In the Amazon, where a significant proportion of the lands are still considered to be ‘public’ (i.e. under the control of national governments) and undesignated, land grabbing and illegal encroachment are rampant. The quickest and simplest way to lay claim to an area is to deforest it, and then show it to be ‘productive’ by cultivating crops or raising cattle. In some cases, cleared property is valued 5–10 times more than forested land. Often, as the soil nutrients are quickly depleted and productivity rapidly declines, the land is sold on to larger landholders who are able to maintain profits by economies of scale and the massive use of artificial fertilisers and toxic pesticides, while the original settlers move further into the rainforest.
Cattle ranching and agriculture are already responsible for a significant proportion of land-use conversion in the ‘arc of deforestation’ situated in the southern part of the Amazon basin. What has happened in the southern Amazon is a premonition of the potential future within the rest of the Amazon basin.
Extensive cattle ranching is a growing cause of deforestation in virtually every Amazon country: in the Amazon as a whole, 70% of formerly forested land, and 91% of land deforested since 1970, is now used for livestock pasture (Nepstad et al. 2008). In the Amazon alone, the deforestation caused by cattle ranching is responsible for the release of 340 million tons of carbon to the atmosphere every year, equivalent to 3.4% of global CO2 emissions. Low-density, low productivity, cattle ranching systems with less than one animal per hectare of pasture are the dominant form of livestock production in the Amazon.
Once the trees have been removed and replaced with grass (which rapidly dries out during periods of limited rain), cattle pastures significantly increase the risk of fire. Frequent fires further reduce the nutrient content of the soils and expose the soil surface to the heavy rains. This results in high levels of soil erosion, and the degrading of watercourses through sedimentation and contamination with organic matter.
Soya, sugar cane and palm oil for biofuels, as well as cotton and rice, are expanding the agricultural frontier in the Amazon. Brazil, for example, is currently the second-largest global producer of soybeans after the United States, and is one of the pioneers in the use of GMO/herbicide resistant Soya. As opposed to Asia, where Soya is a major contributor to the human diet (in the form of Soya milk and tofu), the beans produced in the Amazon are rarely used directly in human consumption. Instead, the bulk is exported to the US, Europe and China and forms the basis of cattle, chicken and pig feed. The milk, meat and eggs which many of us consume are often grown on feedstock whose primary ingredient is Soya, much of it originating from Brazil.
The insatiable hunger for cheap energy, including that produced as biofuels, has the potential to become a major new force in the expansion of the agricultural frontier within the Amazon, especially if fossil fuel prices continue to rise and alternative renewable energy sources are not promoted.
There is also a very sinister form of agriculture going on in the Amazon: the illegal farming of the coca plant to fuel the illicit trade in cocaine. Coca farming has only recently moved into the Amazon from the slopes of the Andean mountains after growers discovered that coca could grow just as well in the rainforest if the soil was supplemented with a special fertiliser.
Coca is now extensively farmed in rainforest regions within Colombia, but cocaine trafficking involves all Amazon countries. Compared to cattle ranching and farming of conventional crops, the areas involved are small, yet, the impact on communities and governments can be devastating. The processing of coca leaves into cocaine often involves toxic chemicals which are dumped into waterbodies, killing off the fish on which communities depend. Communities are also drawn into the lifestyle of drug traffickers and gangs, often involving extreme violence, excessive alcohol consumption, prostitution and the persecution/corruption of state officials (teachers, medical workers and park rangers have all been targets, on top of the law enforcement agencies).
This page is part of our series of articles on the Amazon System, emerging out of the experience of Dr Andrea Berardi, a Lecturer in Environmental Information Systems at The Open University to support the BBC Two series I Bought a Rainforest. See the full reference list for these articles.
Dr Berardi is a co-investigator on Project COBRA. COBRA is researching ways to integrate community solutions within policies addressing escalating social, economic and environmental crises, through accessible information and communication technologies.