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The Roles and Movements of Actors in the Deforestation of Brazilian Amazonia

Philip M Fearnside, National Institute for Research in the Amazon-INPA


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Containing the advance of deforestation in Brazilian Amazonia requires understanding the roles and movements of the actors involved. The importance of different actors varies widely among locations within the region, and also evolves at any particular site over the course of frontier establishment and consolidation. Landless migrants have significant roles in clearing the land they occupy and in motivating landholders to clear as a defense against invasion or expropriation. Colonists in official settlements and other small farmers also are responsible for substantial amounts of clearing, but ranchers constitute the largest component of the region’s clearing. This group is most responsive to macroeconomic changes affecting such factors as commodity prices, and also receives substantial subsidies. Ulterior motives, such as land speculation and money laundering, also affect this group. Drug trafficking and money laundering represent strong forces in some areas and help spread deforestation where it would be unprofitable based only on the legitimate economy. Goldminers increase the population in distant areas and subsequently enter the ranks of other groups. Work as laborers or debt slaves provides an important entry to the region for poor migrants from northeast Brazil, providing cheap labor to large ranches and a large source of entrants to other groups, such as landless farmers and colonists. Capitalized farmers, including agribusiness for soy production, have tremendous impact in certain areas, such as Mato Grosso. This group responds to commodity markets and provides justification for major infrastructure projects. Landgrabbers, or grileiros, are important in entering public land and beginning the process of deforestation and transfer of land to subsequent groups of actors. These include sawmill owners and loggers, who play an important role in generating funds for clearing by other groups, ranging from landless migrants to large ranchers. They also build endogenous roads, facilitating the entry of other actors. Future movements of actors will be influenced by major infrastructure plans, such as those for hydroelectric dams.

Policies for reducing deforestation must include removing motives for deforestation by stopping the practice of regularizing land claims and by cutting subsidies. The rule of law must be established throughout the region by completing the cadaster, or register, of land titles and by reinforcing command and control. Movement to the frontier needs to be discouraged by exercising restraint in approving infrastructure such as highways, and by creating and protecting conservation units. Economic alternatives to deforestation should be fostered by generating employment in source areas and in alternative migration destinations, by supporting sustainable uses of forest, by supporting alternative supply of domestic markets for products such as timber, and by rewarding the environmental services of standing forest.

Key words

deforestation; migration; population; rainforest; ranching

Copyright © 2008 by the author(s). Published here under license by The Resilience Alliance. This article  is under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.  You may share and adapt the work for noncommercial purposes provided the original author and source are credited, you indicate whether any changes were made, and you include a link to the license.

Ecology and Society. ISSN: 1708-3087