Agricultural intensification by smallholders in the Western Brazilian Amazon: from deforestation to sustainable land use | Land Portal

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Date of publication: 
January 2002
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ISBN / Resource ID: 

Focusing on smallholders’ decision making, this report presents trade-offs among the key development objectives - environmental sustainability, economic growth, and poverty alleviation - affecting forest use in two settlements in the western Brazilian Amazon. It finds that settlers continue to deforest, primarily for pasture, despite strengthening of legal prohibitions, improved market links to the broader economy, and rising regional incomes and welfare.Drawing on field data collected from farm households surveyed in 1994 and 1996, the report quantifies current land use patterns, explores land use determinants, and simulates a representative household’s responses to particular policy and/or technology changes. The report finds that:Livestock production is much more profitable than crop and extractive activities, given the area’s labour scarcity. With a large difference in returns the authors think it unlikely that small farms will retain natural forest in the long run. Even new technologies or relative price shifts that alter labour needs, they claim, may not induce large changes in land use patterns.Despite constraints, smallholders’ agricultural activities have by and large helped them escape poverty and increase their assets. Demand for agricultural land is found to be the primary force behind deforestation, not demand for soil nutrients, although nutrient depletion affects land management and, ultimately, incomes. Many policies will reduce deforestation at the expense of household income, or vice versa. It will be difficult and expensive for policymakers to change smallholder deforestation patterns and improve livelihoods. Mandating that some proportion of private lands remain in forest has largely failed because the cost of enforcement is prohibitive. For restrictions to be effective, they must reduce the incomes of smallholders. If profits remain high, farmers will ignore the restrictions. Zoning to keep farmers away from land with poor soils is an important tool in guiding the use of forested and cleared lands. Research shows, however, that incomes generated by even low-quality soils are sufficient to sustain the average household; encroachment into protected areas with nutrient- poor soils should therefore be expected. Steep topography and severe waterlogging significantly slow the pace of deforestation. Reducing transport time to local markets through, for example, investments in road systems increases deforestation by lowering the cost of participating in markets. By incorporating legumes into pastures, the useful life of soils can be extended and carbon emissions reduced. Deforestation could increase, how- ever, because farmers would have more income with which to hire labour to expand pasture area. An experimental system of sustainably extracting small quantities of timber from private forest reserves could substantially raise incomes and slow deforestation by adding value to remaining forests. The government has not encouraged its use, however, because use of sustainable extraction techniques would be costly to enforce. Extraction of nontimber forest products has not been a forest-saving money- maker because product availability is limited and often seasonal, and product values are low. Emerging markets for carbon might slow deforestation by adding value to standing forests for the carbon they retain. However, carbon payments would have to match high agricultural profits and cover implementation and transaction costs.Smallholders in the project areas have largely climbed out of poverty, refuting the idea that deforestation is necessarily part of a vicious cycle in which poverty begets degradation, which begets greater poverty. Escape from poverty has hinged on the profitability of agricultural expansion: financially viable despite the substantial constraints small farmers face - poor soils, limited access to credit, and low availability of hired labour. [based on IFRPI summary]

Authors and Publishers

Author(s), editor(s), contributor(s): 

S.A. Vosti
J. Witcover
C. L. Carpentier


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