Brazil issues $1.2 billion in fines on beef companies

AFP - Brazilian authorities announced Thursday they are seeking $1.2 billion in fines against 14 companies accused of buying beef from farms exploiting illegally deforested areas or slave labor in the Amazon.

Federal prosecutor Anselmo Henrique Cordeiro Lopes told AFP that he gathered evidence for more than a year and tried unsuccessfully to get companies to sign a deal banning the practices.

Among the accused was JBS Friboi, the world's largest beef exporter, which told AFP that the complaint was "a surprise" because it was in advanced stages of negotiations with prosecutors on an agreement.

The farms are located in the Amazon state of Acre. Brazil is one of the world's largest beef producers, but it is estimated that that livestock has caused 80 percent of deforestation in the Amazon in recent years.

The complaint also named Brazil's Institute for the Environment, which was accused of failing to supervise the companies.

Prosecutors are seeking $625 million in fines and the same amount in compensation for environmental damage, according to Cordeiro Lopes.

JBS Friboi and three other large meat producers had signed a pledge in 2009 banning the purchase of cattle from certain deforested areas in Amazonian states.

It's not the first time prosecutors have cracked down in illegal farming practices.

In 2010, Brazil fined Lima Araujo Agropecuaria $2.9 million for keeping 180 of its workers in slavery on two of its properties.

Among the 180 enslaved workers freed from the two ranches in the northern state of Para were nine adolescents and a child of 14 years, officials had said.