Grosso, which had supplied beef to McDonald’s between 1979-1982, telling the court that she had witnessed the region being deforested for cattle ranches in the early 1980’s.
Her most telling testimony concerned the Goais region of Brasil, an area which McDonald’s had only disclosed information on two days prior to her appearance in court.
Unbeknown to both parties, this was the region Brandford had visited most regularly throughout the years.
To the dismay of McDonald’s legal team, she began describing the large scale deforestation that had taken place in this region.
In the freshly disclosed document, Roberto Morganti, director of McDonald’s local hamburger manufacturers Braslo Ltd, stated that the Corporation still purchases meat from several collection points in the Goias region, specifically naming towns along the banks of the River Araguaia and its tributaries.
Brandford told the court that this region had consisted almost entirely of tropical rainforest in the 1970’s but she had witnessed its systematic clearance by cattle ranchers from the mid 1970’s to the mid 1980’s. She said rainforest clearances still continue in this region today. After thre years of pushing McDonald’s to disclose documents on Brazilian Beef, it is an irony McDonald’s are unlikely to appreciate, that the Goias document was disclosed two days before Brandford’s appearance in court.
For McDonald’s, this testimony was a last minute nightmare. However, for the McLibel defendants it was the powerful primary evidence they had been looking to sew up what had already been established in the trial so far.
The subject on which it was thought hardest to clearly demonstrate corporate culpability has consequently turned into one the strongest areas in the long running saga of careful truth extraction.
For the full list of Squall articles about the McLibel Trial click here