Agricultural development by migrant farmers in the Amazon

Before the 1970s, the land around the river village of Altamira on the Xin-gú River (a tributary of the Amazon) was completely forested, and was occupied only by indigenous tribes and by sparse caboclo (descendants of indigenous and white people) populations along the main river who lived by fishing and rubber extraction. Altamira was the center of public agricultural colonization, opened by the military government in 1972 through public subsidies and government-planned centralized programs. The population grew rapidly during the 1970s, owing to government incentives and propaganda (the public slogan was "Amazonia: a land without men for men without land"). However, the number of farmers who actually settled was much lower, and the costs per farmer much higher than the very optimistic initial forecasts. A large proportion of the farmers, disillusioned with the lack of infrastructure and the low fertility of the soils, abandoned their land after a few years, but were replaced by newcomers, mostly landless migrants from northeastern Brazil. After a few years of poor results, government support was reduced (Moran 1981, 1996). However, the flux of migrants into the region continued spontaneously during the 1980s and early 1990s and later decreased gradually.

In the 1990s, LAET (Laboratorio Agro-Ecológico de Transamazónica, or the Agroecological Laboratory of the Amazon region, an NGO funded in part by the European Union) began a project in the region around Alta-mira to encourage farmers to improve their methods of natural resource management, thereby reducing deforestation (Castellanet and Jordan 2002). As part of their work, LAET members carried out a survey in the Altamira region to characterize the farmers of the region, including their economic status.

In contrast to the impact of deforestation on traditional farmers in India, it could be said that deforestation in the Altamira region actually helped farmers, in that it opened up new lands to be exploited. The critical difference from India is that the Brazilian farmers were not from the region deforested, but rather from other parts of the country. The LAET survey (Table 4.5) suggested seven different categories to characterize farmers:

1. "Just arrived" farmers were those who lived on the land for 4 years or less. The long distance from all-weather roads made it very difficult to market products, and, as a result, profitability was low.

2. Pepper producers did not do especially well, in part because of problems with wilt, a fungal disease caused by Fusarium.

3. Of all farmers, cocoa producers were doing best at the time of the survey, but cocoa prices are cyclic, and income was not continually maintained.

4. Some farmers actually were losing some of their original investment ("losing capital").

5. Farmers who diversified (cacao + cattle) were able to maintain themselves relatively well.

6. Cattle producers who had enough capital to improve their pastures or to continually acquire new land for new pastures maintained themselves.

7. Small-scale ranchers (glebistas) who were forced to maintain their herds on pastures that were rapidly losing fertility did poorly.

Despite the government's promise that new lands would provide wonderful opportunities for farmers who would settle the Amazon, the new lands actually benefited the farmers relatively little from an economic standpoint.

After 5 years, LAET researchers concluded that the main problem of resource conservation was not soil fertility, but the extension of poorly managed pastures. As a result, they suggested that a better strategy for the region would be to encourage more intensive management of smaller-sized holdings. A comparison of social and economic factors for farmers with land holdings of different sizes suggested that 25-35 ha should be sufficient to maintain or even increase the level of agricultural production, based on the following cycle: 2 ha of annual crops for 1 year, intercropped with leguminous cover crops, followed by 5 years of pasture, and 510 years of fallow before a new slash-and-burn cycle.

Table 4.5. Characteristics of farmers interviewed in the 1994 Altamira survey (Castel-lanet and Jordan 2002)

Type of farmer No. of

Distance Income

Percentage of income a Pasture

years on

from the (USS/year)


the land


Cacao Pep- Cattle Rice




Just arrived

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