By Rhett Butler   |  Last updated August 22, 2012


Clearing for pastureland and land speculation purposes is a major cause of tropical forest loss, especially in Latin America. Cattle are an attractive investment for Amazonian farmers because they are a highly liquid capital asset with low marginal costs once forest has been cleared. Cattle are used to establish land claims on otherwise "unoccupied" rainforest land and can be used as a hedge against inflation.

Pastureland is usually cleared by the burning of secondary growth and land previously used for subsistence agriculture. This burning is especially dangerous under dry conditions when fires can spread into neighboring old-growth rainforest and cause considerable damage.


Addressing forest degradation and clearing for pastureland is difficult, but important due to the severe soil leaching and erosion under traditional grazing systems. Rainforest clearing for cattle can be immediately reduced by eliminating tax incentives and land policies that encourage such activities. Productivity can be increased on existing pastureland through better ranch management as well as by introducing agroforestry techniques. Through intercropping—the strategy of planting perennial trees on pastureland—ranchers can diversify their income while reducing soil erosion and maintaining higher soil quality. At the same time these patches retain considerably higher levels of biological diversity than bare fields. Livestock also benefits from the shade and add fertilizer to the base of the trees as they take refuge from the sun.

Other measures include fencing off healthy forest areas and waterways from livestock, curtailing the use of fire in land management, adopting no-till cropping systems, and the use of terracing. Preserving riparian forest and vegetation on hillsides can help maintain ecosystem connectively and reduce soil erosion.

One of the biggest challenges to shifting toward less-damaging and more productive ranching approaches is lack of knowledge among ranchers. Information on best practices can be disseminated by government-run agricultural extension services, training programs, and industry publications, radio and TV shows. Ranchers are more likely to listen to other ranchers.


Ranching across most of the Amazon is a marginal livelihood. Therefore incentives are needed to encourage ranchers of adopt better practices. These may come through improved market access or higher produce prices via a certification system, subsidized loans for embracing more sustainable approaches, or direct payments for maintaining ecosystem services (like carbon payments for preserving forest beyond legal requirements). Since the late 2000s, Aliança da Terra, a Brazilian NGO, has been working on combining all three approaches via a land registry for ranchers.
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Cattle in eastern Colombia
Cattle in eastern Colombia. Click image for more cattle photos. (Photo by R. Butler)

Review questions:

  • Why is cattle grazing popular in the Amazon?
  • What is intercropping?
  • How can the impact of cattle be minimized in the rainforest?

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Continued / Next: Reducing the environmental impact of oil extraction in the rainforest

  • Shane, Douglas R., Hoofprints on the forest: Cattle ranching and the destruction of Latin America's tropical forests, Philadelphia, PA: Institute for the Study of Human Values, 1986, provides a solid background of the clearing rainforest for cattle pasture.
  • Smith, N.J.H. et al., Amazonia - Resiliency and Dynamism of the Land and its People, New York: United Nations University Press, 1995 explains why cattle are an attractive investment option in the Amazon.
  • The use of intercropping to diversify income sources and maintain soil quality on pasturelands is discussed in Smith, N.J.H. et al., Amazonia - Resiliency and Dynamism of the Land and its People, New York: United Nations University Press, 1995.
  • The table entitled "Alternatives to cattle on tropical lands" is derived from T. Nishizawa and J. I. Uitto, eds. (The Fragile Tropics of Latin America: Sustainable Management of Changing Environments, New York: United Nations University Press, 1995). The yield from turtle farms is compared with the yield from cattle ranching on vàrzea by Mittermeier, R.A., ("South American River Turtles: Saving Their Future," Oryx, 14 (3): 222-230, 1978) and Wilson (The Diversity of Life, Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press, 1992).