Cultures of Soy and Cattle in the Context of Reduced Deforestation and Agricultural Intensification in the Brazilian Amazon

in Environment and Society

ABSTRACT

The expansion and intensification of agriculture is a major driver of deforestation in tropical forests and for global climate change. However, over the past decade Brazil has significantly reduced its deforestation rates while simultaneously increasing its agricultural production, particularly cattle and soy. While, the scholarly literature primarily attributes this success to environmental policy and global economic trends, recent ethnographic depictions of cattle ranchers and soy farmers offer deeper insight into how these political and economic processes are experienced on the ground. Examples demonstrate that policy and markets provide a framework for soy farming and ranching, but emerging forms of identity and new cultural values shape their practices. This article argues that to understand the full picture of why Brazil’s deforestation rates have dropped while the agricultural industry has flourished, the culture of producers must be present in the analysis.

In December 2015 at the 21st Convention of Parties (COP 21) in Paris, Brazil pledged to continue to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 37 percent below 2005 rates. One of the primary ways they pledged to do this is to reduce deforestation rates through the enforcement of the Forest Code, achieving zero illegal deforestation, restoring 12 million hectares of forest, and enhancing sustainable native forest management systems (Federative Republic of Brazil 2015). This pledge comes after a decade-long campaign by Brazil to shift from being a leader in deforestation to a leader in climate change mitigation. Brazil has reduced rates of deforestation from 19,500 square km per year through 2005 to 5,843 square km in 2013, a 70 percent reduction (Nepstad et al. 2014). Simultaneously with this drop in deforestation rates, Brazil increased its GDP by 32 percent (Federal Republic of Brazil 2015) primarily through agricultural intensification, and specifically through cattle ranching and the production of soybeans. This achievement challenges existing notions that commodity-oriented agricultural intensification and forest protection are in opposition to each other. However, even though overall deforestation rates have dropped, Brazil maintains one of the highest absolute rates of deforestation in the world. Furthermore, a spike in deforestation, beginning in 2013 in two areas of the Amazon with heavy agricultural production Mato Grosso and Pará, has put into question the sustainability of maintaining lowered deforestation rates with intensified agricultural production.

Rates of deforestation are calculated by INPE, Brazil’s Institute for Space Research—Instituto Nacional de Pesquisas Espaciais—and are based on satellite images. The rates offer an overarching scale of analysis that measures national rates of land cover change as well as regional trends. What is common through this chapter of Brazil’s deforestation saga is that both policy and economic trends have been central to the narrative; they are lauded when rates drop and blamed when rates increase. For example, Philip M. Fearnside (2015) has argued that these recent spikes in deforestation come from the decline in value of the Brazilian real, increased global prices of beef and soy, and the loosening of the Forest Code restrictions. Often lost in the discussion is the complexity through which agricultural producers interpret and practice these global market opportunities and environmental policies.

Neil Smith ([1984] 2008) has argued that the quantitative nature of spatial analysis has separated out Human–Nature relations from the space itself. Although produced in a particular space, the world’s industries are no longer determined by or centered near that location, markets are global and are influenced by various forms of demand and politics. In the Amazon this is true for carbon, soy, and cattle, which are guided by global markets and international and national policies. Trends can be seen and correlations can be made through remote sensing and satellite images, which link policy and economic changes to clear rates of deforestation. But these analyses miss the heterogeneity of practice on the ground. This detached approach to the fluxes of Amazonian deforestation leaves a trail of uncertainty into what aspects of policy and markets are actually effecting these measurements. Smith writes, “It is the societal mode of production which binds space and nature together into a single landscape” ([1984] 2008: 142).

Discrepancies in the rates of deforestation are lost in the data when variations in farm type and size are amalgamated into singular trends. While analysis focusing on the overall rate of deforestation remains fundamental to explaining the overall picture and Brazil’s role in climate change mitigation, it neglects a host of questions about practices on the ground. Recent ethnographic narratives of agriculturalists demonstrate that environmental policies and commodity prices have not simply reduced deforestation while increasing agricultural production. Instead, the processes through which agricultural producers become involved in cattle and soy production are complex and involve the establishment of new identities and struggles over land tenure, labor, and livelihoods. These local experiences add critical dimensions to analysis guided by images from above because they offer a compatible description for why and how deforestation and agricultural intensification are occurring. Understanding how people engage with agricultural production within the context of these policies and economic drivers can provide a richer picture of why deforestation rates jump, giving insight into what motivates the interactions farmers and ranchers have with the land and the forest.

This article first offers an overview of deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon concentrating on the economic and environmental policies that have reduced deforestation rates over the past decade while also bolstering cattle ranching and soy production. Second, by summarizing examples from the past decade of ethnographic narratives of cattle ranching, (primarily based on the work of Jeffrey Hoelle) and large scale soy farmers (primarily based on the work of Ryan Adams), and placing them within the broader context, this article demonstrates how a people-centric approach to economic and environmental policy gives a more robust understanding of the relationship between agricultural intensification and deforestation rates. This discussion is not only relevant to current scholarly and political discussions over deforestation in Brazil, but has implications for other tropical forest countries considering the implementation of the Brazilian model for their own climate mitigation and sustainable development agendas.

A Brief History of Deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon

Tropical forests across the globe are being reshaped by the expansion of croplands and the production of commodity crops for export in particular. Deforestation for agriculture is one of the primary causes of land cover change, the leading cause of climate change. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has estimated that Land Cover Change, like deforestation for agriculture, accounts for 17.4 percent of GHG emissions (2007). Deforestation for agriculture is most prominent in tropical countries like Indonesia and Brazil where 700 million people live in or near forests and depend on the land for food, fuel, and income (Goers et al. 2012).

Deforestation of the Amazon is of global concern because of the large size of the forest and its importance to global environmental health. The Brazilian Amazon is the largest continuous forested area on the planet and includes 40 percent of all remaining tropical rainforests in its territory, playing a vital role in global biodiversity conservation and the provision of ecosystem services (Van Vliet et al. 2013). Although the Amazon is the largest tropical forest on the planet, by 2001, 11 percent of the legal Amazon had been deforested (Barreto et al. 2006).

Significant deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon began in the 1960s following the Brazilian Military’s frontier expansion. This was an attempt at national development and to integrate the region into the Brazilian economy, defend its borders against international exploitation, and increase export–oriented agriculture and livestock raising (Banerjee et al. 2009; Hecht 1985). One aspect of this expansion was the industrialization of Brazil’s agricultural sector using Green Revolution techniques like modern chemicals and mechanized technologies to improve agricultural exports. Many of these technologies were developed and supported by large multinational companies that continue to play a role in Brazil’s agricultural industry (Hall et al. 2009). Another aspect of this expansion was government supported colonization programs for small farmers to the Amazon region in hopes of reliving pressures on densely populated areas. Sponsored by the National Institute for Colonization and Agrarian Reform’s (INCRA), from 1970 to 1999 approximately 700,000 families were resettled through land reform programs, with more than half of them arriving in the late 1990s (Guedes et al. 2014). These migrants came via the TransAmazon highway (BR 230), or the Trans-Oceanic highway (BR 364), first from the northeast of the country and then from the south (Campbell 2014; Fearnside 2008; Hall et al. 2009). Tax and credit incentives for cattle ranching as well as the expansion of a road system resulted in more accessible lands, higher land values, and more land under production as migrant small holders began to arrive (Fearnside 2008; Hecht 1985; Moran 1993). Frontier expansion and directed colonization schemes were taking place in other areas of the Amazon including Bolivia, Peru, and Ecuador, and similarly many new farmers were unprepared for the realities of Amazonian environments and were unsuccessful, leading to forest degradation, out-migration, and land consolidation throughout the greater Amazon.

Coupled with colonization reforms, neoliberal reforms of the late 1990s and early 2000s led to the expansion of Brazil’s soybean and livestock industries into the global market. Then-President Fernando Henrique Cordoso backed policies to support credits and technology for the agriculture sector. As the agro-industrial frontier grew, deforestation rates rose. The most heavily deforested area became known as the “Arc of Deforestation” referring to the crescent shape of deforestation along the eastern and southern edge of the forest (Hecht 2012). The Arc, which more recently has expanded toward the center of the Amazon, is characterized by large-scale agricultural expansion to support export-oriented industrial agriculture like soy, cattle ranching, and logging (Carrero and Fearnside 2011; Simon and Gragorry 2005; Soler et al. 2014). In fact, between 1990 and 2006 the number of cattle in the Amazon almost tripled and the area cultivated by soy quadrupled (Zaks et al. 2009).1 The rampant inequalities resulting from these policies coupled with international pressure led to the election of Luiz Inácio “Lula” Da Silva in 2002. Lula maintained the neoliberal agenda but also supported new environmental protection and sustainable use programs—and in 2004, the rate of deforestation began to drop (Hecht 2012).

Cattle Ranching and Deforestation: Policy and Economics, 1990s–2015

Although regularized and significant deforestation began in 1970s when roads and migrants opened up new areas of the forest, the majority of agricultural products produced were consumed locally within the region (Zaks 2009). It was not until the 1990s that Brazil began to establish stable, productive, and lucrative environments for agriculture. In fact, it was only after 1991 that Brazil was able to produce enough beef to feed its own population (Kaimowitz et al. 2004). Between 1990 and the early 2000s the size of the Brazilian Amazon’s cattle herd increased by 173 percent and was responsible for two-thirds of annual deforestation (Fearnside 2008; Nepstad et al. 2006). Although not particularly profitable for the average agriculturalist, ranching was used as a tool to make land claims over areas whose value was rapidly appreciating. Having “productive land” was central to making claims of land tenure, and that meant clearing and occupying the land in an agricultural capacity. This growth of the cattle industry had environmental consequences including a rise in carbon emissions due to deforestation, nutrient pollution, biodiversity loss, and the displacement of local peoples (Zaks 2009).

Technological and trade-related advances helped exports of beef from the Amazon to grow over 500 percent between 1990 and 2006 (Zaks 2009). Investment in agricultural technologies for improved genetic lines of cattle, artificial insemination, and pasture management helped expand Brazil’s cattle ranching. Additionally, loosening restrictions on Brazil’s ability to export beef into other countries created further opportunity for growth (Nepstad 2006; Pacheco 2009). Until the mid 2000s foreign bodies like the United States and the European Union restricted the import of frozen or fresh beef into their markets due to Foot and Mouth Disease. As some regions were deemed free of Foot and Mouth Disease, trade reforms allowed for the export of beef outside of the Amazon region. By 2004, Brazil was the world’s leading beef exporter (Kaimowitz et al. 2004; Nepstad 2006). Currently, Brazil is the second largest beef producer after India. Changes in the global market continue to impact Brazil’s cattle industry and growth. For example, in 2015, the United States Department of Agriculture announced it would allow frozen and fresh beef from certain areas of Brazil into the United States (USDA 2015a). Today beef production supports the increasing urban population in Brazil as well as international demand from Hong Kong (China) and Russia (USDA 2015b).

While there is some relationship between the rising cost of beef and deforestation, there is some debate over whether higher prices of beef leads to more deforestation or less in the Brazilian Amazon (Angelsen and Kaimowitz 1999; Araujo et al. 2009; Assunção et al. 2012; Hargrave and Kis-Katos 2013). Recent research has shown that cattle prices have a heterogeneous relationship with deforestation; if prices remain high ranchers might retain more female stock in order to take advantage of higher prices in the future through the sale of calves, putting increased pressure on the land. But, if prices are only temporarily high, ranchers are more likely to increase slaughter in order to take immediate advantage of the market, relieving the land and reducing rates of deforestation (Assunção et al. 2012).

The relationship between the beef industry and forest conservation has been dynamic. In 2009, Brazil engaged in a voluntary beef moratorium called the “zero-deforestation agreement” following Greenpeace’s campaign that exposed the relationship between the beef industry, deforestation, and slave labor. Similar to the soy moratorium (which will be discussed in the following section), the beef moratorium called for more sustainable practices, specifically the traceability of cattle and their byproducts. Four of Brazil’s largest meat-packing companies agreed not to purchase cattle from properties with any deforestation occurring after the agreements (even within the legal limits) (Nepstad et al. 2014; Gibbs, Munger et al. 2015). Holly Gibbs, Jacob Munger, and others (2015) demonstrate that the rates of deforestation between 2010 and 2012 were 50 percent lower on post-agreement cattle-producing properties, highlighting the success of the moratorium.

Soybean Agriculture and Deforestation: Policy and Economics, 2000–2015

While cattle ranching has a long history in the area, industrialized agriculture is more recent. The early 2000s brought permanent and extensive agriculture to the region, which was not viable previously, as varieties of crops like soy were not yet adapted to Amazonian soils (Nepstad 2006). In the 1990s, new and more robust varieties of soybeans were developed, suitable for the Amazonian landscape by EMBRAPA (Empresa Brasileira de Pesquisa Agropecuária), Brazil’s agricultural research corporation (Hall et al. 2009). Furthermore, to promote the agribusiness sector, the government invested in roads and infrastructure in the Amazon to attract foreign investment in the nascent industry. National and international demand for soybeans and soybean products raised the commodity price and soybean cultivation jumped (Brown et al. 2005; Hall et al. 2009; Nepstad 2006; Pacheco et al. 2011). The production of soybeans in the southern and eastern edges of the Brazilian Amazon, primarily in the State of Mato Grosso, was responsible for new land clearing (Morton et al. 2006). Altogether the area planted with soy in Mato Grosso increased 400 percent between 2000 and 2010 (Wilkinson and Herrera 2010). In 2014 and 2015 Brazil produced 96.2 Million Metric Tons (MMT), second to the United States, and exported 50.61 MMT mostly to China (USDA 2015b, 2016).

The cultivation of soy in Brazil is used for animal feed, but it is also closely tied to the production of biodiesel, particularly for national consumption. Seventy-eight percent of the country’s biodiesel comes from soy and that number is expected to rise (Lima et al. 2011). In 2004, a National Biodiesel Production Program (PNPB) was put into place to reduce diesel imports, promote the economy through the production of oil-bearing crops in different regions, reduce diesel prices, and extend the agricultural labor force by involving family farmers in the production of oil-bearing crops (Kamimora et al. 2011; Lima et al. 2011; Wilkinson and Herrera 2010). To achieve the latter the government introduced the fuel stamp program that requires biodiesel companies to purchase the fuel materials from family farms. However, family farms had difficulty adjusting to the demands of the market, complicating their ability to supply soy to large companies and participate in the initiative (Kamimora et al. 2011).

In the forest margins, low land prices made expansion feasible and new agricultural frontiers were cleared. In other areas, cattle pasture was converted for soy cultivation. According to Pablo Pacheco and colleagues (2011) soybean production leads to deforestation in two ways, indirectly and directly. First, soybean cultivation expands onto lands that were previously cleared for pasture pushing the cattle ranches further into the forest. Second, if and when market conditions are positive for soybeans, they expand first into the primary forest. Expansion of soybean cultivation also leads to land cover changes in other environments like the conversion of the Cerrado savannah to agricultural or pastoral lands.

To try to curb the increasing deforestation and to support the family farms participating in the soy industry, in 2006, Greenpeace spearheaded a soy moratorium. The moratorium required major soy purchasers to make a two-year commitment not to purchase soybeans cultivated on any land in the Amazon biome that had been illegally deforested going forward. The moratorium has been renewed multiple times and is currently in effect until 2016. Before the moratorium, about 30 percent of soy expansion happened through deforestation, rather than through the replacement of cattle pasture or previously cleared lands. But after the moratorium, only 1 percent of expansion was the result of deforestation (Gibbs, Rausch et al. 2015). The soy moratorium played an important role in reducing deforestation in the Amazon but it did little to curb deforestation and land use change in the Cerrado, where the majority of soy production takes place (Gibbs, Rausch et al. 2015, Lima et al. 2011; Wilkinson and Herrera 2010).

Alternatively, Daniel Nepstad and colleagues (2014) argue that new deforestation declined not only because there were increased risks for those engaged in deforestation like fines, embargos, and law enforcement stemming from the moratorium, but also because there was less demand for soy production because of a reduction in the size of cattle herds related to market fluctuations. Fearnside (2008) has argued similarly that deforestation is highly correlated with soybean prices, demonstrating that while there was an increase in deforestation for both pasture and for soybean production from 1997 to 2004, a decline from 2005 to 2007 coincided with falling international prices for both beef and soy. When the price of soy went up again in 2007, so did the deforestation activities in Mato Grosso. To address some of the issues of soy prices and deforestation, a new program called “critical counties” was established in 2008. Through the program the central bank and environmental ministry curbed agricultural credit for farms and ranches located within 36 counties with the highest deforestation rates. The program addresses counties as opposed to individual farmers in order to increase communal participation. In the first five years, 11 counties were removed from the black list after serious reductions in deforestations (Nepstad et al. 2014). Together with the soy moratorium these processes greatly reduced deforestation despite the growth of the soy industry.

The production of crops for biofuels continues to be an expanding industry in Brazil. While soy is the major crop supported by the PNPB, in other Amazonian states like Pará, palm oil production is becoming popular with some family farms because it ensures an income and is less labor intensive than soy. As a small crop, it can be interspersed with other food crops and free up time for other household activities. However, as in other areas of the world where palm plantations are expanding, smallholders are pressured into selling their plots to larger firms (Lee et al. 2014; Wilkinson and Herrera 2010). Other crops like sugarcane, earmarked for the production of ethanol an important Brazilian export, plays an indirect role in the deforestation of the Amazon. Sugarcane is restricted from being planted in Amazonian territories and is planted in areas outside the legal Amazon that used to support soy. Now that soy is capable of flourishing in the Amazonian conditions, it is pushed within the region and replaced elsewhere with sugar cane, resulting in further deforestation (Martinelli and Filoso 2008).

Situating Cattle Ranching and Soybean Agriculture in the Ethnographic Context

Much of the current research on Brazil’s deforestation trends focuses on the actions of very large land holdings that can make the most significant reductions (Assunção et al. 2012; Gibbs, Rausch et al. 2015; Gibbs, Munger et al. 2015; Nepstad et al. 2014). This macro level analysis utilizes data collected by remote sensing, satellite data, and census materials, which correlates land cover with policy and economic trends. Large properties make up most of the south and southeastern portions of the Brazilian Amazon. Large land holdings include farms typically larger than 500 hectares that are involved primarily in agribusiness including both industrialized crop production and ranching. This category also includes very large landholders who maintain spaces of 2,500 hectares or more, occupy 43.9 percent of the total area of private lands, but consist of fewer than 1 percent of individual properties (Godar et al. 2014). The large areas that these farms cover makes them particularly vulnerable to global commodity booms and busts and provide justification for both major infrastructural projects and for national and global policy development (Fearnside 2008). For obvious reasons, large farms with mechanized agriculture are primarily thought to be the main drivers of land use change in the Amazon.

Small and medium size farmers have also contributed to the deforestation as pioneer settlers who employ fast forest removal to support their own agricultural contributions to the national food system including beef and soy (Soler et al. 2014; Van Vliet et al. 2013). Smallholders, small farms, or family farms make up 84.4 percent of all farms in Brazil but take up only 12.9 percent of the total area of the Brazilian Amazon (IBGE 2009). Almost half of the deforestation between 2004 and 2011 occurred in areas primarily managed by larger properties while 12 percent occurred in areas maintained by small farmers. However, while overall deforestation rates fell dramatically during this period and large landholders decreased annual deforestation by 63 percent, the rate of deforestation by smallholders went up by 69 percent (Godar et al. 2014).

The agricultural frontier of the Amazon has long been characterized by interaction between migrant and local groups struggling in opposition for land tenure, environmental stewardship, labor opportunities, and livelihood options. Within the context of new environmental policies and global economic trends, agricultural practices reflect overarching opportunities and regulations that are shaped by social values, historical experiences, interactions with other groups, and possibilities for economic growth. The complexity in the interpretation of the law, different levels of enforcement, and the reach of the market also influence how agricultural intensification takes place. Differences in rates of deforestation suggest that policies to end or reduce deforestation that are primarily aimed at large scale production might be limited in the future as they do not address all actors equally (Godar et al. 2014). Nepstad and colleagues (2014) point out that reductions in deforestation stem from thousands of agriculturalists and landholders choosing to clear less forest in the past ten years. It is the individuals who put these global market trends and policies into action. Therefore, understanding not only the macro level trends but also the micro level processes that challenge their effectiveness creates a more comprehensive approach to interpreting rising and falling deforestation rates.

In what follows are two narratives of agriculture intensification based on ethnographic re-search; one on cattle ranchers, which primarily draws on the work of Jeffery Hoelle, and one on soy farmers, which primarily draws on the work of Ryan Adams. These narratives situate regional expansion of agriculture within environmental policies and economic opportunities. But they also elaborate on the broader social context in which these producers interact with, interpret, and engage with the industry.

Ethnography of Cattle Ranching

Between 1998 and 2008, the state of Acre had the greatest increase of head of cattle in all of Brazil. However, beginning in 2005 environmental controls and their enforcement slowed down the rate of deforestation by large ranchers (Hoelle 2011). New and revised national environmental policies were created in the wake of international pressure, but were implemented on the state level. Controls included the removal of subsidies for rubber, a decline in support for agricultural livelihoods, the investment in roads, and new forest laws that enforce restrictions on deforestation and burning for swidden agriculture. The controls not only slowed down the rate of deforestation by large ranchers, but they also reduced the success of non-cattle livelihood activities (Salisbury and Schmink 2007). The Acre forest government was and continues to be considered effective in maintaining the laws to limit deforestation while simultaneously engaging in successful pasture and ranching technological advances (Hoelle 2015). In fact, government-supported research led to improved pastures, cattle breeds, and ranching techniques (Hoelle 2011). By default, cattle ranching was promoted in groups that formally never engaged in it, or were in deep opposition to it. As a result small holders like rubber tappers became the main drivers of subsequent cattle expansion and deforestation (Hoelle 2011, 2015).

The colonization programs that led to the expansion of cattle ranching in the Amazon in the 1970s were met with fierce opposition from rubber tappers in Acre. In the face of heavy deforestation for agriculture, notable figures like Chico Mendez fought for rubber tapper land rights and the protection of traditional extractivism from the forest. Conflicts were pervasive throughout the area as large ranches, smallholder migrants and rubber tappers engaged in social conflict over environmental destruction (Hoelle 2011). However, the previous professions of these groups did not determine their current or future professions. Today all three groups engage more readily in cattle ranching and are part of a larger movements of Amazonian “cattle culture” also known as “cauboi culture,” defined as “the positive cultural constructions surrounding cattle raising” (Hoelle 2014: 364).

Jeffery Hoelle argues that “political and economic structures are key to understanding the growth of cattle raising, but culture is a critical part of the equation. Cattle raising is both economical and meaningful for Amazonians, as it is for people throughout the world” (2015: 53). Ranchers, both small and large, view cattle positively and as a symbol of material success, which can take root through mixed subsistence practices, market-oriented ranching, or both (Hoelle 2015). The development of a cauboi culture with rodeos, clothing—particularly belt buckles—and Sertaneja music have replaced the idea that Acre is “the land of the rubber tappers.” Cowboys, those with their own cattle and those who work on the ranches of others, have become symbols of cattle culture. Ranchers employ cowboys to raise cows and deliver them to market in exchange for wages. Cows are slaughtered for hides, tallow, beef, and other products. These ranchers, with large landholdings, have become symbols of socioeconomic success, not only because of their wealth but because they employ and direct other people to do the tough work of ranching. Their success comes directly from cattle, a sign of social status and the key to upward mobility. They demonstrate hard work through the transformation of forest to pasture, symbolizing man’s control over the environment. The messages are spread through labor experiences on the ranch as well as on TV and radio (Hoelle 2015).

This cauboi culture emerged with opportunities for cattle ranching and through interactions between groups living in proximity to each other over time. Hoelle (2014) explains that the subsistence aspect of raising cattle—that is, the consumption of beef, particularly at a churrassco (barbeque)—opens the rancher up to autonomy, both cultural and economic. Subsistence cattle ranching is a gateway to cauboi culture through its commodification as an item for sale and the promotion of larger ranching industry. Furthermore, the lure of cauboi culture is experienced beyond the rural areas as lifetime urbanites and recent transplants romanticize life on the ranch, giving ranching legitimacy as a profession. The Amazon and the profession are not backward or at the end of the world; rather, ranching has materials and media that can be used in other places and by other people (Hoelle 2014).

Government support pushed all the three groups toward cattle ranching, but they each engage in different land use systems with culturally distinct boundaries and economic practices; rubber tappers approach cattle as savings with liquidity, small scale land-holding migrants see cattle as a last option because deforestation regulations inhibit successful agricultural production, and large landholding ranchers continue to raise cattle for the beef market (Hoelle 2015). Pablo Pacheco and Rene Poccard-Chapuis (2012) have suggested that in the wake of market integration and new environmental policies there are four main features of the continued growth of Amazonian ranching: the arrival of processing industries in production zones, improvements in pasture and livestock management, continued fragmentation and consolidation of landholdings, and the wide adoption of ranching by smallholders. Alternatively, Hoelle (2014) suggests that the main feature of Amazonian cattle ranching is a positive perspective on the industry.

Large ranchers take pride in taming, colonizing, and developing the Amazon. They see their migration to the Amazon as opportunities to continue familial migration histories from Europe, and through Brazil from the south. As they expand their territories and their production they support the national food system and play an important role in Brazilian futures (Hoelle 2012). In Acre, rubber tappers and smallholder migrants have reconciled their opposition to cattle ranching as they struggle to find economic success and look to enhance their social status in the region (Hoelle 2015). They view hard work as important and the transformation of the land, not forest preservation, as a sign of it. Ranchers feel that legislations that prevent the transformation of the landscape hinder the local economy in order to benefit outside NGOs, liberal media, foreign countries, and others. They do not believe that environmentalist actions by outsiders, like conservation programs, are anything more than a demonstration of power. Yet, some have successfully been able to harness popular rhetoric about feeding a hungry population and spin the deforestation discussion to social concerns (Hoelle 2012). Hoelle (2014) writes that:

Acrean enforcement of deforestation regulations frustrates the drive to “develop” and “progress,” and many rural Acreans reported that they feel unjustly constrained by environmental laws limiting burning and deforestation (Hoelle 2012). Cauboi culture provides an oppositional voice to environmental preservation as an affront to self-reliance that is central to the identity of many rural producers. Cauboi culture may not represent or speak for any one person, but it—or some part of it—fits better than the alternatives, for rural groups and even displaced city dwellers with no land or cattle.

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For some small holders and rubber tappers, cattle ranching, either as employees or on a small scale on their own land, is a safer bet than engaging in swidden agriculture. Many have already exceeded deforestation limits on their plots and the enforcement of “environmental debt” by the government restricts access to credit and other government programs further limiting options (Hoelle 2011, 2015). As a result, crop cultivation can be problematic. Instead, cattle ranching is the best option for making a living, considering these political, environmental and economic restrictions. For some, cattle offer low or non-existent income, but play an important role for family farms as a source of wealth when animals are used to demonstrate productive lands or when they are used to help with labor (Moran et al. 2005). In these cases the household does not rely on the fungibility of ranching, it is the cattle value as a tool or the land’s value with the cow that acts as an investment and drives speculation. Instead money is earned elsewhere, selling wood, gold prospecting, or exploiting other forest resources and then investing that money into ranching and more land accumulation.

Small ranches manage their lands with a variety of activities like planting annuals or perennials. Luciana Soler and colleagues (2014) show that medium landholders who cattle ranch impact the environment differently than medium landholders who produce soy; the former expand into the forest fringes, while the latter expand through land consolidation and production intensification with technology. Along new roads, smallholder ranchers engage in slash-and-burn agriculture; converting forests into pasture and/or cash crops. But as opposed to singular forms of income they are involved in diverse activities. The amount and method of deforestation that takes place is related to particular smallholder dynamics and socio-cultural and economic circumstance. While they do not often rely on mechanized input or heavy fertilizers, the do rely on household labor, and occasional outside labor to make it successful (Caviglia-Harris 2005). Family dynamics play an important role in this and can influence whether small- and medium-sized landholders decide to ranch (Caviglia-Harris 2005). Ranching for example, is dependent on male labor, so the number of adult men in the family or who work on the farm is positively correlated with the area deforested (Carrero and Fearnside 2011).

For other smallholders and rubber tappers less inclined to clear the land, the best bet is to sell their land and move to the city (Hoelle 2011). For both ranching and soy production, land tenure is a major influence on the preservation of the forest. In many areas of the Amazon land consolidation is increasingly common. In some areas where there are low percentages of land titling, there is regular lot turnover. Lands can be untitled because of limited National Institute for Colonization and Agrarian Reform (INCRA) regional oversight in issuing titles or inspecting land, inability to pay for the lot, restrictions on owning more land, mortgage debts. But it also means fewer governmental environmental audits or services. For example, it is not just the income potential from the commodities produced on the land that leads to deforestation, but sale of or potential for sale of the land itself that increases the potential of it to be deforested (Campbell 2014). Land turnover means there is increased land accumulation of some and that small households move deeper and deeper into the forest in order to find and clear more land (Carrero and Fearnside 2011). Lands held by small holders who settled with support of the government, are selling their lands to large holders who are expanding their pastures and industrialized crops. This happens because of a variety of processes; increased demand for pasture drives up the price of land and settlers and smallholders sell their lands to large farmers, increasing the amount of deforestation over a particular area; land valorization leads to the expansion of soybean farms; or a lack of services leads to financial strain and the eventual sale of land (Ludewigs et al. 2009). Officially, there are restrictions against turning settlements into commercial lots. But the opportunities to sell coupled with livelihood difficulties and the threat of poverty incentivize smallholders to either sell their land or to turn to ranching or soy production on their own. Alternatively, lands with the most fertile soil are more likely to have diversified production on them and are more resistant to being transferred (Moran et al. 2005). A lack of defined land tenure is known to drive individuals to use land in an abusive way (Alston et al. 1999). New colonists, who are working out the conditions of their land tenure and are tentative about their longevity in the region, clear the forest in order to begin the farm. But they also do not invest in soil improvements, keeping yields down and requiring more cleared lands to produce sufficient product. Size of land, land tenure, and its land cover are important indicators for deforestation. When lots are purchased, lots with 100 percent forest are deforested more quickly than lands with inherited vegetation. But as the secondary forest or vegetation is exhausted, deforestation of primary forest is likely (Carrero and Fearnside 2011).

Ethnography of Soybean Agriculture

Deforestation in the Amazon related to soy is not nearly as acute as in other areas like the Cerrado because many fields have already been deforested for cattle pasture (Adams 2015; Lima 2011). But new immigrants continue to push the boundaries of their farms into the Amazon. Like cattle ranching, in areas like Santerém, Pará, many farmers approach soy expansion as a positive process that will improve economic and community prospects (Adams 2015; Hecht 2012; Nepstad et al. 2014; Theis and Swette 2012). This attitude stems from successful certification processes and socio-environmental processes, which have established protected areas and eco-friendly production regulations.

Migrant farmers coming to grow soy first came to the Amazon states in the mid 1990s from other soy producing regions to take advantage of the low cost lands (e.g., Mato Grosso). More specifically in Pará, another wave of farmers came in 2001 after Cargill opened a grain handling port. These agriculturalist migrants, known as gauchos, arrived in precarious financial situations and transformed the Amazon using technology to turn the terrain into industrialized agricultural zones (Adams 2008, 2015a). With the new port, land prices skyrocketed and many who arrived after had to sell their farm equipment and vehicles to pay their bills (Adams 2008). The area around the city of Santarém is still considered Amazonian frontier lands and it was necessary to clear second growth forest for the process of soy production (Lima 2011). Despite these complications, these farmers consider themselves “founders” of a new economy and take pride in their work (Adams 2015a: 87). Migrants who arrive to plant soy have both a sense of adventure, having migrated in response to both opportunity for agricultural production and land, and crisis in that their motivation also comes from a lack of land where they originate.

Like cattle ranching there is great diversity in soy agriculture. Small landholders are indigenous to the area or migrated through early reforms, and medium, large, and very large landholders migrated to the area more recently from both the south and abroad and bring technological knowledge and mechanized agriculture to the region. Each group not only has heterogeneity within it related to farming knowledge, capital, and experience but also approaches soy differently and has different reactions and struggles to the overarching political and economic policies which shape their practices. Engagement with soy varies based on migration history, farm labor organization, technology, market, and organizations (Mier and Cacho 2015). To demonstrate this Ryan Adams (2008) explains that large-scale mechanized farmers:

have ideas about the Amazon that draw on past narratives of endless potential, but their actual means of using the land, mechanized agriculture, leads to a new experience. This contrasts with the ways in which previous generations of small-scale farmers arriving from outside the region experienced their land. Their experiences were rooted in the annual cycle of clearing, planting, and harvesting, all of which were intimately tied to local environmental conditions, especially soil, climate, and pest conditions. On the other hand, there exists the more mediated experience of the land by large-scale farmers who often purchase already cleared land, who plant and harvest in a pattern that is often synchronized with price patterns in the commodity market. This more mediated experience leads to a greater sensitivity to external narratives of the Amazon.

(34–35)
Many smallholders have been displaced by large-scale mechanized soy production and have moved to the city. Land consolidation has led to the outmigration of many and the deterioration of social networks and infrastructure (Adams 2015a; Baletti 2014). These moves are supported by long histories of rural/urban migration and a lack of local positive policies and infrastructure that led to the exodus of small holders (Browder and Godfrey 1997; Lima 2011; Padoch et al. 2008). While land consolidation is sometimes violent, other times it reflects larger processes of intimidation by land buyers (Baletti 2014; Greenpeace 2006). Some argue that it is a symbolically violent example of the poorest populations being driven off the land (Randell and VanWey 2014), while others view it positively, as an economically advantageous pursuit and should not be considered displacement (Lima 2011). However, regardless of the conditions through which smallholders sell their land, the challenge to stay remains great. Mechanized agriculture has little need for unskilled laborers who previously lived and worked the land, therefore moving to urban areas becomes a more promising option (Adams 2015a). Alternatively, Peter Richards and colleagues (2015) argue that export-oriented soy agriculture can support regional economic growth through demands for services, housing, and job development particularly of skilled, non-agricultural employment. In Querência, Mato Grosso, for example, farmers relied on service providers and traders including agronomic advisors. But the ability to do this reduces as the size of land holding and capital decreases (Mier and Cacho 2015). The ability to employ others therefore creates further distinctions between small holders and the middle and large landholders, creating tighter networks among those with middle and large farms.

Soy expansion in Santerém gained international attention around Amazonian deforestation. Adams (2015a) tells the story of how Santerém farmers shifted from maintaining a deep opposition to “environmentalists” to becoming practitioners of environmentalist principles. Like the ranchers, large landholding farmers originally thought of environmental policies, which led to the establishment of indigenous territories and extractive reserves as constructions of international powers, which subjugated everyday Brazilians like themselves. However, in 2006, after Greenpeace accused the soybean industry of deforestation and social injustices, linking them to global commodity chains providing goods to McDonald’s and Kentucky Fried Chicken restaurants, they slowly shifted their thinking. Greenpeace pressured Cargill to ensure that the soy they provided was socially and environmentally friendly, and did not lead to any land grabbing and deforestation. Soon after, the Nature Conservancy and Cargill designed a certification program called Sustainable Soy, where farmers with titles to their lands and approval from IBAMA (Brazilian Institute of Environment and Renewable Natural Resources), and who have not deforested since 2005, can sell to Cargill (Cargill 2016). Farmers’ implementation of the forest code and the amount of forest that must be preserved is moderated by remote sensing and satellite image. By maintaining the noticeable balance between forest cover and farmed land, farmers are able to demonstrate their environmentalism while simultaneously engaging in successful farming. This reduction on deforestation is market dependent and the continued conservation of the forest by soy producers is dependent on market support.

While initially resistant, farmers began to see becoming environmentally certified as a positive economic boost, which ensures that they are competitive in the market (Adams 2015a). While not committed to the environmental principles alone, as an economic measure they see themselves as responsible producers doing their part for the environment while simultaneously benefitting. Adams (2015a) quotes a soy farmer who explains the relationship between economically successful farming and environmentalism, denoting the line between the opportunity and limits of conservation:

The environmentalists should understand that we are going to plant rice, and we are going to plant soy, because we are in a privileged position, geographically, behind only the farmers along the Mississippi, I believe, and compared to them, we are better with nature, so we only need to worry about the radical environmentalists, those who will say “no” to anything.

(91)

However, some argue that this same region never experienced the same amount of deforestation as others and that policies that ensure reduced or zero deforestation support the growth of the industry while giving an illusion of success (Mier and Cacho 2015). Regardless, many soy farmers use the rhetoric of environmentalism to situate themselves as important players in a global-environmental agenda.

Conclusion

While highlighting trends in deforestation with the use of satellite, remote sensing data and census data is extremely important for indicating overall forest gains and losses and for measuring global change, when analyzed solely in reference to the implementation of policies and rising and falling commodity prices, the scope is limited. Environmental policies and economic opportunity shape practices of deforestation and agricultural intensification but they do not determine them. At the property level, analysis based on these data, can correlate processes of agricultural expansion and deforestation, offering insight into family structure and livelihood possibilities (Brondízio et al. 2009; Chomitz and Thomas 2003; McCracken et al. 1999; Walker et al. 2002). However, ethnographic depictions of cattle ranchers and soybean producers give a more robust picture to the deforestation and agricultural intensification question answering deeper and less quantifiable questions of why and how. Histories of migration, interactions with other groups, livelihood prospects, and land tenure all play important roles in determining how environmental and economic policies shape land use. For those who continue to engage with and expand cattle ranching and soybean production, the evolution of new forms of identity point to new value systems and new social formations. For cattle ranchers, “Cauboi Culture” bypasses decades-long fights over forest resources. Instead “Cauboi Culture” romanticizes the cowboy through material goods, creating a positive notion connected to all things cow. Despite significant differences in land holding, herd size, and access to labor this attraction to ranching supersedes many restrictions of enforced environmental policies. It allows some people who could not make a living or maintain any wealth otherwise to do so, while it continues to socially hoist others into more prestigious positions of achieving what can be considered the “Brazilian Dream” of financially successful pioneering. For soy producers, becoming environmentalists and responsible producers makes them internationally recognizable as part of the global fight against climate change. This position is economically advantageous, not only ensuring immediate sales, but also opening doors to future ones. This new identity does not reflect a sudden moral appreciation for the environment but rather a strategic move to make a place for themselves in the global market. These emerging forms of social hierarchies and identities influence who deforests, who intensifies their agriculture, and under what circumstances.

While the production of soy and the production of cattle employ different types of people and different uses of the land, they are increasingly knit together through their connection of feed, their processes of land consolidation, and the regulated nature of their work and land by government deforestation policies. Furthermore they are entangled in land use where in some areas ranching and soy cultivation exist side by side. In the wake of stricter deforestation regulations and emerging agricultural opportunities, new relationships have developed between farmers and ranchers where their different attitudes toward the land, labor, and culture are negotiated. Adams (2015b) explains that the farmers introduced technology and advancement for agriculture leading the ranchers to begin improving breeds, while the ranchers influenced the farmers to begin to engaging with laborers more directly and move away from the corporate management model that was being applied. Now there is a new term to describe them together, produtor or producer—“the term carries an implication that their land uses are beneficial and contribute to economic growth. The use of this term, represents a way that their shared social class position, shared vision of the future of the Amazon, and shared outrage at foreign environmentalists has led them to feel unified” (Adams 2015b: 71).

The popular narrative that Brazil has been successful at reducing their overall rate of deforestation while simultaneously increasing their agricultural sector, obscures the ways smallholders continue to struggle to balance forest preservation and economic opportunities. The use of satellite imagery that correlates with global and national economic and environmental policy offers an abstracted picture of what Smith ([1984] 2008) might have called “uneven development.” The ethnographic lens draws attention to the heterogeneity and complexity of agriculturalists in practice, reconnecting humans to nature. In doing so, these narratives demonstrate not only how the interventions are successful primarily among large landholders, but also the role of consumption and capitalism in why they have been. The continuation of smallholder deforestation and continued loss of land in the wake of industrialized and mechanized agriculture points to shortcomings in Brazil’s success, specifically widening inequalities in income and land tenure disputes. These issues come to bear indirectly from economic and public policy that are realized locally through reduced labor and land security.2

Countries with tropical forests face the difficult challenge of expanding their economies through the exploitation of their natural resources, like land, while simultaneously protecting their forests and contributing to the global effort to mitigate climate change. Large scale, intense, agricultural expansion for food and fuel are increasingly prominent in tropical forests causing heavy deforestation. Developments in other countries with tropical forests, like Indonesia, present forms of agricultural intensification similar to those in Brazil. In Indonesia the rapid expansion of plantations to produce palm oil are driven by large land holding agriculturalists who are more responsive to government intervention, while smallholders continue contributing to deforestation on a consistent but smaller scale (Lee et al. 2014). Similarly, other countries like Bolivia, Columbia, Ecuador, Peru, Venezuela, Suriname, French Guyana, and Guyana, located within the extended Amazon forest contribute to climate change via deforestation stemming from the rapid expansion of agriculture. In all of these places, the overarching issues resemble each other but different histories, environments, economics, and socio-cultural diversity within the countries affect how policy and governance can effectively mitigate climate change (Goers et al. 2012). The use of ethnography in collaboration with large-scale analysis can give deeper insight into how environmental policy and economic trends are experienced, why there are discrepancies between holders of land of different sizes, and why their rates of deforestation change over time.

ACKNOWLEDGMENTS

The author would like to thank the two anonymous reviewers for their helpful comments and the editors of Environment and Society for their continued support.

NOTES
1

One exception to the heavy deforestation related to agriculture was a revision to the 1965 Forest Code in 2001, which set limits on the amount of forest that could be cleared within a plot of land and requiring that 80 percent of each plot of land within the Amazon biome remain forested. These areas were designated “legal reserves.”

2

Some REDD (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation) programs in Brazil, supported by the Amazon Fund, attempt to rectify this by paying smallholders to maintain environmental services through the preservation of the forest. But land titles and land tenure, particularly in Acre, continue to threaten the program (Kill 2014).

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  • ZaksDavidCarol BarfordNavin Ramankutty and Jon Foley. 2009. “Producer and Consumer Responsibility for Greenhouse Gas Emissions from Agricultural Production: A Perspective from the Brazilian Amazon.” Environmental Research Letters 4 no. 4: 113 doi: 10.1088/1748-9326/4/4/044010.

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Contributor Notes

ARIELA ZYCHERMAN, PhD, is an AAAS Science and Technology Policy Fellow in Washington, DC. She is a cultural anthropologist and has worked in the Amazon on issues of agriculture, livelihoods, food systems, and forest exploitation since 2007.

Environment and Society

Advances in Research

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