The Sacred Cow

September 25, 2007

These placid creatures which used to require so little food have now apparently developed a raging appetite and turned into man eaters. Fields, houses, forests, towns, everything goes down their throats. Thomas More, Utopia T HOMAS MORE WAS WRITING ABOUT THE expansion of sheep herding in the sixteenth cen- tury, but his description of the displacement of agricul- ture and forests by ranching could have been written last week. The growth of pastures may appear benign, but it is the leading cause of deforestation in Latin America and is particularly devastating in the Amazon. Cattle have engendered an environmental holocaust that ban- ishes several species from biological history every day, comparable only to the massive extinctions of the Creta- ceous, when dinosaurs became the raw material for pe- troleum and museums. Flying over the Amazon in August you pass through brown oily smoke, fine ash and nerve-wracking turbu- lence caused by the heat of burning forest. If you man- age to land, you will gaze onto a hellish landscape-not a red hell, but one of charred black forms, yellow air and white ash. There is almost no sky, just a soft rain of cinders, dust and debris. This is the first phase of pasture development. It is now thought that the burning of the Amazon may supply a fifth of all the carbon released into the atmosphere, and thus is a major contributor to the greenhouse effect. Once the land has cooled, an army of planes bombs these charred landscapes with grass seed. And then the rains begin. To stand in an Amazon pasture is to watch a landscape slide away under your feet, millimeter by millimeter. Local streams turn chalky red and yellow, and sediments cake everything. But the grass begins to grow. Forest stumps, seeds in the soil and seeds that hail down with the wind all sprout in the vegetational jumble OLUME XXIII NO 1 9 w a- z w I w C,, V , . ( ) -- 23AMAZON known locally as juqueira--the bastard offspring of for- est and pasture. Burnt logs become invisible under green fungus, as dead black trees with branches 50 feet into the air stand over this transformation. The landscape looks rich, green and wet, but it is poor. The soils will hold out for five or ten years; hun- dreds of species of forest plants and animals will be reduced to a handful. The grasses too will fade and be replaced by thorny stunted scrub. Every two years or so, fires will be set to reduce the weeds, and "inspire" the grasses. The soils will compact. Hot and humid winds sweep this landscape, in which a few cows and hardly any people live. In a little more than a decade, the lands will be abandoned. I N CONTRAST TO OTHER TROPICAL RE- gions such as Central America, the expansion of ranching in the Amazon is not primarily due to world market demand for fast-food hamburgers, World Bank loans or other factors that tie the region to the centers of world power. Rather it reflects the history of Brazilian development policy and an unusual economic context that triggered and maintained a speculative boom in land. By clearing forest for pasture, landholders ranging from peasant migrants to corporate ranchers became eligible for tax breaks, land concessions and subsidized credits. In addition, they improved their chances of ob- taining title to the land and rights to adjacent timber or mineral wealth. These extraordinary benefits have made clearing land for pasture vastly profitable even when livestock production is not. When the military took power in 1964, the generals placed Amaz6nia-with an ideological overlay of mani- fest destiny, national security and national integration-at the center of their efforts to transform the Brazilian economy. The Amazon was viewed as a place for sending "surplus population" released by structural changes in agriculture, and, given the buoyant international beef market of the 1960s, as a potential site for the cattle industry. It was thought that by expanding long-term lending and providing juicy incentives, Bra- zil's highly successful agroindustrial elite might be en- ticed into the region to transform it from a provincial backwater into a thriving agricultural zone to rival the rich fields of SHo Paulo. The first assault was mounted under the aegis of the Superintendency for Amazonian Development (SU- DAM), with an ambitious program of road development and a luxurious ensemble of incentives: 1) Capital grants: SUDAM ranches received grants of up to 75% of ranch development costs, totaling over $500 million to date. 2) Tax holidays: Up to 100% of a corporation's tax bill was forgiven if the monies were invested in the Amazon or the dry Northeast. The net effect was to increase corporations' venture capital. In addition, no import taxes were exacted for equipment used on these ranches. 3) Subsidized credits: While inflation leaped ahead at well over 50%, credits were granted at 8% to 12%, often with six- to eight-year grace periods on 12- to 15-year loans. Such funds were often diverted into the short- term financial markets or other rapid high-return invest- ments. 4) Land concessions: Provided free in many areas, or at nominal cost. Cattle grazing became a vehicle for capturing gener- ous public credits and incentives.' Without them, pro- ducing cattle rarely made economic sense. Formation and management of pastures is quite expensive, pastures are not usually sustainable, and the value of the final animal product often does not cover investment costs. In fact, the value of cattle sold was usually less than half the cost of production. 2 T HE RISING VALUE OF AMAZON LAND, IN- creasing at more than 100% per year throughout the 1960s and 1970s, also fueled the ranching boom. Speculation was encouraged by frantic road building, enormous transfers of land from public to private hands, great potential for resource finds such as gold or timber, and roaring inflation. Huge areas had competing titles and many counties issued titles to more land than they actually had. Provin- cial land office records had pages torn out, offices rou- tinely "lost" titles, signatures were forged and docu- ments with long transaction pedigrees that were entirely fictional appeared overnight. The chaos and fraud were such that by 1982 more than 100% of the state of Acre, for example, had been sold, with some counties boasting more than 160% of their land area in title. Since land claims could not be assured by document, occupying land and showing it to be in "effective use--by clear- ing it for pasture-became one of the strongest ways to assert claim. Indeed, one could claim areas six times the size of the clearing. Whether the land use was sustain- able, economic or appropriate made little difference. Cattle claim what is under their feet. A recognized land claim permits the holder to assert royalty rights on subsurface minerals which are technically owned by the Brazilian state. As a result, areas adjacent to gold strikes frequently experience vigorous clearing. On smaller ranches, valuable timber is also used to subsidize pas- ture development costs. And land not in "effective use," that is to say cleared, runs a greater risk of expropriation for agrarian reform. The gains to be made in land specu- lation were so substantial that unscrupulous grileiros-land grabbers-roamed the region, clearing lands, planting pasture and selling the parcels as quickly as possible. C OLONISTS AND OTHER SMALL PRODU- cers are also heavily involved in the expansion of livestock and deforestation. The focus on a few hundred mega-ranches has obscured the fact that there are more REPORT ON THE AMER S A 24 ------ ------- ------than 50,000 livestock operations in Amaz6nia at all scales of production.' Rond6nia state, for example, is the classic farmer frontier and has the most rapid and devastating pattern of deforestation. The increase in Rond6nia's total herd was more than 3,000% from 1970 to 1988. Cattle and other livestock figure prominently in the survival strategy of small farmers. Milk and calves are a continual income supplement, and in case of agricultural disaster, as often occurs in the Brazilian Amazon, they can be quickly converted to cash. In the local market, beef fetches the highest price of any source of protein, and the highest per kilo value of any basic food com- modity. Cattle provide these benefits with less labor cost than rice, beans, corn or manioc, and, unlike crops, they are capable of transporting themselves to market. What's more, the timeliness of animal harvest is determined by household need or market opportunity rather than the biological demands of the product itself. Cattle can also extend the productive life of cleared area where the soil usually cannot sustain crop produc- tion for more than three years. This land can be planted with grass and grazed for several years more until it becomes choked with weeds or so degraded that no forage will grow. While these pastures provide only a marginal return, it is still significant for a poor colonist with few choices and fewer resources. Colonists are people who follow dreams. Most of them live in small wood houses, in rather depressing expanses of scraggly crops. Chickens and children are often underfoot; fenced off areas might hold a cow or two, the only beings present that do not have worry and illness written on their faces. Most of the cleared land, which was to be rich coffee or cacao fields in the colo- nist's dreams, will become yellow-grey scrub land with a few beasts ambling through. Colonists are short term inhabitants; more than 80% of them will fail. In highly inflationary economies, such as those of most Amazon countries, investing in animals is a way to protect assets. Government colonization projects have frequently encouraged this by offering credit lines for small-scale cattle ranchers: Borrowed money whose value is evaporating can be turned into an animal whose value keeps pace with or exceeds inflation. The role of cattle as means of claiming land follows roughly the same logic for small holders as for large ones. When a parcel of questionable title is adjudicated, the larger the cleared area the greater the indemnifica- tion. Since cleared areas are worth about one-third more than forest, peasants' ability to speculate is also en- hanced by.clearing. Among colonists, land speculation and indemnification by the state or large landowners occurs with some frequency. Much is made of cattle as symbols of prestige in Luso-Brazilian culture. But with or without the sym- bolic overlay, cattle offer extraordinary advantages over what many consider more appropriate land uses, such as perennial crops. It is really no wonder that peasants everywhere clamor for cattle and are intent on clearing pasture for the day when they can add to their humble herds. U N FORTUNATELY, CATTLE ARE A DISAS- ter for the environment and the regional economy. Tropical forests can survive on very poor acidic soils because the physiological and structural features of the rttle ara cvmhnla nf nroatina but even without the Qvmbolism they offer extraordinary advantaaes w U. z w I a- U,AMAZON plants and their symbiotic relationships with other or- ganisms keep nutrients circulating within living mate- rial. When forests are cleared for pasture there is an initial nutrient flush as elements held in the biomass are released to the soil. However, with leaching, runoff and uptake by pasture plants, soil nutrients decline rapidly to levels below those necessary for maintaining pasture. It is more economical to clear new pastures than to man- age existing cleared land. These degraded lands are exceedingly difficult to recuperate. As fire is an integral part of pasture forma- tion and maintenance, stump sprouts and seeds in the soil are regularly killed. Many forest seeds are large and need to be carried by animals which are often killed or flee when their habitat is destroyed. Those lucky seeds that do arrive in a field are often done in by leafcutter ants. If this were not enough, the environmental condi- tions of pastures-high heat, low humidity, compacted soil-make it unlikely that a seedling could establish itself. More often, clearing land condemns it to waste. As for the regional economy, cattle do not absorb much labor at any scale of production. The standard fazenda uses about one cowboy per 1500 hectares cleared. 4 In addition, linkages to other parts of the re- gional economy are fairly weak. Implements, seed, wire, animal supplements and veterinary products all come from southern Brazil. Local urban centers do consume Amazonian beef, and some employment is generated in the slaughterhouses and butcher shops, but the bulk of the labor is in clearing land and brush management, neither of which is permanent. Tax revenues from the sales of animals are also very low. The SUDAM ranches, for example, produced in taxes only about 2% of the value of the incentive money they received! S OME EXPERTS MAINTAIN THAT THE EN- vironmental impact of ranching could be substan- tially mitigated with better pasture and livestock prac- tices. The problem is that good management is secon- dary for ranchers, since what drives the cattle industry-and therefore the destruction of the forest-is not production but the financial machinations associated with it. Many point to government subsidies as the cul- prit of this dynamic; ironically, deforestation rates have increased as subsidies have declined. Much of what fuels land speculation, which is at the heart of cattle's profitability, is now beyond the control of state policy: high inflation, low entry costs, the poten- tial for mineral or timber wealth, and the great hunger for land. But other factors, such as the official doctrine of national security, national integration and manifest destiny can indeed be traced directly to government action. As the rest of the Brazilian economy goes into a tailspin, the "Amazon card" is viewed as an escape valve and an important means of assuring continued profits, particularly for the large and powerful business community. Cattle figure prominently in the survival strategy of small farmers SF COURSE, THE AMAZON'S TROPICAL forests are not empty. For generations, they have been home to millions of people whose livelihood is based on renewable extraction and some small-scale ag- riculture. Faced with the growing threat of livestock en- terprises and government infrastructure development, their resistance has grown into a frail yet significant political movement. They have managed to form alli- ances with national and foreign environmental groups and to successfully confront deforestation. The state of Acre, where the rubber tappers are most active, has the lowest rate of forest destruction. In southern Pari, where gold-mining, timber exploitation and ranching have obliterated one of the richest forests and its fauna, the only areas spared have been within the Kayap6 and Xing6 Indian reserves. Destruction can only be stopped where the people who make their living from the forest prohibit deforesters from entering. Livestock are an unusual commodity, and their bio- logical, market and ancillary features make them quite unlike other tropical products such as coffee or rice. The "hamburger connection" via international beef markets has less of an impact on deforestation patterns in the Amazon than the internal logic of livestock for both small and large producers. For this reason, the destiny of the region will be shaped more through national politics than international pressure. The logic behind cattle is immensely compelling, and likely to become more so, particularly since the alternatives-forestry, agriculture and agro-forestry-simply do not offer the myriad of fi- nancial rewards producers can gain by converting the Amazon into sterile pasture. The Sacred Cow 1. Dennis J. Mahar, Frontier Development Policy in Brazil: A Study of Amazdnia (New York: Praeger Publishers, 1979). 2. Susanna B. Hecht, R. Norgaard, and G. Possio, "The Eco- nomics of Cattle Ranching," Interciencia, Vol. 13 No. 5 (1988), pp. 233-240.; J. Browder, "The Social Costs of Rain Forest Destruction," Interciencia, Vol.13 No. 3 (1988), pp. 115-120. 3. Compared to productive agriculture or even careful pasture management, the returns on livestock are far greater. U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization, "Rond6nia Report," 1988. 4. These jobs are expensive to create. The real cost of creating a cowboy job that pays $50 per year is far greater than that of a job in industry. On the SUDAM ranches, which were admittedly the extreme case, to create each cowboy job cost $72,000. Dennis J. Mahar, Frontier Development Policy and Susanna B. Hecht, Cattle VOLUME XXIll, NO. I ( ) Ranching in the Eastern Amazon, (Ph.D. diss. University of Cali- fornia at Berkeley, 1982).

Tags: Brazil, Amazon, cattle, environmentalism, development

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