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APYTEREWA INDIGENOUS RESERVE, Brazil (Reuters) - The small plane is gliding over a mesmerizing landscape of green pasture interspersed by patches of forest, but Wayne Lindbergh keeps his eyes firmly glued to his laptop.
Below, where a map on his screen indicates forest stood last year, bare soil is charred brown by recent burning, another example of the widespread illegal deforestation of the Amazon forest that environmentalists blame on cattle ranchers.
"This is all new this year," says Lindbergh, a campaigner for the Greenpeace environmental group, earphones clamped to his head as he points to the screen of his laptop computer showing the latest satellite data on deforestation.
Soon thousands of cows will be chewing pasture on the freshly cleared land in Brazil's Amazon state of Para, just a tiny part of Brazil's 200-million-strong commercial cattle herd, the world's biggest, that makes it a beef superpower.
More than 70 million are in the Amazon area, three for every person. This is where the industry has grown fastest in recent years, a trend activists say is due to cheap land, widespread illegal clearing and weak government enforcement.
Now, buoyed by a landmark success in persuading the country's soy industry to avoid deforestation, activists are hoping to use consumer power to rein in the cattle industry.
Ahead of world climate talks in December, they point to evidence that ranching is by far the biggest driver of the deforestation that makes Brazil the world's fourth-biggest carbon emitter. Greenpeace, which says Amazon cattle are the biggest single driver of deforestation in the world, launched a campaign on Monday linking illegal land-clearing with beef products sold by companies in Europe and the United States. [nN14290980])
The campaign against soy farmers in 2006, which linked deforestation with major firms such as McDonald's Corp, led to a three-year moratorium on soy from deforested areas.
But replicating that success with the cattle industry will be tougher, activists say. The industry, long at the heart of a bitter struggle for land in the Amazon, is a powerful opponent seen as strategically important by the government of President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva.
Major Brazilian meat-processing companies JBS, Marfrig and Bertin have expanded abroad to become global players and in the past five years have driven the industrialization of cattle ranching in the Amazon.
State development bank BNDES gave financing totaling 4.7 billion reais ($2.38 billion) to the four biggest meatpackers in 2008 and recently created a 1 billion reais ($1.97 billion) package to help them through the world financial crisis.
Environmental groups say that means the government is effectively financing the forest's illegal destruction, even as it has adopted its first target for reducing deforestation -- by half over the next decade.
They say the slaughterhouse operators, taking advantage of widespread confusion over land ownership and a limited state presence, rarely check whether meat comes from legal areas.
"It's the role of the industry to segregate," said Andre Muggiati, another Greenpeace campaigner. "The industry can demand from farms that they don't deforest any more."
The meat firms deny any links to illegal deforestation. Bertin, in response to Reuters questions, said it would cut off any supplier found to be illegally clearing forest.
But in past decades, settlers, farmers and speculators have operated in the virtual absence of state controls, leaving a legacy of conflict, illegality and distrust in the Amazon even as big companies with foreign shareholders have moved in.
Back on the ground in central Para state, where the farming frontier meets the vast, virgin forest, the clarity provided by aircraft observation and satellite data is quickly clouded.
In a dusty settlement by the Xingu river, Indians from the Parakana tribe recalled seeing thousands of cows rounded up and confiscated from across the water last year, part of a high-profile government operation against illegal ranchers.
But they say rancher invasions and deforestation have continued. Tamakware, a tribal elder daubed in black pigment, brandished an arrow and made a plaintive appeal to foreign visitors to tell President Lula to move the farmers out.
"The state is absent here," said Francisco Pinto, a government official of the Indian affairs agency who lives with the tribe.
A day after the flight, ranch supervisor Elcimar Alves de Oliveira stood in a barn on the Itacaiunas farm and unfurled a map showing a swathe of forest on the land where he and a team of 12 cowboys rear about 17,000 head of cattle.
Greenpeace's analysis of the recent deforestation found that 1,500 hectares (3,700 acres) had been cleared in 2008, leaving about 30 percent of the farm's land as intact forest.
"We don't take any wood from here, even for fence posts," said De Oliveira, a wiry 45-year-old with a thick mustache.
Although it is just a hour's drive from the nearest environment agency office, Greenpeace says the farm has never been fined even though the agency has the same satellite data used by the environment group.
By law, ranchers are supposed to maintain 80 percent of their land as forest reserve, but even they acknowledge this is rarely observed. Muggiati said 10 percent forest was above average, something that appeared to be confirmed by the vast expanses of pasture seen from the sky.
While conservationists say ranchers and the meatpackers who buy their cattle are the biggest driver of deforestation, farmers often blame landless peasants who accept land from the government and then illegally sell it.
"The government is moving slums from the city into the country," said James de Senna Simpson, the financial director of the rural producers syndicate of Maraba, a city that is a farming hub in Para.
But he also questioned whether foreigners and environmental groups he called "eco-crazies" had the right to tell Brazilian farmers to stop cutting down trees.
"What will the world pay us to stop cutting down trees? They will have to pay," said Simpson, a descendant of a Scottish immigrant.
Editing by Eric Walsh