Land Use and Agriculture in the Amazon

Despite deforestation, the Amazon basin rainforest is the largest tropical forest in the world. In Brazil, the largest Amazon country, approximately 3.5 million square kilometers, or 350 million hectares remain. 110 million hectares are designated indigenous reserves and 25 million hectares as sustainable development reserve and extractive reserves for rubber; all of this forest area is considered as a form of community forest.  Additionally, 70 million hectares are some form of national park or protected area. Only a small area is managed as designated forest concessions for timber; some logging occurs on private land while illegal logging is widespread on public and private lands. The majority of cleared land ends in cattle pasture; studies from Brazil’s INPE institute calculate this amount to equal 45 million hectares or 62% of the total cleared area. Permanent agriculture comprises a smaller percentage of the cleared land at 3.5 million hectares; much of the recent soy land (25 million hectares in all of Brazil) is located outside of the Amazon basin.

Governments and international actors are increasingly understanding the connection of forests and land use. In some areas of the Amazon basin, countries are in the process of a forest transition, where economic growth leads to urbanization, forest recovery, and less pressure on existing forests. Most forest clearing in the Amazon occurs around the “arc of deforestation” from Para in the north to Mato Grosso in the south and the Brazil-Peru-Bolivia area in the southwest, but the vast interior of Amazonas state is still forest. Approximately 20 million people live in the Amazon basin, most of them in major cities such as Manaus and Iquitos. Almost half a million indigenous peoples from hundreds of tribes live in Amazon forests; many live traditional lives in designated indigenous reserves.   

Large scale forest conversion in the Amazon has only occurred since the 1970’s and 1980’s, together with the growth of Brazil’s economy. Before the arrival of Europeans, indigenous peoples occupied the Amazon basin for thousands of years practicing small sale shifting cultivation, likely in populations much larger than today. Traditional indigenous peoples cultivated manioc, tubers, fruit, and palm trees in rotating plots, supplementing their farm plots with forest resources of rubber, nuts, fruits, fibers, and medicines (see Indigenous land use page). In the 18th and 17th centuries, timber harvest and rubber extraction cut deep into Amazon forests, but many settlements were temporary. In the second half of the 20th century, Brazil and other countries of the Amazon basin initiated land reform and colonization programs to finally encourage permanent settlement.  Migrant farmers to the Amazon basin soon discovered however that rainforest soil was unsuitable for many forms of permanent cultivation. Amazon soil is old and intensely weathered, generally acidic, infertile, and subject to compaction from intense solar radiation. Most nutrients are stored in aboveground vegetation; cutting and burning enriches soil but nutrients are leached or unavailable to crops after just a few growing seasons. Cutover lands turned over to cattle pasture, but in many cases returned to secondary forest.

Explore the following pages to learn more about land use patterns in the Amazon basin


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Mather, A. S. (1992). The forest transition. Area, 367-379.

Viana, Virgilio Mauricio et al. (2012). REDD+ and Community Forestry: lessons learned from an exchange between Brazil and Africa. World Bank.

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