Cover Image
close this bookIndigenous Agroforestry in Latin America: a Blueprint for Sustainable Agriculture? (NRI, 1994, 24 p.)
View the document(introduction...)
View the documentForeword
View the documentAcknowledgements
View the documentGlossary
View the documentSummary
View the documentIntroduction
View the documentForest destruction and environmental degradation
Open this folder and view contentsSwidden agriculture
View the documentBenefits of swidden agriculture
View the documentRecent agroforestry research
View the documentBlueprint for colonist agriculture?
View the documentConclusions
View the documentReferences
View the documentFurther reading

Forest destruction and environmental degradation

Smallholder settlement of the Amazon Basin forests has been driven by a combination of government policy incentives, and the prevailing socio-economic conditions which generate shortages of suitable land for cultivation in the home regions of the settlers. Forest colonization has been encouraged without, in the majority of cases, complementary programmes to promote sustainable agricultural practices. Indeed, as the examples from Brazil, Ecuador, Peru and Bolivia show, policies have encouraged the use of unsustainable practices. Although it can be argued that governments were not aware of the potential difficulties associated with the cropping systems and cattle ranching practices which they encouraged in the rainforest zone at the outset of colonization, this is no longer the case.


After the construction of the Transamazon Highway, incentives set up to encourage farming were technically inappropriate (promoting monocrop rice production) and poorly administered (Fearnside, 1990). This led to low rice yields and high levels of debt. Farmers attempted to overcome this problem by increasing production through shortened fallow periods which resulted in a further decline in land productivity and the eventual abandonment of the land. The degraded land was then purchased by wealthier farmers and converted to pasture; the original settlers moved to the frontier to begin again the cycle of land clearance and degradation.

The Brazilian Government has encouraged the flow of people as a means of asserting national sovereignty over the Amazon, and of avoiding the inequities of land distribution in the migrants' home states (Mahar, 1990).

Encouragement has included massive road building schemes during the 1960s to 1980s which made large areas of the Amazon accessible for the first time, and direct incentives such as subsistence payments (Binswanger, 1991).

The number of migrants entering the state of Rondonia, for example, increased from 65 000/year to 160 000/year after the completion of the BR-364 road in 1984. As deforestation is accepted as evidence of land improvement, land rights can be obtained for three times the area of forest cleared, up to a ceiling of 270 ha. Once title is established, the land can be sold, and this led to huge land speculation. Impoverished settlers, having few economic opportunities in their home regions, have responded to these government incentives by developing farming practices based on clearing forest, mining the land's resources, profiting from converting land to pasture and moving on (Mahar, 1990).

The final result has been forest clearance on a vast scale for unsustainable agriculture.


In northeastern Ecuador settlers to the forest zone were obliged to pay for the land and its survey, and they could not gain full title until they had repaid their debt (Collins, 1986). Without a clear title they had no access to credit. They had little alternative but to maximize short-term production and profits through rapid conversion of forest to farm land and mining forest resources. Most farmers attempted to establish pasture, but this failed as measures to maintain soil fertility over the long term were ignored. They had to sell out to large ranchers and move on, thus further increasing pressure on the colonization frontier.


In southern Peru a combination of poor access to credit and difficulties with obtaining clear title to land resulted in the failure of a smallholder coffee production programme (Collins, 1986). Coffee did not yield sufficiently well without external inputs which were not affordable without credit facilities. As a result, a pattern of seasonal migration developed where the settler from the highlands began to move back and forth from upland to forest regions to maintain agricultural activities in both regions. This has put pressure on the forest frontier, and resulted in poor management in both regions and a consequent decline in agricultural production.


In the Bolivian Amazon, colonist expansion was encouraged as early as the 1960s. Land is cleared of high forest for rice production. After one or two years of cropping, in the face of declining yields and weed encroachment, the land is abandoned to bush regrowth (known locally as barbecho). This process is repeated until the high forest on the farmer's holding is exhausted and it becomes necessary to begin cultivating barbecho land. Yields fall and weed problems increase and migrants must move on into the forest frontier; the 'barbecho crisis' ensues (Maxwell, 1980; Stearman, 1983; Thiele, 1991).

The alternatives - mechanization for production of arable crops or conversion to pasture for beef or dairy production - have failed. The land under mechanization will also, in the long run, become pasture. Those farmers with capital have become ranchers on consolidated holdings, whilst the poorer cultivators are forced to the frontier to begin the cycle over again. More recently the introduction of herbicides and integrated weed management strategies has allowed extended cropping of the land (Thiele, 1991), but its long-term sustainability is compromised by problems of declining soil fertility.

Throughout the Amazon Basin, inappropriate agriculture and poorly thought out incentives have not only contributed towards large-scale rainforest destruction, but have not worked to the advantage of the poorer migrant smallholders.