Impressions from Brazilian Agriculture Frontier

By Marta Giannichi

I bet most of the readers of this post have already experienced fieldwork in the Amazon, full of giant trees, birds singing, rain and rivers. But there is another Amazon. An Amazon full of cotton, soy and corn plantations. An Amazon with cattle, endless fences and massive storage silos replacing what used to be trees. This is the Amazon that I study: a quarrelsome territory between agriculture and nature.

The most common landscape across Brazilian Amazon in Mato Grosso, Brazil

It is July, the peak of dry season and corn harvest in Mato Grosso, Brazil. Our main objective is to talk to landholders to gather two main sets of data: information on their land (size, arable land, percentage of native standing forest, year they last deforested and many others) and their opinion on an a set-aside area trading market existing in the Brazilian forestry framework. The latter part is a bit tricky to understand, but I’ll facilitate. Imagine you are a farmer in Brazil and own a farm of 1,000 hectares. The government told you to keep 500 hectares of standing forest and plant only on the other half. But you ended up planting on 800 hectares and leaving 200 as forest. Your neighbour did the opposite. The government decided then not to be so strict and gave you (farmer who over-deforested) three options: (1) compensate your deficit in your neighbour’s area; (2) purchase a private area inside a protected area and donate to the government; or (3) reforest or isolate the area to promote natural recovery (if possible).

So there we were, chasing farmers and persuading them to talk to me. This is not an easy task and most of the times I wish I was measuring trees or installing camera-traps. These farmers are in fact business men, who claim to be contributing to a large slice of the country’s economy and have this philanthropic role of – in their own words – save the world from starvation. Some were quite reticent and sometimes discourteous. But many were receptive and open to chat after a twenty-minute persuasion talk. Not to our surprise, the family agriculture landholders were extremely welcoming and interested.

Particularly about the set-aside area scheme, there were two distinguishing opinions (without having deeply analysed): the ones that would be willing to compensate their deficit in “their neighbour’s area” and the ones who rather negotiate with the government by purchasing. Not so surprisingly, landholder don’t appear to be very much engaged with reforestation or natural recovery. But is too soon to jump into conclusions before digging the data.


After 50 days, we managed to interview 59 farmers, divided in 24 with forest deficit and 35 with forest surplus. In total, these 59 farmers own altogether nearly 350,000 hectares in private land. Sometimes, only one landholder was the owner of 25,000 hectares. Therefore, the decisions of these private landholders that we interviewed can change, for better or for worse, the future of an area equivalent to two Londons.

All in all, if properly designed and implemented, this trading market could avoid the deforestation of 92Mha of native vegetation in the entire country, representing the largest market of trading forest in the world. To understand how these farmers think could potentially contribute to more tailor-made environmental policies that would effectively make a considerable difference in the conservation scenario in the Brazilian Amazon. I hope that this study reveals interesting results that could shed a light on how to successfully design schemes as such.



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