Cattle in eastern Colombia. Click image for more cattle photos. (Photo by R. Butler)
CATTLE and LAND SPECULATION
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.
ENCOURAGING GOOD RANCHING PRACTICES
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.
Related articles >>
- 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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Selection of information sources
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).
Jaguars in Argentine Chaco on verge of local extinction
(12/23/2013) The majestic jaguar (Panthera onca), the largest of the New World cats, is found as far north as the southern states of the US, and as far south as northern Argentina. In the past jaguars ranged 1,500 kilometers (930 miles) further south, but their range has shrunk as habitat loss and human disturbance have increased. Overall, jaguars are classified as Near Threatened by the IUCN, but the level of risk facing jaguars varies by region. Populations in Argentina, at the present-day southern range limit, have previously been identified as some of the most threatened of them all.
Brazilian cattle producers standardize audits to exclude deforestation from supply chain
(12/18/2013) Brazil's largest cattle producers have agreed to standardize and make public their audits as part of an effort to exclude from their supply chains livestock produced via deforestation, reports Greenpeace, which has led a campaign to improve the environmental performance of the sector. The agreement on a standard auditing protocol means that the companies' progress toward eliminating deforestation will now be directly comparable.
Humans are not apex predators, but meat-eating on the rise worldwide
(12/05/2013) A new paper in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences has measured the "trophic level" of human beings for the first time. Falling between 1 and 5.5, trophic levels refer to where species fit on the food chain. Apex predators like tigers and sharks are given a 5.5 on trophic scale since they survive almost entirely on consuming meat, while plants and phytoplankton, which make their own food, are at the bottom of the scale. Humans, according to the new paper, currently fall in the middle: 2.21. However, rising meat-eating in countries like China, India, and Brazil is pushing our trophic level higher with massive environmental impacts.
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