Should Brazil allow more agriculture in the humid Amazon?


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Not according to “Sustainable Amazon: Limitations and Opportunities for Rural Development”, by World Bank economist Bob Schneider and four of his colleagues from IMAZON, a Brazilian NGO. They argue that farming is not a viable long-term option for most of the 45% of the Brazilian Amazon that receives more than 2,200 mm of rainfall each year. These areas have more pests, diseases, and weeds, lower annual crop yields, and higher transportation costs. That is one reason why farmers have only cleared 3% of the humid Amazon for crops or livestock, compared to 38% of the drier areas. It also helps explain why landowners have already abandoned one fifth of their agricultural land in the regions with higher rainfall, but only one twelfth of such land in the drier regions.

Even so, unless the government intervenes, unsustainable logging and extensive cattle ranching will eventually reach the humid zones and decimate their forests. Once loggers deplete one forest, they move on to the next. Large ranches, which provide little employment, occupy most of the land the loggers leave behind. This leads to cycles of ’boom and bust’. People make a lot of money for a while. Then the economy collapses. At present, logging and timber processing in the Amazon generates $2.5 billion in yearly gross revenues and 500,000 jobs. Unless something changes shortly, that will soon be history.

In drier regions, increasing crop production often compensates for some of the jobs that get lost when an area runs out of timber. That doesn’t apply as much to wetter locations. Thus, for example, over the last decade or so, Sinop, a relatively dry municipality in Mato Grosso, has lost three-quarters of the four hundred sawmills it had at the peak of its’ timber boom.

Fortunately, however, many of the displaced workers found jobs on farms. The transition has been harder for the more humid municipality of Paragominas in Para, which currently processes 30% less timber than it did five years ago. To move beyond boom and bust, Schneider and his colleagues say the government should create more national forests, where companies that have been certified can harvest timber sustainably. To-date, the Brazilian

government has only set aside 1.6% of the Amazon as national forest. The paper says it should increase that to 14%. That is more or less in keeping with Brazil’s National Forest Program, which has set a goal of placing 10% of the Amazon in national forests, in addition to the 28% of the Amazon classified as indigenous territories and protected areas. The authors also support higher taxes on unsustainable logging, payments for the

environmental services forests provide, improved forest law enforcement, and incentives for managing forests on private lands.

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Further reading

To request a free electronic copy of the paper in the form of a pdf file in English or Portuguese, or to send comments or queries to the authors, you can write Paulo Barreto at: or