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Torching Farmers and Ranchers Won’t Stop Fires in the Amazon

Mac Margolis

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- The world’s biggest tropical forest is back in the headlines, for all the wrong reasons. Leonardo DiCaprio and Madonna are worried. NASA and Amnesty International are tracking the ruin. French President Emmanuel Macron vowed to make the Amazon emergency a priority during the meeting of the G-7 countries in Biarritz and threatened to block the recently signed trade pact between the European Union and South America’s Mercosur countries because of Brazil’s dereliction of duty in the Amazon.What’s mostly missing from this grim tableau are broader explanations of why destruction is rising and how to get a grip. The default has been to round up the usual rainforest suspects: Bootleg loggers, rogue ranchers, pick-and-pan gold miners. That’s partially true. “A lot of the command-and-control measures that limited forest clearing and burning development in the Amazon are weaker now,” said Daniel Nepstad, a rainforest expert and president of the Earth Innovation Institute. “And with official eyes off the Amazon, rural property owners feel empowered to move forward, clear and burn.” Yet a strategy of demonizing instead of assisting farmers and ranchers misses the bigger picture and forsakes potentially valuable allies in preserving the South American frontier.

Why the Amazon Is on Fire

Brazilian environmental policy is a rainforest of rules and red lines. Amazon property holders must leave 80% of their land untouched. Even on the remaining 20%, deforesting without a permit is illegal. Violators pay stiff fines (around $1,200 per hectare), land in jail or do both. Obtaining environmental permits to develop rural property is a vexing, months-long process that is onerous for big landowners, let alone capital-starved smallholders.

While there is every reason to treat offenders severely, saving the rainforest requires doing more. To curb deforestation, honor the ambitious pledge to slash climate-cooking greenhouse gases more than a third from 2005 levels by 2030, and comply with the green clauses of the nascent Mercosur trade deal with the European Union, Brazil should plant more carrots, not wave more sticks.

That means treating farmers and, yes, cattle ranchers more as Amazon stakeholders than aspredators. Low-tech herders are some of the most formidable threshing machines in the tropics. They graze their cattle on scraggly pasture then move on when that land is spent, slashing and burning deeper into the forest. That routine is one reason the Amazon has an area twice the size of Portugal (200,000 square kilometers) of degraded or failing pasture. In many cases, penury is the driver of villainy.

Research in the western Amazonian state of Acre shows that employing the right tools can curb and even reverse the destructive spiral. Herders who shift cattle around a property, protect pastures with fruit trees, and plant hardier forage that shields the ground from the withering sun and traps soil-nourishing nitrogen have multiplied their herds without cutting more trees. Where most Amazonian farmers graze just one cow per hectare, Acre’s best farms now raise three or four.  

Agronomist Judson Valentim, Acre station chief for the Brazilian pastoral research company Embrapa, found that adopting such techniques plus modest subsidies of just $12 per hectare can do what heavy fines and penalties cannot: encourage herders to restore their fields. Restored pastures lead to less new deforestation. Merely keeping better track of costs, say weed control or vaccinations, also leads to healthier farms: adding 17 hectares of restored field for each check-listed ranch item.

There’s also a close parallel between poverty and predatory ranching. Poorer, less-educated herders, enjoying little access to credit and working farthest from city and market hubs, tend the worst farms. Even as heavy fines may scare big landholders into compliance with environmental law, they reap little but resentment and furtive forest-cutting among smallholders. It’s little wonder that small farmers and settlers in land reform projects are some of the main drivers of deforestation.

Sustainable development is beautiful, but expensive. It’s much easier for rural landowners in Amazonia to obtain a license to clear their land than to secure permits for sustainable logging. Just hiring experts to carry out the forestry inventory for prospective logging on a midsized property can cost up to $50,000, Valentim said. The tangle of rules is confusing, costly and counterproductive. “Does it make sense to tie farmers in knots?” asks Nepstad. “We need ways to make them more efficient, less inclined to burn and more inclined to put out fires.”

Such barriers may explain why many Brazilian farmers put so little stock in preservation, and threw their support to Bolsonaro and his blazing saddle frontier agenda. “Take the money and reforest Germany,” he quipped, after the German government, followed by Norway, froze tens of millions of dollars in conservation aid due to the surge in forest clearing. Never mind that Bolsonaro on Friday ordered the armed forces to combat Amazon fires, so confirming the emergency he so vehemently denied.

Slash-and-burn diplomacy may feed the partisan hearth, but it’s reckless economics. Trade partners are increasingly reluctant to import goods from bad environmental stewards. “As an exporter, I tell you things are getting tough,” Brazil’s biggest individual soybean producer and former agriculture minister Blairo Maggi recently told the Brazilian paper Valor, taking issue with Bolsonaro’s strident rhetoric. Amazon farmers need help, not hubris.

To contact the author of this story: Mac Margolis at mmargolis14@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: James Gibney at jgibney5@bloomberg.net

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Mac Margolis is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering Latin and South America. He was a reporter for Newsweek and is the author of “The Last New World: The Conquest of the Amazon Frontier.”

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