RIO DE JANEIRO — A few years ago I visited a spit of land in the middle of the vast River Tapojós in the Brazilian Amazon, where people living in wooden shacks on stilts battled to raise small herds of rangy, skinny cattle in the baking heat. According to the 2010 census, the Amazon population is 24 million people. Many of them are smallholders, scratching out a living like this.
In some ways, the struggle against deforestation of the Amazon now comes down to small farmers like these.
During the last decade Brazil has been extraordinarily successful in reducing deforestation – it fell from close to 11,000 square miles in 2004 to 1,760 in 2012. But the problem is far from solved – deforestation jumped again, by 29 percent, in 2013.
As a new report published Wednesday by the Environmental Defense Fund, the American advocacy organization, suggests, Brazil could easily slip back.
It argues that negative incentives – such as fines – are not enough and makes a case for small ranchers, responsible for a large proportion of cattle rearing in the Amazon. For deforestation to keep falling it has to be economically viable for smaller ranchers to farm legally. Currently, the report says, it is not.
Combined efforts from federal prosecutors, processors and advocacy groups like Greenpeace have contributed to the fall. A recent agreement by Brazil’s three biggest meat producers, JBS, Minerva and Marfrig, was a major step forward, the report says.
But much of the cost has fallen on smaller ranchers, said Shawn Stokes, one of the report’s authors. “They are having a very difficult time. If something isn’t done to help them make a profit, or reduce the regulatory process, it leaves ranchers little choice -- to either revert to where they were before or shift into another commodity, which complicates things,” he said. Some are beginning to produce palm oil, used to make biodiesel.
For the small farmer, deforesting new land costs less than half as much as maintaining a pasture management system. Of seven initiatives to reduce deforestation, only one, called the Low-Carbon Credit Program, had a positive credit incentive for farmers, but it requires a land title. Land titles in the Amazon are in a chaotic mess, and many landowners simply don’t have them. The legal system is susceptible to leakage: falsified lists with information on the origin and history of cattle can be bought for as little as $84.
Greenpeace criticized the suggestion that small ranchers be given economic incentives to farm legally. Adriana Charoux, a forest campaigner at Greenpeace in São Paulo, instead raised concerns over Brazil’s increasing exports to Russia, which does not have requirements on tracking sources of foodstuffs like those of the European Union. “Nobody is satisfied at this moment. The big companies are spending more money to use this tracking system, and there is still a market for this cattle coming from deforestation and deforestation is rising again.”
Fernando Sampaio, director-president of the Brazilian Association for Beef Exporting Industries, whose 25 member companies account for 90 percent of Brazil’s beef exports, highlighted an agreement his association signed in July with federal prosecutors in Amazon states to not buy meat from farms involved in deforestation.
“Cattle ranching for many years in Brazil expanded horizontally, occupying new lands. For more than 15 years it has been reducing the space it occupies, because a lot of what was pasture is becoming agriculture. But we are not losing production because productivity is increasing,” Sampaio said.
But the Amazon is an enormous, isolated and lawless region: Brazil’s Wild West. Many of its smallholders have little respect for the federal government, or international NGOs, or even the law. But they're the ones who hold the future of the Amazon forest in their hands.