Why cattle ranching is the biggest deforestation driver in the Amazon

From Brazil’s Mato Grosso state, the second part of our new Amazon series explains how expansion of cattle farms has driven the occupation of public lands in the rainforest

Amazônia Ocupada, episode 2:

Guarantã do Norte, a rural municipality, in the north of Brazil’s Mato Grosso state, is home to 36,000 people and 245,000 head of cattle, according to official statistics. With cows outnumbering humans six to one, the pastures on which they live have expanded to take up almost half the area of the town, founded just 40 years ago by immigrants answering the call of the country’s military government to occupy the Amazon. 

Editor’s note

This article is a summary of episode two of Amazônia Ocupada, a new podcast series from Diálogo Chino, available in Portuguese only. Listen here.

Seen from above, Guarantã is a mosaic of neatly divided patches of green and brown: the native Amazon forest and deforested fields. In time, it may end up looking similar to municipalities further south in Mato Grosso, where occupation and exploitation of lands began a few years earlier – in places such as Sinop, Brazil’s “soybean capital”, where little more than a third of original forest cover remains.

Both settlements emerged on the margins of the BR-163, a highway that cuts the country from north to south. The road was built by the military dictatorship (1964-1985) to encourage colonisation of the Amazon, and has since become a vital axis in the distribution of agricultural commodities to foreign markets. The road has served as something of a guiding line for the agricultural frontier as it has advanced northwards through the rainforest.

cattle in guaranta do norte
Cattle grazing in Guarantã do Norte, Mato Grosso. In the city there are six head of cattle for every resident (Felipe Betim / Diálogo Chino)

This advance through the native forest has been driven, primarily, by cattle ranching. In 2021, these livestock operations alone accounted for 75% of deforestation on public lands, according to a study by the Amazon Environmental Research Institute (IPAM). 

These lands are those without any sort of status that provides government protection, such as an indigenous territory, or that have not been designated for a rural settlement, for example. Thus, they become the main targets for illegal deforestation in the Amazon, especially in areas where the agricultural frontier is advancing.

“The area is deforested, the remnants of forest are burned and soil is treated so that it can be used to grow grass for cattle. And then the cattle are brought in,” explains Jefferson Almeida, a lawyer and assistant researcher at the Amazon Institute of People and the Environment (Imazon). “The cattle arrive and the trend is to move further and further into areas that still have forest. And with that, this pattern continues. We see deforestation to make way for cattle ‘on loop’.” 

Cattle ranching, and its development to become the main driver of deforestation, is explained in the second episode of our new Portuguese-language podcast series Amazônia Ocupada, available from today. Created by Diálogo Chino in partnership with Trovão Mídia, across five episodes, we recount how the world’s largest and most famous forest was colonised for the exploitation of commodities.

Our second stop in the series is Guarantã do Norte, where the main activity is cattle breeding for beef and dairy production. Here, Brazil’s National Institute for Colonisation and Agrarian Reform (INCRA) divided the territory in the early 80s into small lots with the idea of attracting farmers and their families to boost smaller-scale farms.

Edemar Sehn
Edemar Sehn, Guarantã rancher: “It has taken them 20 years to give us the documentation for the land” (Felipe Betim / Diálogo Chino)

However, the agrarian reform project was never fully implemented and left a legacy of lax land regulation. Many families who moved under the project do not have definitive titles to their rural properties, and some took decades to obtain it. “We have been here for 40 years, but it took them 20 years before they brought the documentation,” says cattle breeder Edemar Sehn, a resident of Guarantã.

While, on the one hand, the lack of titles causes legal insecurity and local conflicts, on the other, it is also a factor in explaining the profitable expansion of cattle ranching in the Amazon: though it is illegal, the land is cheaper and more accessible. For many, the risk is worthwhile. 

The cattle production chain is broad and diverse, and slaughterhouses cannot control all their suppliers. In regions not far from Guarantã, land grabbers invade conservation areas, deforest the land and shuttle heads of cattle to legalised land before sale or to evade inspection – a practice known as cattle laundering.

“The small farmer sells his cattle to a middleman, who buys from everyone to sell to a slaughterhouse,” explains Valter Neves de Moura, a councillor from Guarantã do Norte and a member of the family farmers’ trade union movement.

Thus, even if the cattle have been raised in areas with irregular land tenure or even illegal deforestation, they arrive at the slaughterhouse with a veneer of legality, says Moura.

Valter Neves de Moura
Valter Neves de Moura, councillor and activist from Guarantã: “Agribusiness arrives and expels us” (Felipe Betim / Diálogo Chino)

Unlike soy – Brazil’s main agricultural export and the focus of the first part of this series – cattle raising requires less equipment and investments and, therefore, is a viable activity for small producers. 

“It’s much more practical for me to have cattle than to work with crops,” says Lucas Pinheiro, a small cattle rancher from Guarantã. “To start in the farming market, you need about 4 or 5 million reais [US$760,000–950,000] available. You need a tractor, a combine harvester… It’s a very high investment… But with that money, you can buy another good piece of land and put more cattle on top of it.”

Pinheiro also says that return on investment from livestock farming is more assured, whether through the sale of milk or cattle to the slaughterhouse.

Primeiro episódio do podcast Amazônia Ocupada, uma série em cinco partes produzida pelo Diálogo Chino (Lucas Gomes / Diálogo Chino)
Read the first part of the series: How the Amazon became a global hub for agricultural exports

This favourable situation, however, may have an expiry date. Just like other municipalities on the Amazon’s agricultural frontier, land is disputed, prices increase, and this speculation pushes small producers northwards. “Agribusiness arrives and expels us. It keeps buying, buying, buying, there is no way anyone can be left alone,” says Moura. 

This expansion affects not only small farmers and ranchers but also those whose territories are protected by law: the indigenous people who live in the Panará indigenous territory on the edge of the municipality. “We are now facing difficulties with farmers encroaching on indigenous land,” says indigenous leader Krekreansã Panará. 

Episode two of Amazônia Ocupada is now available, in Portuguese only, on Spotify, Apple, Amazon and Deezer. Episode three, and the accompanying English article, will be released on Thursday 22 September.

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