Cattle Ranching in the Amazon Region

Cattle ranching is the largest driver of deforestation in every Amazon country, accounting for 80% of current deforestation rates. Amazon Brazil is home to approximately 200 million head of cattle, and is the largest exporter in the world, supplying about one quarter of the global market. Low input cost and easy transportation in rural areas make ranching an attractive economic activity in the forest frontier; low yields and cheap land encourage expansion and deforestation. Approximately 450,000 square kilometers of deforested Amazon in Brazil are now in cattle pasture. Cattle ranching and soy cultivation are often linked as soy replaces cattle pasture, pushing farmers farther into the Amazon.

Impacts of cattle ranching and deforestation were publicized by conservationists in the early 1980s and coined “the hamburger connection”. At this time, beef export was largely confined to Central America, as Brazil’s industry was nascent and domestic. However, government incentives for cattle and forest clearing to prove land tenure spurred the industry; improvements in road and electricity networks as well as meat processing facilities contributed as well. In the late 1990s and early 2000’s, Brazil’s cattle industry grew and exports exploded with help from the devalued currency; at the same time, much of Brazil’s herd was declared free of foot and mouth disease, opening up export markets.

Cattle ranching in the Amazon region is a low yield activity, where densities often average just one cattle per hectare. Most land in cattle operations in the Brazilian Amazon are medium and large size ranches, with averages of several hundreds of hectares and many ranches reaching thousands of hectares. Amazon cattle are rarely supplemented with additional protein, and grass needs to be burned every few years in order to resprout. Fires set to replenish soils and clear brush for new pasture blanket the skies of the Amazon in the dry season (see more on the climate page). Because cattle use energy to convert grass into protein, several times the amount of land is needed to produce an equal amount of beef as poultry, and about 10 times the amount of land than needed to produce grain. In Brazil, pasture land outweighs planted cropland by about 5 times.

Along with soy cultivation, international attention has encouraged the Brazilian to take steps to reduce deforestation from cattle ranching. The international finance corporation of the World Bank canceled a loan to a large Brazilian cattle company and the Brazilian government stepped up enforcement of the forest code (requiring Amazonian landowners to maintain 80% of their land in forest) and forest monitoring. Efforts have been made to ensure deforestation free cattle ranching through certification and promotion of sustainable ranching practices by NGOs such as Alianca da Terra.

Although deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon has dropped greatly in the past decade, it has recently increased again, and it continues to rise in other countries of the Amazon basin. Many groups and researchers advocate monitoring and enforcement of the forest code, payments for ecosystem services, and supply chain interventions.


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