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Indigenous groups sue French retailer over destruction of Amazon rainforest

·5-min read

Indigenous activists backed by environmental groups have filed a lawsuit in a French court against the supermarket chain Casino, alleging that its stores in Latin America sell meat linked to land-grabs and deforestation in the Amazon.

In a first for France, activists took Casino to court on Wednesday over deforestation and the loss of land and livelihood in Brazil and Colombia, two of the company’s biggest markets.

The plaintiffs – a coalition of indigenous activists and environmental groups from France and the US – allege systemic violations of human rights and environmental laws in the company’s supply chains in Latin America. They are seeking €3.1 million ($3.7 million) in damages.

“We want [Casino] to respect its environmental obligations by adopting new measures for the environment and to pay damages to indigenous communities for the harm they have suffered,” said Sébastien Mabile, a lawyer for the coalition, in an interview with FRANCE 24.

France’s due diligence law

The lawsuit in Saint-Etienne, where the Casino Group is headquartered, marks the first time a French supermarket chain has been taken to court over deforestation and human rights violations allegedly committed by its suppliers. Casino is one of the main supermarket chains in France, owning both the Franprix and Monoprix stores.

It is based on a 2017 due diligence law that requires French companies with more than 5,000 employees to ensure human rights and environmental violations are not committed in their supply chains.

The plaintiffs point to evidence compiled by the Center for Climate Crime Analysis, a non-profit based in The Hague, according to which Casino has regularly bought beef from slaughterhouses owned by the controversial Brazilian meatpacking company JBS.

"The three slaughterhouses sourced cattle from 592 suppliers responsible for at least 50,000 hectares of deforestation between 2008 and 2020," they said in a statement, noting that the deforested area is “five times the size of Paris".

Harming the forest and its people

Founded more than a century ago, Groupe Casino is the biggest retailer in both Brazil and Colombia, through its Pao de Acucar and Grupo Exito stores respectively. Latin America as a whole accounted for almost half of the group’s €31.9 billion in sales last year.

“Deforestation is caused in large part by cattle farming; it is therefore normal that those who profit from this environmental and human disaster also foot the bill,” said Lucie Chatelain, a legal expert at the French NGO Sherpa, which aims to defend the victims of financial crimes.

Cattle is known to be the main driver of deforestation in South America, particularly in Brazil, where the national space agency has warned that deforestation of the Amazon reached a 12-year high last year. Experts have warned that the world’s largest rainforest is approaching a tipping point, threatening to switch from a closed canopy rainforest to an open savannah.

On top of the environmental damage caused by deforestation, the plaintiffs in the Casino case also want reparation for the human rights violations suffered by indigenous communities.

“We indigenous peoples are the guardians of the Amazon and of indigenous lands,” said Luiz Eloy Terena, a leader of Brazil’s Terena people and the legal counsel for the Articulation of Indigenous Peoples of Brazil (AIPB), speaking at a press conference on Wednesday. “In addition to the financial damage incurred, the harm done to indigenous lands affects our way of life and threatens the survival of our culture, of our traditions and, ultimately, that of our people."

‘Rigorous’ controls

Contacted by FRANCE 24, Casino declined to comment on the court action. However, the company said in a statement that its Brazilian subsidiary GPA used a “systematic and rigorous policy to control the origin of beef delivered by its suppliers”. The French group “fights actively against deforestation linked to cattle raising in Brazil and Colombia, taking into account the complexity of supply chains,” the statement added.

Despite Casino’s assurances, the plaintiffs stress that the French group still hasn’t committed to halting the sale of meat products linked to deforestation at its Latin American stores.

“In 2021, it is possible to go to Mars but a company like Casino is incapable of eliminating deforestation from its supply chain – it’s unacceptable,” sighed Boris Patentreger, cofounder of the environmental group Envol Vert. Blasting Casino’s “double talk”, he added: “The company can play the organic card for its urban clientele in France, through such brands as Naturalia and Monoprix, while at the same time taking part in the deforestation of the Amazon.”

Not just Casino

Carrefour, another French retailer, has also been singled out for criticism. Last July, the investigative website Disclose exposed the ties between Carrefour and a Brazilian meat producer linked to deforestation of the Amazon. At this stage, “we have chosen to pursue Casino in court because it is present in both Colombia and Brazil, whereas Carrefour is only present in the latter,” said Mabile, the lawyer. “But our demands regarding Carrefour are the same.”

Retailers are not the only culprits, the plaintiffs point out, stressing that governments are also responsible for the plight of the Amazon. In Brazil, President Jair Bolsonaro’s government has drastically weakened measures designed to combat deforestation, despite the fact that the destruction of the rainforest is the main cause of greenhouse emissions in the country.

Though powerless to force governments into action, the French NGOs are hoping the lawsuit will at least “raise awareness of the responsibilities of French firms around the world”, said Mabile.

Companies are under mounting pressure from lawmakers and activists to protect the Amazon. Last month, French bank BNP Paribas pledged to only finance beef and soybean producers in Latin America that commit to zero deforestation. Earlier, the bank joined other lenders in pledging to stop financing the trade in crude oil in Ecuador, which indigenous leaders have blamed for the destruction of rainforests.

This article has been translated from the original in French.