Anim. Prod. Aust. 2002 Vol. 24: 253-256
CATTLE RANCHING IN THE AMAZON RAINFOREST
J. B. VEIGA, J.F. TOURRAND, R. POCCARD-CHAPUIS, M.G. PIKETTY
Embrapa-Cirad Cooperation Program, Tv. Enéas Pinheiro s/n, Caixa Postal 48, CEP: 66095-100, Belém-PA,
Since the 1960s, the cattle herd of the Amazon Basin has increased from 5 millions to more than 70-80
million heads. Around 15% of the Amazon forest has been replaced and around 80% of the deforested
areas have been covered by pastures (approximately 900 000 km2). Cattle expansion occurs in the new
agricultural frontier areas of the “Arc of deforestation”, from the Eastern Brazilian Amazon (States of
Maranhão and Pará), through the Southern Brazilian Amazon (States of Tocantins, Mato Grosso and
Rondônia) and the Bolivian rainforests, to the Andean Amazon ecosystems of Bolivia, Peru, Ecuador,
Colombia and Venezuela. Based on 1990s data from different agricultural frontiers of the Amazon
basin, the authors try to identify the main factors responsible for cattle expansion. Whereas there are
some promising and sustainable land use alternatives are emerging in particular regions, adequate
solutions to avoid or minimize the negative ecological impact of Amazon basin development still have
to be found.
Keywords: cattle, beef, sustainability, deforestation, farming systems
With 7.5 million km2, the Amazon is the largest tropical forest in the world. The Amazon basin covers
eight countries: Brazil (67% of the area), Peru and Bolivia (25% together), Colombia, Venezuela,
Ecuador, Guyana, Surinam and French Guyana. It is comprises high diversity ecosystems: lowlands
along the Eastern Amazon river until its delta, savannas in Colombia and Brazil, respectively located
in the basin’s North-West and South-East, Andean Amazonian highlands in the West, Guyana plateau
in the North and, last but not least, the typical Amazon rainforest, which covers the main area in the
center of the basin.
Cattle ranching in the Brazilian Amazon started in the 16th century, at the beginning of the Portuguese
colonization, when navigators brought the first animals to satisfy farmers demand for milk and animal
draught (Desffontaines 1956). Cattle ranching has then expanded in the Low Amazon River regions,
from Santarém to the Marajó Islands, based on extensive farming systems on natural grasslands
(Teixeira 1953). At the beginning of the 20th century, the Brazilian Amazon herd was made of 750 000
cattle and 250 000 buffaloes. In the Andean Amazon, cattle ranching started later, in the 19th and 20th
centuries, by catholic missions from the Andean Sierras, where cattle ranching had been developed
during the Spanish colonization. Although cattle ranching is an old farming system in the Amazon, its
expansion has not been as fast as in Brazilian and Andean regions (Medeiros Neto 1970; Olmedo et al.
COLONIZATION IN THE AMAZON
The rise of colonization in the Amazon is strongly linked with the new policy decisions of the national
government in the 1960s. These choices were motivated by several political, economic and social
objectives: (i) to secure the integrity of national territories (ii) to exploit regional natural and hydro-
carbonic resources, (iii) to provide land to farmers that were excluded from economic growth in other
regions because of land concentration or agricultural mechanization. Thus, starting in the 1960s,
public investments have led to road building and other colonization projects in this region.
In the Brazilian case, three main roads have been built in order to link the Amazon to the Southern
States: the Belém – Brasília (Br 010), the Cuiabá – Santarém (Br 163), and the Cuiabá - Rio Branco
(Br 364). Another road has been built in the Eastern-Western axis, the Transamazon (Br 230). In
Andean countries, each government has built between one to three roads linking the Amazon to the
coastal regions through the Cordilleras. Finally, a marginal road has also been built along the Eastern
Cordillera from Santa Cruz de la Sierra (Bolivia) to Venezuela. Farmer’s migrations have been
stimulated by the construction of these roads, both spontaneously and organised by governments.
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Other policies have stimulated agricultural colonization. The Brazilian government has implemented a
tax-exemption program, in order to stimulate the “organization and establishment of large farms, almost
all for beef production, considering the pioneer role cattle have played in Brazilian agricultural history”
(Santiago 1986). In the Andean countries, recent studies have shown that low-interest and short-term
public loans have favored cattle ranching rather than perennials crops (Olmedo et al. 2001; Valencia et
al. 2001). Thus it can be said: “cattle feet have carried out the world greatest forest colonization”.
CATTLE RANCHING AS THE MAIN FARMING SYSTEM IN THE AMAZON BASIN
Since the beginning of the colonization in the 1960s, around 15% of the Amazon forest has been
removed through agricultural practices. Slash and burn is the most common way to open primary
forest: high-valued timber is sold to timber companies; annual crops are planted in the first year;
sometimes perennials crops are planted as well on good soils; pasture follows annual crops.
Nowadays, around 0.5 to 1% of the Brazilian Amazon forests is opened through slash and burn,
followed by pasture establishment, 3 to18 months later depending on the region (Tourrand et al. 1999;
Alves 2001). Pastures cover 80 % of deforested areas and represent the main land use, thus cattle herd
growth is a good indicator of expansion of the agricultural frontier.
During the last twenty years, cattle herd growth in the Brazilian Amazon has been impressive (see
Table 1). The main part of the Maranhão State, particularly the eastern part, has been colonized before
the 1960s, and the cattle expansion in the western has mostly occurred before 1990 and, since then,
cattle herd seems to be stabilized at around 1 head/hectare. A similar evolution occurred a little later in
the Tocantins State, and now, as in Maranhão, there is no more forest and pasture is the main land use.
Table 1: Bovine herd in legal Brazilian Amazon (x1000 head)
States 1980 1985 1990 1995 1996 1997 2000* 2001* Ratio 97/98
Amazon 11 841 19 081 27 036 37 328 38 210 40 211 47 209 49 923 8.5
Source: IBGE and DBO rural magazine; * Estimation from 96/97 data
Today, the Brazilian agricultural frontiers are crossing Rondônia, Roraima, Eastern Pará and Northern
Mato Grosso. Since the 1990s, these regions have shown the highest deforestation rates, according to
the Brazilian Secretary of Environment (MMA, 2001), and the highest cattle growth rates. New
regions are developing through the conversion of forest in pastures. Villages and little cities are
growing rapidly. Local agribusiness is based on sawmills, slaughterhouses, dairy and leather factories,
, as well as on timber and cattle transport. Recently, in some regions, mechanized soybean, rice and
maize production has increased.
The agricultural frontier is now expanding as well through western Pará and Southern Amazonas,
which are still mainly covered by tropical forest. Colonization there remains based on timber
extraction and cattle ranching. If this trend persists, these regions will probably show the same pattern
of change as the other regions (MMA, 2001).
The situation in Acre and Amapá States is a little different, since local public policies try to prevent
anarchic frontier expansion through an effective control of timber and cattle activities and a promotion
of sustainable natural resources management, as self-sustainable forest management. The monitoring
of the development seems also to be easier since these States are smaller, still somewhat remote, and
with a low population density. Thus, agricultural frontier expansion appears to be more stable. Even if
cattle numbers are increasing, it seems to be due to farming intensification rather than to pasture
It should be recognised that previously cited figures of the Brazilian Amazon herd may be
underestimated (Veiga et al., 2001b). Indeed, some cattle usually are not counted: (i) smallholders
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herds (10 to 20% of total); (ii) calves (around 20%); (iii) some herds of large companies, temporarily
kept in other ranches (5 to 10%). Thus, the real figures could be between 60 and 70 million head.
The previous analysis shows that, only 35 years ago, livestock in the Amazon was based only on 5
million head herd, whereas today the figure is close to 80 millions head, with an annual growth rate
of between 5 and 8%. Another important transformation is the replacement of natural grassland by
sown pastures in former forest areas. The distribution of the cattle herd along the different sub-regions
may be estimated as following: Eastern Brazilian Amazon (20-25 millions heads), Southern Brazilian
Amazon (25-30 millions heads), South-Western Amazon (10-12 millions heads), Central Andean
Countries Amazon (8 millions) and Northern Andean Countries Amazon (5 millions bovines).
DETERMINANTS OF CATTLE RANCHING EXPANSION IN THE AMAZON
Cattle ranching in the Amazon is often criticized in the scientific literature because of its numerous
harmful consequences on economic, social and ecological grounds (deforestation, land concentration,
biodiversity loss, land tenure concentration, and small contribution to regional development).
Opposing these viewpoints, some authors have argued that cattle ranching is a suitable agricultural
activity for the Amazon, is a good alternative for smallholders and allows safe returns on investment.
It is clear that most of these opposing arguments are valid under specific conditions and
generalizations cannot be easily made. Apart from these ideological positions, several researches in
the 1990s have identified the main factors responsible for cattle expansion in Amazon.
Firstly, the emergence of efficient beef production and marketing chains in the region allows low, but
secure prices for livestock products. Farmers in the Amazon can always sell cattle at a price indexed
on the biggest national markets (São Paulo, Lima, Quito, Guayaquil, Santa Cruz, Bogotá). Some other
agricultural activities may give higher returns, such as pepper in Brazil, but price or yield variability
often impedes security. For example, the price of annual crops (maize, rice, beans etc) shows seasonal
and annual variability. Perennial crops prices also fluctuate and depend on international markets. The
low variability in prices seems thus to guarantee safe returns in cattle ranching, from smallholders to
large farmers and from small traders to larger agribusiness companies.
Cattle ranching in the Amazon does not depend anymore on any kind of public subsidies: very low
production costs, around US$0.03/litre of milk and US$0.15/kg of meat (Machado 2000), make it very
competitive, allowing to trade livestock products around all Amazon basin. In Peru and Ecuador,
young bulls born and raised in the Amazon are fattened in Lima, Quito and Guayaquil with by-product
feed supplements (Olmedo et al. 2001; Valencia Chamba et al. 2001). In Brazilian, final products are
sold to the large markets of the Northeast, Southeast and South. With 25-30% of the Brazilian cattle,
Amazon is indirectly contributing to the increase of national livestock products export, from 200
millions tons in 1996 to 625 millions tones in 2000 (DBO, 2002).
Secondly, sown pasture performance is a major determinant of cattle expansion in the Amazon;
Brachiaria brizantha has become the major forage species planted in the Amazon and today, it counts
for around 95% of forage seeds sold in the region (Veiga et al. 2001 b). Its nutritive value is not as
high as of Panicum spp, but allows live weight gains of around 600-800 g/day. Moreover, it is very
competitive with weeds that tend to grow as pasture management fails or soils fertility declines. The
soil cover of Brachiara brizantha is dense and its roots are deep, which allows a reasonable forage
production during the dry season.
Thirdly, few agricultural alternatives can compete with cattle ranching in the Amazon. Whereas
mechanized soybean or annual crop may allow large benefits, few farmers and agribusiness companies
are yet to invest on it. Large producers prefer to stay in the livestock production and marketing chain,
while wait for specific loans to invest in agroforestry or annual crops, even if the succession of 2-3
years of annual cropping followed by 5-8 years of pastures has a great potential, particularly in drier
region of the Northern Mato-Grosso or South- Eastern Pará States. These alternatives depend also on
the development of local technological skills.
In many regions, some smallholders have faced major difficulties due to price fluctuations of perennial
crops and to crop diseases, mainly with cocoa, sugarcane, pepper and coffee. Some small farmers who
have diversified their production systems with typical Amazonian crops, such as cupuaçú and guaraná,
Anim. Prod. Aust. 2002 Vol. 24: 253-256
have not succeeded in the long term. The exploitation that may better fit to smallholders’ features is
milk production, also linked to cattle ranching. Diversified farming systems based on meat and milk
production seems to be the main sustainable alternative for small farmers in the Amazon, what need to
be confirmed in the long term (Veiga et al. 2001c).
THE EMERGENCE OF MORE SUSTAINABLE FARMING SYSTEMS?
Recently, it has been noticed that large farmers are beginning to be concerned about their negative
ecological impacts. In Brazil, the current strategy of some farmers is to not rely only on timber
extraction and land tenure expansion. Some of them are trying to use new financial supports to reforest
degraded areas or to implement agroforestry systems. For example, in the South of Para, a large cattle
rancher has planted teck (a valuable timber tree) in his pastures, increasing land productivity and
decreasing environmental negative externalities (Piketty et al. 2001). Some smallholders have also
developed small-scale-agroforestry systems, integrating perennial crops with fruit or timber trees
(Smith et al. 1996). However, these experiences are still poorly developed, and sometimes only
experimental (Boulanger 2001), despite increasing governmental incentives.
Over the last thirty years, the Amazon rainforest has become one of the main cattle ranching regions in
the world. With 5 to 8% annual expansion, the growth of cattle herd is still strongly affecting forest
resources in this region. Negative ecological impacts are evident, however economic and social
constraint cannot always be generalized. Cattle ranching has allowed many smallholders to improve
their livelihoods, particularly through dairy production. Still poorly developed, more sustainable
farming systems are being encouraged by new international and national regulations, as well as by
society. Adequate solutions to avoid or minimize the negative ecological impact of development of
Amazon basin are necessary and part of these solutions will have to be found within the livestock
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