Agriculture & Ranching | Deforestation | Logging | Mining | Pollution



Project Amazonia: Threats - Agriculture and Cattle Ranching



The rapid deforestation currently occurring in the Amazon rainforests is not the result of a lack of suitable farmland, but rather of the inefficiency of current agricultural methods.  Although it may seem like humankind and nature can never coexist in harmony, this is not true.  The current method of the slash-and-burn agriculture was once a sustainable technique; however, this is no longer beneficial in present sociological conditions.  Slash-and-burn involves clearing a section of rainforest, fertilizing it by burning the preexisting plants, and then planting the desired crop.  This method is only able to support 2-3 years of production, after which the farmer leaves the field fallow and moves on to another plot of land.  After approximately 25-30 years the farmer returns to the original field to burn the secondary growth forest and repeats the process.  Due to increasing population pressure, the fallow time has now been significantly reduced.  If these fields are planted with little or no nutrient input, the yield of annual crops declines rapidly due to a decreased nutrient availability and weed encroachment.  This prompts farmers to clear additional sections of forest.1  Current methods are not effective, and continuing to use them will only result in further deforestation.

A number of techniques are used to prevent this loss of nutrients.  The most popular of which is the use of fertilizers.  In the context of rainforest soil, fertilizers offer little, if any, help.  A large portion of the rainforest soil is rich in nitrogen.  Therefore, nitrogen is not the primary deficient nutrient, rather organics are, and the addition of nitrogen into the soil will not affect crop yields.  An alternative to traditional fertilizers is the use of green manure.  Green manure is basically the use of decayed plant material as fertilizers.  Although green manure is effective at increasing the organic compound level in soil, this benefit is decidedly short-lived due to the inability of rainforest soil to retain nutrients.  A technique that indirectly prevents the loss of nutrients is the use of pesticides to combat intruding weeds.  These chemicals, when exposed to the forces of nature, wash off into other areas of the rainforest and leach into the clay layers below where the chemicals may lay dormant for many years.   Some pesticides can be toxic to plant and animal life, inhibiting growth and causing illness.

Without an effective root structure, provided by the previously inhabiting tress, the soil loses much of its structural integrity and is far more prone to erosion than forested land.  In addition, during the rainy season, a lack of canopy cover exposes the land to excessive rainfall, draining nutrients from the fertile topsoil to the clay layers.  During the dry season, the same lack of canopy cover leads to over-exposure of the land by the sun, baking the land and destroying the drought-sensitive crops. Although the Amazon rainforest is not a watershed, due its high levels of precipitation and thin top soil layer, it has similar runoff patterns characteristic of watersheds. In a paired watershed study consisting of agroforestry (trees plus grass buffer strips), contour strips, and control treatments, agroforestry was found to reduce total phosphorous loss by 17%, total nitrogen loss by 20% and nonpoint-source pollution in the runoff.2


For reasons similar to agriculture, ranching is not very adaptable to the land of the Amazon Rainforest.  The grasses required to feed cattle, like the crops maintained in agriculture, are not resistant to the natural forces of the Amazon Basin and quickly deplete the nutrients of the surrounding soil.  The nutrients that were once in the soil are removed from the ecosystem, shipped away as ground beef.  Studies on land use have also suggested that the continuous movement of cattle on the unprotected land results in soil compacting, which increases the density of the soil material, resulting in decreased root penetration, water infiltration, and gas exchange.3  This means that larger flora, requiring a more extensive root system, are unable to grow under the compacted soil conditions, leaving the land for grass and woody shrub encroachment.  The possible solutions to preventing nutrient loss are similar to those suggested for agricultural systems.

Cattle ranching remains a very important industry in Brazil and is becoming even more vital to the Brazilian economy.  The Brazilian commercial cattle herd is the largest in the world.4  Beef and milk are the two top livestock products in Brazil5 and exports of Brazilian beef grew to $1 billion (USD) in 2001.  By 2003, Brazilian beef output is expected to reach 7.4 million tons, with exports of 925,000 tons.  One problem in Brazilian beef exporting has been the existence of foot and mouth disease in some Brazilian states.  This has caused the United States to be very stringent with Brazilian beef imports. However, the United States and Europe are still major importers of Brazilian beef.6  For every 1/4 lb hamburger consumed in the US from rainforest beef, about 55 square feet of rainforest was cleared. Although many fast food chains claim not to use rainforest beef, this claim is simply not valid. The USDA doesn't have an adequate system of labeling where beef is from. Thus beef grown in the rainforest can pass through a processing plant in the US and still be labeled as domestic meat.7  With the outbreak of many bovine diseases worldwide, Brazil has been able to conquer some new markets and continues to expand its thriving cattle industry.  It produces the second largest amount of beef in the world after the United States.  Unfortunately, this has disastrous effects on the rainforest.  Cattle ranching depletes the land of nutrients because cattle often eat to the very dirt, destroying all biomass on a piece of land and making it very hard for the habitat to restore itself.  Slash and burning is also often employed to clear land for cattle to graze.  Thus, cattle ranching is very destructive of land and is not very sustainable. 

The following map shows the severity of the cattle problem in the Amazon. The orange region is where the rainforest is currently threatened by ranching. 

The main danger to the ecosystem of the Amazon Rainforest from ranching and, especially, agriculture is the human need for survival.  Once the land has become depleted of nutrients, it can no longer support the inhabitants who are forced to search for new lands to rebuild the farms and fields.  As a result, most of the deforestation in the Amazon Rainforest is due to the displacement of farmers, peasants and ranches that are required to expand or move to maintain their way of living.  Alternatively, those who can afford chemical fertilizers will attempt to use them to boost the fertility of the Amazonian land.  These affluent people purchase the fertilizers not realizing that the soil is already rich in nitrogen nor understanding the harmful effects in the soil as previously mentioned.  As a result fertilizers only serve to pump the land full of more nitrogen, which can be toxic in excessive levels, without increasing the productivity of the land.  Finally, pesticides are also commonly used as an agricultural practice in the Amazon Rainforest to preserve crops and make the harvest more efficient.  Like previously stated, the chemicals seep into the land and are harmful to the wildlife.

Land Reform

"Without land reform, there is no chance of saving the rainforests and the indigenous people of the Amazon from destruction. The development of sustainable farming methods, birth control programs or reserve protection measures will be little more than palliative while the battle for land in Brazil still rages."8

At least 170 million hectares of previous farmland lie idle. When the peasants leave toward the Amazon they are not heading for a land of richness, leaving poverty behind them.  Many are not farming on fertile states, but rather arrive in a region so infertile that some have move as many as 25 times in their life.8

Land ownership and the desire for land are paradoxical.  While 0.8% of landlords possess 43% of the land, 53% of landowners (small peasants) only own 2.7% of the land.6  Multinationals own 36 million hectares of Brazilian territory.  Also, many of the biggest landowners are the senators, ministers and army chiefs. They exert their power in their local establishments by using legal and illegal (i.e. murder) means.  They try to prevent small farmers from obtaining more land by favoring certain cash crops in order to make small farming systems economically unviable.  The majority of the territory owned by these landlords is unfarmed.  Rather it is used as speculative assets whose market value has nothing to do with its productivity.  Only about 7% of the Amazon's soils are capable of sustaining annual crops.8  For this reason, hundreds of landless peasants are forced to migrate every year.

Many land conflicts arise from these problems.  Murders of peasants by landlords are not rare. The Rancher's Union, which includes many government officials, even encourages such crimes.7 As the peasants’ organizations become stronger and work with more foreign non-governmental organizations, the rate of crime will begin to decrease.

Since 1970, to avoid land redistribution in the South, the government has supported colonization. They encouraged the peasants to continue their southern farming practices and constructed the Trans-Amazon Highway to settle the peasants along the road without taking into consideration that only 3% of the land is fertile in that region.6

In 1985, an agrarian reform took place which aimed to redistribute unproductive farmland. Opposition included the formation of the Rancher’s Union. Only 10% of the amount of land proposed for reallocation had been expropriated and about 18000 rural families of 5 million landless families had been settled. The few successful expropriations were due to lobbying and demonstrations redistributing unused properties.8  Another event includes the Land Workers Movement which claims that the government’s land distribution policy, supported by the World Bank, benefits the rich landowners. The basic premise of this policy is to create a “land bank” which enables landowners to sell their property to the government who then sells it to the landless peasants on credit. The problem remains that few landholders want to sell their land.

The constitutional means and the ideas to launch an effective land reform policy are already in place.  Corruption of an elitist government remains an obstacle.  The Landless Workers Movement is very optimistic about the new president, Luiz Lula, who supports agrarian reform.  Such a reform is necessary for the preservation of the forest and the indigenous people.  If more farmers migrate to the forest, the demarcation indigenous land and the education of the peasants in sustainable farming will become more difficult, and the construction of roads will increase dramatically.

Agribusiness in Brazil

Since agriculture is a major cause of deforestation in Brazil, it is important to understand the structure of agribusiness in Brazil.  The agricultural sector has always functioned below growth potential because of discrimination against agriculture in the country due to lack of public investment.  Brazil’s agricultural economy only opened itself to markets during the last decade.  Before, the government had strict control over the market and its protection.  This resulted in considerable debt, de-capitalization, and de-motivation amongst the farmers. Since the big crisis in 1986, improvements to the incentives for growth in the primary sector have been made and in the restructuring of the state including the deregulation of economic activities, privatization, administrative reform, and integration on world market. As a result, the importance of agriculture, relative to the overall economy, rose throughout the 90s: 11% of GDP and 25% of labor force.7  Recently, “the agribusiness sector accounted for about 40% of Brazil’s GNP while forestry accounted for 4% and fisheries for 1%.”

Several variables influence the growth of agriculture.  The change in technology creates higher productivity and lower costs, but advertising improvements in human resources must persuade the farmers to adopt the technology.  The distribution of income, foreign exchange rates, and international trade policies and tariffs on exports and imports also determine the progress of agriculture.  Commercial costs affect the expansion of cultivated areas in regions where there is arable land such as in the Central Region.  Domination by First World countries plays a role in the international prices and external protectionism.  Thus, the economic strength of some markets is reduced because of tariff barriers set by these countries.  Such is the case with Brazil. 

A variety of main products compose the primary sector of agriculture in the Amazon.  Grain, sugar, coffee, beef, pork, poultry, and dairy represent the major farming products of the country.  Grains, such as maize and soybeans, are grown in the center-west region of Brazil.  Maize makes up about 65% of grain production.  Brazil is the second largest exporter of soybeans; 70% of production is grown for exportation.8  Rice primarily grows in Rio Grande de Sul and the center-west part of the nation.  New dry land rice varieties have been adopted for higher yields and better quality.  Wheat is cultivated in Parana, Santa Caterina, Rio Grande de Sul.  Sugar is grown in the center-south and center-west regions of Brazil.  About half of the cane crop is used for sugar production and half for ethanol processing.  Coffee is grown in Minas Gerais.  In this southwest region, nearly 65% of Brazilian coffee is grown.8  Beef has become a strong market with large sums invested in marketing programs for high-quality grass-fed beef.  The pork market is mostly a domestic market.  In 1998, large pork processors invested about $100 million into center-western and southern pork production.  Brazil was one of the top poultry exporters in 1998.6  Due to large investments in improved herd genetics, diary production has boosted.  There has also been investment in new processing methods which allows the milk to be produced in remote areas and transported economically to urban centers. 

Brazil has had many agricultural policies.  For example, the Minimum Price Program gives farmers the possibility to sell their agricultural products to the Commission for Production Financing at a minimum price if the market is not going well.  The influence of this program is declining, though.  The Market and Price Policy Development created a surplus situation in 1998 in regards to the production of sugar.  This caused the government to purchase hydrated alcohol for mixing with diesel fuel and the stocks to shift to public storage.  Export promotion policies involving agriculture includes a budget of $50 million to provide interest rate guarantees to commercial banks so that they finance export sales.  In consequence, Brazilian exporters have access to finance at rates equivalent to those in foreign markets.  Rural credit policies, such as the National Rural Credit system, grant loans for production and marketing of agricultural products.  This subsidy guarantees relatively low interest rates.  The national program to strengthen family farming offers credits at subsidized interest rates to small family farmers to finance planting, harvesting, machinery, infrastructures.  This fund comes from the Minister of Labor (through the Worker Support Fund). The administration of this program is decentralized to the municipality level.  Committees are responsible for monitoring the progress of the projects financed.  The program finances a large number of rural projects.

In conclusion, the primary sector has grown during the last decade due to very diverse strategies.  A strong, diversified, well-administered primary sector in the non-rainforest regions takes pressure off from the rainforest regions and is a stable source of income for the country.  Most producers are domestic and big producers for cash crops are not in the rainforest. Only small farmers are there because they have been expelled from southern regions by the big producers.

View solution to agricultural threats

End of Threats

1: Gotz Schroth, et. Al.

2: Udawatta, et. Al.

3: McGrath, Deborah, Smith, Ken, Gholz, Henry, de Assis Oliveira, Francisco, 2001, Effects of land-use change on soil nutrient dynamics in Amazonia, Ecosystems, 4

4: “Brazil’s Prized Exports Rely on Slaves and Scorched Land”, NY Times, March 26, 2002.

5: Economic Research Service, US Dept. of Agriculture



8: Colchester, Marcus and Larry Lohmann, The Struggle for Land and the Fate of the Forests