The Crucial Crusade of an Amazon Cowboy
John Cain Carter, a former elite Army soldier and a 1993 graduate of TCU’s Ranch Management program, is fighting to save the Amazon rain forest by convincing others to embrace an ethos of sustainable agriculture.
by Kathryn Hopper
Updated: Wednesday, October 07, 2009
Brazilian rancher John Cain Carter ’93 RM has appeared on Letterman, "Dateline NBC" and more to promote saving the rain forest. Now he’s getting TCU's Ranch Management program
involved, too. (Photo by Joao Canziani)
Century-old live oaks shelter the white clapboard Welder family ranch house and the fragrance of magnolias hangs in a breeze-less June morning. It’s barely 10 a.m. and already in the low 90s as a herd of Hereford-Brahman mix cattle idles in a nearby grove.
At first glance, life on the 131-year-old ranch in Refugio County seems little changed from earlier eras, but on this day the ranch is the site of an international exchange between ranchers and rancheiros — Brazilian cattle ranchers — who were invited to Texas by their Brazilian neighbor John Cain Carter ’93 RM and TCU’s Institute of Ranch Management for a week of on-campus lectures and tours of South Texas alumni ranching operations.
“Everybody here is a frontier chaser for the most part,” says Carter, a San Antonio native, of his compadres from the Brazilian state of Mato Grosso — a region roughly the size of Texas and Oklahoma.
Listening to the Brazilian’s tales of battling squatters, rustlers and rattlesnakes, the Texas ranchers nod.
“It’s a wild, wild place, kind of like it was here in Texas back in the old days,” Carter says.
His grandfather operated ranches outside San Antonio, where he learned to track animals and got his first rifle at age 6. He grew up traveling the state’s back roads with his father, a geologist turned oil and gas land man.
“I got to meet the men who built the legendary ranches of Texas,” Carter says. “They were amazing, truly larger than life.”
Carter is well on the way to larger-than-life status himself. Since flying his own plane to Brazil in 1996 to help run his father-in-law’s spread, he has proved to be a gringo with gusto who doesn’t shy from challenge — even one as immense as saving the Amazon rain forest.
Carter’s practical approach is to offer producers a financial incentive to do the right thing, including membership in an alliance where they can sell their products under an eco-friendly branded label to consumers increasingly interested in their food’s back story.
Clad in his usual wardrobe of plaid shirt, Wranglers and a TCU Ranch Management baseball cap, Carter may not look the part of a crusader turned media darling. His work to promote more sustainable environmental practices in the region has put him in the spotlight and earned him the nickname “the Amazon Cowboy.”
The idea of a Texas rancher going to South America and saving the rain forest has drawn Time magazine, “Dateline NBC” and most recently, David Letterman, who invited Carter on his show earlier this year.
He’s been profiled in The Economist as well as Outside magazine, which noted his tendency to drink Skol beer and dip Copenhagen, adding, “The man who is possibly the future of Amazonian conservation could almost be mistaken for a redneck.”
Carter begrudgingly welcomes the attention as long as it helps his cause, but don’t think for a minute he’s gone Hollywood. “All that stuff flies over my head,” he says.
But Carter did manage to recruit nine Mato Grosso ranchers and related agriculturists to TCU for a week in June to listen to lectures from Ranch Management instructors and meet with Provost Nowell Donovan and Associate Provost Bonnie Melhart, who gave them each Horned Frog pins. The group also met with Texas Agriculture Commissioner Todd Staples and made the 350-mile trek south to Victoria, to see what TCU alumni are doing to manage their grazing lands, keep their stock healthy, grow profits and keep the natural ecosystems healthy.
The two groups talked shop and traded stats like 29,400 (that’s how many head of cattle a Brazilian auctioneer sold in just a few hours in April), and 200 million, the number of beef cattle in Brazil, the largest commercial herd in the world.
“These guys are just getting started,” says Jeff Geider, director of the TCU’s Institute of Ranch Management, of the Brazilians. “When they really get cranked up, look out.”
Cain Carter flew his own plane to Brazil in 1996 to help run his father-in-law's ranch in northern Mato Grasso, the wild frontier region of the Amazon basin.
(Photo by Joao Canziani)
Raising the steaks
In 2003, Brazil passed Australia and the United States to become the world’s largest beef exporter, now producing 31 percent of the world’s beef supply. While the U.S. prohibits importing fresh or frozen Brazilian beef due to concerns over foot-and-mouth disease, the country’s cattle industry is working hard to get it under control and the Brazilian Ministry of Agriculture expects production to double over the next 10 years — eventually supplying 60 percent of the world’s beef.
But the dramatic rise in cattle production in Brazil has come at a high cost to the nation’s native lands, including the Amazon rain forest, which is often illegally burned and cleared to make way for more lucrative cattle grazing or farming. Carter says cleared land in the Amazon basin is worth three to four times a forested parcel, providing a powerful economic incentive to destroy the fragile ecosystem.
“An area the size of Texas has been deforested in front of my eyes,” he says. “The realty is you need incentives to push people in the right directions, you need a release valve.”
Since 1996, more than 38,600 square miles of rain forest have been cleared for pasture, bringing the total area occupied by cattle ranches in the Brazilian Amazon to 214,000 square miles, an area roughly the size of France. The Mato Grosso region is home to more than 80 million head of cattle, equivalent to more than 85 percent of the total U.S. herd.
So why are Texas ranchers trading tips with the competition? For Carter, the answer is simple — they have to.
“I’m trying to get Ranch Management involved in Brazil because it’s the largest beef producer in the world today and I think that the Brazilian ranchers could really learn a lot from a program like this.
“World population growth and demand for foodstuffs is going to keep going up,” he says. “So I don’t see us as competitors anymore. I think the United States and Brazil need to focus on providing foodstuffs to the rest of the world and do it in a way that’s sustainable. That’s one of the things we want to do here — try to create that mentality.”
While Brazil has strict environmental regulations that require ranchers to preserve 80 percent of their lands as forests, many landowners openly flout the law, and corrupt law enforcers look the other way.
A June report by Greenpeace titled “Slaughtering the Amazon” revealed how the world’s major beef producers buy meat from Amazon ranchers engaged in illegal deforestation and invasion of lands set aside for indigenous tribes. As a result of the report, the World Bank withdrew a $90 million loan to Brazil’s beef producing giant Bertin, and Brazil’s three largest supermarket chains, Wal-Mart, Carrefour and Pão de Açúcar, announced they would suspend contracts with the suppliers involved.
The view from John Cain Carter’s plane shows the Xingu River, a tributary of the Amazon in Mato Grosso, Brazil. The dramatic rise in cattle production in Brazil - the world's largest beef exporter since 2003 - has come at a high cost to the nation's native lands, including the Amazon rain forest, which is often illegally burned and cleared to make way for more lucrative cattle grazing or farming.
A strategic alliance
For the last five years, Carter has prodded producers to protect the environment through a non-profit NGO he founded: Aliança da Terra, which allows producers who do follow environmental regulations to market their wares under the Aliança label — a kind of eco-oriented Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval.
“We are at a crucial time in our history today,” Carter says. “It’s the first time the consumer will pay more for products where the producer is doing the right thing.”
In 2004, Carter started Aliança da Terra with $30,000 of his own money and $270,000 in startup grants from U.S.-based Blue Moon Fund and the David and Lucile Packard Foundation. Now the alliance has 18 employees and an annual budget topping $600,000.
Aliança has more than 200 properties in its system, totaling 700,000 head of cattle and nearly 5.2 million acres. Carter is optimistic he can bring aboard larger producers in the coming months, incorporating 12 to 15 million acres under the alliance’s umbrella.
“In the last two years, not one tree has been torn down in our system,” Carter says. “Our members have actually added to the forests, planting trees.”
It remains to be seen whether Carter’s initiatives will sway major beef-importing nations. While the European Union has shoppers willing to pay more for eco-friendly products, their counterparts in growing markets such as China may not be as interested.
And he still has to battle Brazil’s political quagmire, including its policy requiring landowners to set aside 80 percent of their land without any compensation — a system he says creates civil disobedience.
“The government has created production quotas you have to meet to be considered a homestead,” he says. “It in essence forces you to tear down forest to increase production. It’s perverse.”
cowboys drive cattle through a shoot at a feedlot. In 2004, John Cain
Carter started Alianca da Terra with $30,000 of his own money and
$270,000 in grants. Now, the group has more than 700,000 head
of cattle and more than 5.2 million acres.
It’s clear this cowboy with a cause is not going to back down. The steady gaze of his steel blue eyes shows an inner determination sharpened by a Texas boyhood that had him driving his father’s truck by age 12.
“We’d be on the road constantly so sometimes I’d take over driving so he could get some sleep,” he says. “Being it was Texas, the roads were straight so it was pretty easy.”
Growing up, Carter always seemed to look for new challenges to tackle, including climbing every major peak in the Rockies by the time he graduated from the University of Texas at Austin in 1989.
Then he joined the Army, becoming an Airborne Ranger in the 101st Airborne Division and part of a long-range surveillance team tackling dangerous missions in the Persian Gulf War from August 1990 to March 1991, for which he was awarded the Bronze Star.
After his tour of duty, Carter decided to get back to the family business of ranching and wanted to follow in his brother Will Carter’s ’80 RM footsteps, attending TCU’s Ranch Management program.
“It was probably the best decision I’ve ever made,” he says of coming to TCU. “It prepared me for the livestock industry in a way that otherwise wouldn’t have been possible.”
The intense nine-month program was also where he met a beautiful brunette from Londrina, Brazil, named Anna Francesca Carvalho Garcia Cid ’93 RM — Kika for short. The granddaughter of Brazil’s two most famous cattle breeders and a former Brazilian national cutting horse champion, she had also come to TCU to continue her family’s ranching heritage. They married shortly after graduation.
The day after their honeymoon, Kika’s father began his not-so-subtle campaign to get his new son-in-law to come to Brazil and take over their spread in northern Mato Grosso, the wild frontier region in the Amazon basin. In 1996, Carter agreed and the couple moved to Fazenda Esperanca, a vast ranch located in a transitional area between the Cerrado Woodlands and the Amazonian tropical forest.
“It was a disaster, or it would have been if not for the tools I’d been given at Ranch Management,” Carter says. “That allowed me to go from a very tough environment to build up something of value in the last 14 years.”
Just how tough has Carter’s slog been? Not long after arriving, he was targeted by cattle rustlers who didn’t mind putting the new American vaqueiro in his place.
And then there were the snakes. In 2002, he watched as a deadly Brazilian rattlesnake curled up only a few feet from the patio where their little daughters, Maria and Catarina, were playing.
“My wife said, ‘That’s it, I’m out of here’ and moved to the city,” he says. “Where we were was so remote that we would have had no chance to save her if she’d been bitten.”
Now the family lives in Goiânia, a leafy city of 1.2 million where fruit trees line the streets. Carter puts 150,000 or more miles a year on his Cessna, flying out to check on their vast conservation-oriented holdings, including their 11,650-acre sustainable ranch and a side project called Brazilian Adventure Travel, an ecotourism company that offers, “personalized trips to the region to give people a firsthand opportunity to see the world’s last frontier before it disappears completely.”
But two months of the year it can be difficult, if not impossible, to fly into Mato Grosso because of the fires squatters set to clear the forest for fields. Two years ago Carter arrived at the ranch to find it in flames. A fire started by squatters on a neighbor’s property spread, searing more than 90 percent of his land and cutting his herd in half.
“It’s imperative to catch the burn early,” he says. “One match can destroy 3,000 to 4,000 acres.”
Even after the fires are put out, the scarred landscape leaves lasting effects.
“As the area is deforested, we’re seeing humidity drying out,” Carter says. “That ultimately means less forest, less diversity.”
Cain Carter interprets as TCU Ranch Management staff and alumni detail
the challenges facing Texas ranchers to a delegation of Brazilian
ranchers who visited campus and toured coastal Texas ranches in June.
(Photo by Kathryn Hopper)
Coming full circle
Carter’s work to protect that diversity drew Jesse Womack III ’02 RM to spend a summer working at Aliança da Terra. Womack descended from the ranching dynasty that first brought Brahman cattle to south Texas.
“What he’s doing is so important that I really wanted to be a part of it,” says Womack, who recently earned a graduate degree in environmental policies and international relations from Boston University. He helped prep Carter for his Letterman gig and was eager to welcome him and the Brazilian ranchers to the Womack family ranch outside McFaddin.
Womack says that ranchers in Texas rely on a variety of revenue streams. In addition to oil and gas leases, hunting provides much-needed funds, sometimes half a ranch’s revenues. But in order to attract the desired deer, quail and other species, ranchers have to protect the natural ecosystem.
“Without proper management, the wildlife won’t be there,” Womack says.
He explained that the family sold development rights for part of the ranch — a wetlands area rich in wildlife — to the federal government as a conservation easement. The program pays 75 percent of the property value, easing the tax burdens on future generations and guaranteeing it will be permanently preserved. Now it’s home to more than 200 bird species, including a nest of bald eagles.
As the sun sets over the ranch, the day ends with a lavish spread of grilled quail, steak filets and a dewberry cobbler served up on fine china with silver.
After the meal, Carter stands with Mauricio Tonha, the mayor of Agua Boa in Mata Grosso, and serves as his interpreter to the audience of Ranch Management staff and alumni.
“(We) are blown away with the intensity of the management in Texas, all the revenue streams involved, the professionalism of the management here — we never dreamed there was a place like this,” Carter says, interpreting for the mayor. “We said a thousand times that we want to leave here running — we want to go to work like a Texan.”
Just like John Cain Carter.
On the Web:
Cover story: The Crucial Crusade of an Amazon Cowboy
Rewarding producers who do the right thing
Green acres: Texas ranchers preserve land to protect habitats and heritage
What you may not know about TCU Ranch Management