• Water Production Connections

Learning from the Past: Student Experiences

By Jamison Douglas


Located in Brazil’s arc of deforestation, the study region represents an entirely different sort of Amazon than that depicted in children’s magazines, bumper stickers and zoos. In the 1960s, government programs enticed farmers in southern Brazil to migrate to Rondônia with promises of free land and a better life. Responding to these incentives, and supported by the construction of two federally funded highways, immigrants came to the Amazon and brought with them agricultural methods typical to more temperate climates. From 1964-2005, the national land reform agency (i.e., INCRA) settled 84,434 families in Rondônia, mostly in new settlements, to the detriment of the existing tropical forest 7. Since then, the region’s forest cover has been reduced by almost 40%, among the highest deforestation rates in Brazil. Land unsuitable for agriculture and government incentives to convert land into pasture has resulted in a countryside resembling the pastures and scrub of the Texas Panhandle. This article outlines the experiences of undergraduate and graduate students who have worked on this project.




Simon Hall, an SU research assistant, had never been to any part of Brazil before going with the team in 2009. He expected the picture-perfect imagery of dense forest and untouched landscape. Instead, he was met with bright red roads, billows of dust and dirt, and a vast pastoral countryside. “It’s kind of startling to see how much of the land has actually been transformed into pasture. It seems like the more places I go, the bigger the farms are and the more pasture they have,” explained Hall.


Not all of the team was new to the South American tropical forest landscape. Michael Toomey (Ph.D. Candidate at UCSB) had previously worked in Ecuador and had conducted research on parts of northeastern and southwestern Brazil. He described a similar reaction to the Ouro Preto do Oeste landscape. “I’ve been, actually, a bit surprised by just how much contrast there is in terms of some of the huge expanses of pasture we have here. You can really feel like you’re driving across Wyoming or Nebraska.” Given his experience with other regions and areas, the Rondônian landscape was oddly familiar to him. “In comparison to other regions that are younger or not as severely deforested – this region definitely seems like much more of a transformed tropical environment as the pasture you find here. You could almost believe that it has always been this way.”



For principal investigator Caviglia-Harris, the land in 2009 had changed drastically since her first study of the region in 1996. Over the past three household survey waves, she found that the forested land per lot has decreased from 17 hectares in 1996, to 12 hectares in 2000, to 7 hectares in 2005, to less than 5 hectares by 2009. What could spur the rapid change? During her 15 years in the study region, Caviglia-Harris has learned: “The Rondônians feel that development is what they should do. They think ‘the south of Brazil did it, all of United States and Europe did it, why shouldn’t we?” And with deforestation, the inhabitants have experienced benefits regarding their quality of life.


Caviglia-Harris has tracked considerable increases in income and general welfare since 1996. Wooden shacks and manioc fields have been replaced by tile roofed houses, milking facilities and reliable electricity. “Farmers have cell phones now. The speed at which the road, telecommunication, and other infrastructure projects have developed has been impressive,” she added.


The Local Perspective

Fernando de Freitas is a forest engineer who has lived and farmed in Ouro Preto do Oeste for 18 years. He sees a complicated bureaucratic government that expects a lot from farmers. “Almost all of the farmers have the same situation. It’s almost impossible for the producers by themselves to make it.” For example the Brazilian government recently imposed a law that if producers wanted to receive agricultural loans, their land would have to be at least 50% forested. With most farms in this region having close to 10% forested land, the cost that would be incurred by the average farmer to replant a sufficient area to comply with the law is enormous. Fernando believes that since the government was responsible for the mass in-migration that occurred in the 1970s, they should help the farmers. “I think it is one of the obligations of the government to give money and assist all of these people [that now live in the Amazon and call this region home].” Based on his familiarity with the land and local residents, and his expertise in forest engineering, he explains that the only way to succeed in the future is if the government works with, and not against, the producers. Otherwise, current regulations will put farmers out of business. “It is not that you can just create a law and say, ‘you are obligated to plant the trees now.’ I feel the government is not preparing right now to correctly address the situation, and it is going to be a very big problem in 5 or 10 years if the government doesn’t go in this direction.”



But could having such strict regulations on the land benefit the future state of Rondônia? Similar to concerns about deforestation, the reasons for deforestation, and forest preservation, are quite different at each level. For example, though the region as a whole may benefit from healthier soils, lands and rivers for future generations, an individual farmer benefits personally and immediately from clearing the land for pasture. Succinctly, the farmer receives far more of the benefits and bears far less of the cost of deforestation than the average citizen of Rondônia, Brazil, or the world. In economics, this process results in what is called a market failure (where the market outcome is not what is best for society). Indeed, research indicates that deforestation in the Amazon Basin of Brazil is the direct result of various market and government failures. These failures account for the human and social pressures that occurred during the settlement of Ouro Preto do Oeste and other regions and the socio-economic problems that still exist.


One possible solution for these market failures, according to past studies and principal investigators Jill Caviglia-Harris and Erin Sills, is to implement educational programs that support sustainable agricultural practices. “Erin and I have found that the adoption of sustainable agriculture over time has not been increasing. There are not many people that use these methods (less than 10%) that are often termed agro-forestry or intercropping (where farmers plant crops within the forest) and are often supplemented with fish and honey harvest.” But why haven’t a majority of Rondônian farmers adopted these sorts of practices? Simply put, the incentives are not in the right places. In addition, poor infrastructure (both physical and financial) makes obtaining sufficient education to engage in these sustainable practices efficiently and cost-effectively difficult, especially when clear cutting a forest through slash-and-burn deforestation techniques requires less planning and is relatively faster. “Farmers that use sustainable practices deforest significantly less of their lots. They also have fewer cattle and lower incomes, but this is partly counter weighted by improved diets that include a richer choice of products and greater diversification.” A local farmer union, the Association of Alternative Producers (APA), works to recruit more members and educate them about sustainable agricultural practices.



Antonio Carlos is one farmer in Ouro Preto do Oeste who participates in the farmer organization APA and considers farming and cattle ranching to be far more than just a means to profit. “The implementation of the conventional production system, which has strong ties with agro-business because of the focus on cattle production, does not answer population’s environmental problems. It only answers these needs of the minority. The change that is taking place is such that the concentration of land is only in the hands of a few.” To him, farming should be seen as a collaborative investment between the government and farmers. In addition, farmers must intelligently preserve the land by forming a generation-to-generation connection with the land’s intricacies. “So, those who already have [the land], they should stay, loving and defending what is theirs. Because in the future - for those who face a complicated process of land reform in the country - they will never have what we had before. So, they need to value [the land] and embrace it.”


Though farmers may be primarily responsible for deforestation, not all locals of Ouro Preto do Oeste are farmers. As such, what the locals want and expect from the land are different. As Simone Bauch, a Brazilian Ph.D. student from NCSU, puts it, there is a dichotomy in viewpoints. “For some it is more like what I can get out of it and then maybe sell out and move on. While for other people in the Amazon that is the only place they have, so they know whatever they choose to do will come to haunt them later on.” Indeed, there are already major signs that current deforestation methods are inappropriate for a sustainable future. Though soils derive some immediate benefit from slash and burn forest conversion, the extended use of these soils for agriculture and cattle strips the soil of its nutrients and therefore renders much of the land unsuitable for profitable returns after 5-10 years. As a result of these poor soils, it is predicted that farmers may abandon their lots because they can no longer yield as much to earn a livable income more or less keep up with the market. As Caviglia-Harris explains, with no farmers on these lots, no surveys could be given. “For the first time in our survey history we had to give up on more than 30 lots because we could not find or identify an owner. In each of our previous years the number was just 1.”

In a way, the farmers that chose to convert mature forest to pasture in Ouro Preto do Oeste are following in the footsteps of other developing nations. The difference is the land: efficacious ecological services essential in sustaining a healthy, worldwide carbon and climate balance, and an unmatched biodiversity that boasts the residence of species found nowhere else on the planet are just a few traits that evince the essence of the Amazon. How long can Ouro Preto do Oeste sustain itself with this short term vision of the forest: that it serves merely as a source of land for agricultural production? Could this prevailing mindset soon be responsible for the loss of the entire Brazilian Amazon? Caviglia-Harris does not believe this is the case. “I don’t think the entire Amazon will be exploited for agriculture or logging. I expect there will be increased pressure for preservation as less and less primary forest remains.”

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Connections between Water and Rural Production: Sociohydrological Systems on a Tropical Forest Frontier

Project funded by the National Science Foundation: CNH-L #1825046

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