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Garrett, R. D., T. A. Gardner, T. Fonseca, S. Marchand, J. Barlow, D. Ezzine de Blas, J. Ferreira, A. C. Lees, and L. Parry. 2017. Explaining the persistence of low income and environmentally degrading land uses in the Brazilian Amazon. Ecology and Society 22(3):27.

Explaining the persistence of low income and environmentally degrading land uses in the Brazilian Amazon

1Department of Earth and Environment, Boston University, Boston, USA, 2Stockholm Environment Institute, Stockholm, Sweden, 3Universidade Federal do ABC, Alameda da Universidade, São Bernardo do Campo, Brazil, 4CERDI/Université Clermont Auvergne, Clermont-Fd, France, 5Lancaster Environment Centre, Lancaster University, Lancaster, UK, 6Centre de Coopération Internationale en Recherche Agronomique pour le Développement (CIRAD). Campus International de Baillarguet, Montpellier, France, 7Embrapa Amazônia Oriental, Belém, Brazil, 8Division of Biology & Conservation Ecology, School of Science and the Environment, Manchester Metropolitan University, Manchester, UK, 9Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Cornell University, Ithaca, USA, 10Lancaster Environment Centre, Lancaster University, Lancaster UK, 11Universidade Federal do Pará (UFPA), Núcleo de Altos Estudos Amazônicos (NAEA), Belém, Brasil


Tropical forests continue to be plagued by the dual sustainability challenges of deforestation and rural poverty. We seek to understand why many of the farmers living in the Brazilian Amazon, home to the world’s largest tropical agricultural-forest frontier, persist in agricultural activities associated with low incomes and high environmental damage. To answer this question, we assess the factors that shape the development and distribution of agricultural activities and farmer well-being in these frontiers. Our study utilizes a uniquely comprehensive social-ecological dataset from two regions in the eastern Brazilian Amazon and employs a novel conceptual framework that highlights the interdependencies between household attributes, agricultural activities, and well-being. We find that livestock production, which yields the lowest per hectare incomes, remains the most prevalent land use in remote areas, but many examples of high income fruit, horticulture, and staple crop production exist on small properties, particularly in peri-urban areas. The transition to more profitable land uses is limited by lagging supply chain infrastructure, social preferences, and the fact that income associated with land use activities is not a primary source of perceived life quality. Instead subjective well-being is more heavily influenced by the nonmonetary attributes of a rural lifestyle (safety, tranquility, community relations, etc.). We conclude that transitions away from low-income land uses in agricultural-forest frontiers of the Brazilian Amazon need not abandon a land-focused vision of development, but will require policies and programs that identify and discriminate households based on a broader set of household assets, cultural attributes, and aspirations than are traditionally applied. At a broader scale, access to distant markets for high value crops must be improved via investments in processing, storage, and marketing infrastructure.
Key words: cattle; land use transitions; rural development; social capital; sustainable livelihoods


Tropical forests are among the Earth’s most important ecosystems and supply a diverse range of ecosystem services at local, regional, and global scales. Currently, these ecosystems are critically threatened by agricultural expansion for internationally traded commodities such as soybeans, palm oil, and beef (Hansen et al. 2013). As this multibillion dollar segment of the global economy has grown it has been accompanied by an increasing concentration of the tropical land base into fewer large farms (Pacheco 2012a, VanWey et al. 2013, Weinhold et al. 2013). Yet, a majority of the farmers in humid forests remain impoverished, often depending on subsistence agriculture for their livelihoods (Sunderlin et al. 2003).

For major development and conservation initiatives to deliver anticipated benefits to rainforest nations it is necessary to better understand the enabling conditions that can help catalyze pathways to improved well-being for all inhabitants of frontier landscapes, not just major producers of export commodities. This challenge is especially pronounced in the Brazilian Amazon, where agricultural exports have increased since 2005, yet rural income, education, and health remain well below the national average (Nepstad et al. 2014, Valentim and Garrett 2016).

The underlying causes of large-scale patterns of deforestation and agricultural expansion in the Brazilian Amazon, including changing global diets, domestic currency depreciation, state sponsored colonization, road building, agricultural subsidies, weak property rights, urbanization, and household demographics have been well documented (Moran 1993, Nepstad et al. 2001, Perz 2001, Geist and Lambin 2002, Richards et al. 2012, DeFries et al. 2013). Yet these analyses fall short of explaining why so many inhabitants of Amazonian agricultural-forest frontier landscapes remain engaged in agricultural activities that garner very low incomes and generate high levels of environmental damage, epitomized by extensive cattle-raising. This situation persists despite improvements in the enforcement of conservation policies in the region and a surge in voluntary environmental commitments within soybean and cattle commodity chains (Börner et al. 2015, Gibbs et al. 2015, 2016). Deforestation and pasture expansion in the Brazilian Amazon remain high in absolute terms (INPE 2016a), and forest clearance for cattle pastures remains the largest direct driver of forest loss on both small and large farms in the region (Pacheco 2012b, INPE 2016b).

To address this research gap about the local factors influencing the persistence of low-income and unsustainable land use activities in the Amazon we ask three questions: (Q1) How does farm income differ across land uses? (Q2) How do household attributes, e.g., assets, background, accessibility, etc., shape land use choices? (Q3) How do land uses and their associated monetary outcomes, together with underlying household attributes influence the well-being of rural households? By examining these interlinked questions, we seek to explain why existing environment and development policies based predominantly on traditional asset deficiencies (land, labor, and machinery) and monetary outcomes have been unable to catalyze wide-scale transformations toward higher income and potentially less environmentally damaging activities in the agricultural-forest frontiers of the Brazilian Amazon.

We apply these questions to two highly socially and environmentally heterogeneous regions in the eastern Brazilian Amazon (Fig. 1) that typify the close juxtaposition of export-led agriculture and persistent rural poverty in Amazonia in a dynamic forest frontier setting, yet possess unique environmental governance attributes (see A1.1 for more details on case selection). Using a comprehensive social and environmental dataset that was assembled by the Sustainable Amazon Network between 2010 and 2011 (; Gardner et al. 2013) we assess how a priori differences in household attributes determine patterns of land use and subjective well-being. In examining these relationships, we uncover possible explanations for why so few farmers are willing or able to adopt higher income, less environmentally damaging agricultural activities, in particular, why extensive cattle ranching remains so prevalent in Amazonia despite major transformations in rural livelihoods elsewhere in the tropics. We conclude by discussing how our findings may be used to improve the design of policies in Brazil, without necessarily abandoning a “land-focused” vision of development (Rigg 2006).


Existing theory and empirical analysis from agricultural economics and land change science suggest that current patterns of land use are the aggregate outcome of individual farmers acting to maximize their utility, given the assets they are endowed with (Officer and Halter 1968, Walker 2004). These studies typically focus on a narrow set of assets, including land, labor, and manufactured capital, concluding that the relative abundance of these key assets within a particular region plays a pivotal role in determining regional (and intra-household) land use choices. However, parallel research from development studies and political ecology has provided a deeper understanding of the context dependency of livelihood strategies, taking into account a broader range of household attributes, including gender, experiences, institutions, relationships, access, trust, obligations, norms, and institutions (Ribot and Peluso 2003, WinklerPrins and de Souza 2005, Ostrom 2009, Wollni and Brümmer 2012, Garrett et al. 2013, Rausch 2014). Because current household attributes and land use activities are heavily influenced by historical asset deficiencies and land use systems, as well as coevolving social and ecological systems, rural livelihood activities are often highly resilient to efforts aimed at changing behavior (Allison and Hobbs 2004, Wilcox 2017).

A source of agreement between both literatures is that background processes of globalization, urbanization, migration, and infrastructure development are enhancing flows of ideas, money, and goods within and between rural and urban areas, leading to livelihoods that are increasingly pluralistic, engaging in both on and off-farm employment, and multilocal, occupying both urban and rural spaces simultaneously (Rigg 2006, Padoch et al. 2008, Greiner and Sakdapolrak 2013, Parry et al. 2014, Hecht et al. 2015). Consequently, changing urban diets, remittances, and nonmaterial flows between urban and rural areas may have a substantial impact on rural land use decisions. Migrants from cities settling in peri-urban regions may exhibit different attributes and aspirations than longstanding agrarian communities (Macdonald and Winklerprins 2014).

In looking beyond drivers of land use to examine the social consequences of agricultural activities, work on sustainable livelihoods has also underscored the importance of adopting a more nuanced conceptualization of the ways that agricultural activities may influence well-being (Scoones 1998, Bebbington 1999). Agricultural activities generate many benefits beyond income, such as lifestyle, spiritual value, social connections, and independence. Consequently, improved economic outcomes do not always translate into improved well-being and agricultural activities are often an end into themselves, not just a means to an end (Beckley 1995, Key and Roberts 2009, Knight et al. 2009). For this reason, a person’s subjective well-being (one’s perception of well-being measured as the response to questions regarding, for example, their level of happiness and satisfaction) can offer a more holistic measure of how well-off households are compared to that which is possible when only assessing monetized measures such as consumption, income, or savings (Diener and Seligman 2004). Moreover, any disconnect between income and well-being levels also serves to highlight the difficulties in understanding the drivers of land-use change when focusing exclusively on income measures.

The literature on cattle ranching, one of the most ubiquitous and persistent land uses in Brazil and in our study regions (Wilcox 2017), offers several specific hypotheses regarding the importance of household attributes and nonmonetary benefits for land use choices and well-being outcomes. First, extensive cattle ranching is thought to have low and less seasonal labor demands relative to most systems of crop production (Hecht 1993, Muchagata and Brown 2003), particularly nonmechanized fruit and horticulture production (Nepstad et al. 2001). This makes it an appealing land use in regions where labor is scarce, but land is abundant (Wilcox 2017). Second, in the context of volatile and uncertain land and currency markets, cattle ranching provides a low cost and low risk way to maintain control over a large land area and take advantage of speculative opportunities, while also building up a savings account, via the cattle themselves (Hecht 1993, Bowman et al. 2012, Campbell 2015). Third, cattle ownership has been long viewed as a status symbol in Latin American culture (Walker et al. 2000, Hoelle 2011). The prestige associated with cattle ranching in Amazonia can mask its low returns, creating an informational and cultural barrier to change (Hoelle 2011, Gomes et al. 2012).

Here we interweave these complementary research areas of land change science, political ecology, and sustainable livelihoods to provide a novel theoretical framework to advance current understanding of the development and distribution of agricultural activities and farmer well-being in the cattle dominated agricultural-forest frontiers typical of Amazonia (Fig. 2). Critically, our framework helps make explicit the degree to which rural well-being in these regions is influenced by myriad conditions beyond income, including nonmonetary benefits associated with agricultural activities and underlying household attributes, and the way in which these activities are, in turn, partly shaped and selected by differences in well-being. In doing so we seek to shed more light on the complex factors underpinning the persistence of low income and environmentally degrading land uses.



The Sustainable Amazon Network dataset collected ecological data from a stratified random sample of 367 transects distributed across 36 watersheds in the two regions of Santarém and Paragominas. These data were cocollected with socioeconomic survey data from up to 20 randomly selected rural properties within each watershed for a total of 623 households and 499 properties (several properties contained more than one household and some households had more than one property). All data were collected between 2010 and 2011. The ecological data at the transect scale include both land cover and soil characteristics. The socioeconomic data include details on land use and household assets, including origin, residence time, education, labor, tenure, credit access, group membership, and technical assistance. Farmers were asked to report details on land use for each property during the prior growing season (2009/2010) as well as 2006/2007. Respondents were asked to report information on their assets at the household level for the current year (2010/2011). These data were joined by assigning the asset data from the principle household to land use data at the property level. Of the original 499 properties only 420 contained full data on all household assets.

Variables and classifications

The variables used in this analysis and their descriptive statistics are summarized in Table 1. Given a median property size of 50 hectares across both regions we removed two outliers (> 5000 hectares) from the sample.

Each household-property was classified under a mutually exclusive land use category if more than 75% of the agricultural area of their property was allocated to that use. The land use categories include cattle (based on pasture area; n = 134), staple crops (rice, beans, corn, and manioc; n = 135), specialty crops (perennials and horticulture; n = 27), and soy (n = 21). Otherwise the household-property was classified as mixed-crop (n = 48) if more than 75% of the property was allocated to a combination of annuals, perennials, and horticulture or cattle-crop (n = 33) if the combined pasture and crop area exceeded 75% and it did not fall into any of the pre-existing categories. Properties that met the pasture area conditions to be classified as cattle or cattle-crop, but had zero head of cattle in 2006 or 2009 were classified as other-livestock (n = 22). Properties that allocated more than 75% of their land to forest management (n = 2), including plantations, secondary, and primary forest, or derived more than 75% of their sales revenue from nontimber forest production (n = 7) were also excluded because of small sample sizes. The remaining 23 properties that did not meet any of the above criteria were omitted from the land use classification resulting in 420 observations. Given the very large farm sizes of cattle producers, pasture was the most expansive agricultural land use across the case study regions, occupying 73% of the agricultural area. Soy, staple, and specialty crops occupied 15%, 11%, and 0.7% of the agricultural area, respectively. The land use distributions captured in our sample are representative of broader patterns within each municipality (IBGE 2006, 2016).

Farm, forest, and off-farm income are calculated separately and presented in U.S. dollars (US$) using an average rate of exchange of 0.60 Brazilian Reais per US$ during 2010 and 2011. Farm revenues include annual sales of agricultural products and animals. Farm expenditures include the operating costs of machinery, property maintenance costs, input costs, e.g. feed, fertilizer, and seeds, and wage labor costs. Missing prices for all products were obtained by market interviews. Net farm income for 2009/2010 is calculated by subtracting farm expenditures from farm revenues, except for cattle ranching, which also included costs and revenues over the three-year life-cycle of the existing herd and was then annualized, because many households were engaged only in cow-calf production or were in the process of rebuilding the herd for stocker (postweaning) production (see A2.1). In the models presented in the main text we do not include the costs of unpaid family labor because local agricultural wages do not reflect the true opportunity costs of this labor in poor agrarian regions (Bardhan 1979). Similarly, we do not include the value of products consumed at home as farm revenues because we did not collect data on this and using unsold products as a proxy for household consumption would likely overestimate the value of these products. Income from forest products is calculated as the sum of charcoal and nontimber forest products sales. Timber sales are excluded from the calculation because of a lack of reliable data on this activity and the widespread occurrence of illegal practices. Off-farm income is the sum of wages from off-farm employment, remittances, and conditional cash transfers. Given a mean per hectare income of US$1200 we removed four outliers (< US$10,000 or > US$20,000 per hectare) from the sample.


To assess how farm income differs across land uses (Q1) we used one-way Analysis of Variance (ANOVA) and Tukey’s post-hoc tests. When significant differences in per hectare income among land uses were identified using an ANOVA test, we applied Tukey’s post-hoc tests to assess differences between each pair of land uses.

To understand how property-household attributes influence land use (Q2) we used a multinomial logit model (Wooldridge 2010):

Equation 1(1)

where i is a property-household, j is a land use alternative, yi,j is the log[prob (i devoted to land use alternative j)/prob (i devoted to comparison use), Zi is a set of property-household attributes (Table 1), F is a municipality dummy variable, and εi,j is the error term. The theoretical model and justification for this model type are explained in A2.2. We do not include input prices as an additional determinant of land use because farmers were less able to recall these details (rather than overall costs) and where the data existed they were crude and exhibited a lack of variation within each study region. Differences in producer prices are captured by distance to town centers. We also exclude data on soil, slope, and elevation because it was sampled for a small number of transects within each watershed and does not adequately capture property level conditions. α, β, and γ are coefficients to be estimated and represent the effects on the log-odds between the alternative j and the base alternative. This model assumes that a property-household chooses its land use based on differences in perceived utility, maximizing utility among available alternatives. Because of the potential feedbacks between assets, we explored factor analysis but the Kaiser-Meyer-Olkin score of 0.42 and VIF scores < 1.5 for all assets suggested that there was not enough correlation between assets to warrant such an approach (A3.1).

To understand the determinants of subjective well-being (Q3) we utilized an ordinal logistic (or ordered logit) model to examine the relative importance and potential causal relationships between subjective well-being and income, land use, and household attributes. Perceived life quality can be measured as the response to a single question about life satisfaction or as an index of responses regarding satisfaction with a variety of well-being attributes (Camfield 2006, Davey and Rato 2012). In this study we utilized a single direct response to the question “What is your evaluation of your life overall in the region where you live?” (1 = poor, 2 = okay, 3 = good) as our dependent variable. We collected data on several other attributes of perceived well-being, which were all significantly correlated with perceived life quality, except for perceived quality of education services (A3.4). We concluded that none of these other variables better approximated perceived life quality than the single direct question about satisfaction with life overall so our well-being models focus on this metric. We also asked farmers to evaluate “opportunities for work locally” and “opportunities for work in the city,” which we report in the results.

The ordinal logistic econometric model (Wooldridge 2010) is as follows:

Equation 2(2)

where yi is the latent (unobserved) measure of the subjective well-being (perceived overall life quality) of a given property-household i, LUi are a set of categorical variables indicating the land use activity each household-property pursues, Ii represents farm, forest, and off-farm income as separate variables in model 1 and income diversity in model 2, Zi and F are the same as above, and εi is the stochastic error term. More details on the theoretical model can be found in A2.3. We also examine the robustness of the results to alternate specifications where expenditures are also included as a determinant of well-being (A3.5). There was some multicollinearity in the model resulting from the association between assets and land use, but the VIF of all variables was < 1.9.


Differences in farm income across land uses (Q1)

Specialty crop systems, i.e., perennials and horticulture, provided significantly higher per hectare returns (+1300%) than livestock systems (Fig. 3; A3.2-A3.3), and +200% higher returns than soy, staple, and mixed crop production. Staple crop systems were also associated with significantly higher per hectare returns than cattle, mixed cattle-crop, and other livestock systems. There was no significant difference in per hectare operating costs or labor costs across different land uses (One-way ANOVA comparing the effect of land use on per hectare costs, p = 0.18, df = 6, F = 1.5 and labor costs, p = 0.25, df = 6, F = 1.3).

The low per hectare incomes of cattle properties stemmed from low productivity (0.83 head of cattle per hectare), which in some cases did not even compensate the costs of production. The high income per hectare for specialty crops derived from the sale of citruses, pineapple, black pepper, and cucumber, which had high productivity and prices. Farm income was the largest source of income for households in our sample (Table 1), yet 75% of households earned less than US$10,000 per year from agricultural activities.

Influence of property-household attributes on land use (Q2)

Land use choices were associated with myriad factors: traditional productive assets (land and machinery), financial capital (government credit), social and knowledge systems (government extension and membership in agricultural associations), region of origin, and proximity to the closest town (Table 2). Households with more off-farm income had the most diverse systems (mixed annual, horticulture, and perennial crops). Specialty, staple, and mixed cropping were significantly more common in small, peri-urban properties and among households who migrated from the south of Brazil (Fig. 4). Households that migrated from the northeast and/or had on-average larger properties (~300 hectares of agricultural land, 800 hectares in total), located farther away from town, and lacked credit and machinery were the most likely to pursue cattle ranching. Households from the South of Brazil who had no machinery and did not receive government extension or belong to agricultural groups were more likely to choose other forms of livestock, e.g., chickens, pigs, or goats, over cattle. Access to machinery differentiated mixed crop-cattle properties from exclusively cattle properties, while access to government credit was substantially higher among soy properties.

Determinants of subjective well-being (Q3)

Subjective well-being (measured as perceived overall life quality) was consistently high among households in both study regions, but significantly higher in Santarém (Santarém: mean life quality = 2.7 out of 3, equivalent to “good,” GINI = 0.09; Paragominas: mean = 2.5, GINI = 0.11; A3.4). Neither farm, forest, nor off-farm income or farm expenditures were associated with higher perceived life quality, despite being highly unequal within regions (Table 1). However, income diversity was positively associated with life quality (Table 3). Perceived life quality was higher among households that had less remaining forest on their property (a majority of the on-property forest reserves were secondary growth), and households pursuing mixed cropping (Table 3). When other satisfaction measures were not included, households who resided in their current location a longer time and lived closer to town had significantly higher perceived life quality (A3.5).

Perceptions of life quality were closely related to perceived safety and quality of access to transportation, rather than the quality of rural or urban work opportunities or access to services, which were ranked somewhere between “poor” and “okay” (A3.5). The perceived quality of one’s neighbors was also closely related to perceived life quality (A3.4). Perceptions of the quality of rural and urban work opportunities were not significantly correlated with off-farm income.


Our study draws on diverse disciplinary perspectives to give novel insights into the continued persistence of low income and environmentally degrading land uses in rural Amazonia, the promise of specialty cropping on small farms in peri-urban regions, and the factors that contribute to perceived life quality in farming communities in these regions. We draw these conclusions by rigorously testing the causal linkages between household attributes, land use, and well-being and describing the broader-scale underlying economic and social processes influencing these linkages.

In contrast to recent papers highlighting the demise of smallholder farming and the increasingly pluralistic and multilocal nature of livelihoods in the rural south (Rigg 2006, Padoch et al. 2008, Greiner and Sakdapolrak 2013, Hecht et al. 2015), we find that farmers in our study region are still primarily engaged in farming activities as their dominant source of income, and many successful examples of small-scale farming exist. However, the expansion of profitable land uses (horticulture and perennials) continues to be limited by lagging supply chains and the fact that agricultural income is not a primary source of perceived life quality. Instead, well-being in the study region is highly influenced by the nonmonetary outcomes associated with a rural lifestyle, including safety and good community relations, and the longer term economic and social benefits associated with the accumulation of land and cattle.

The persistence of low-income ranching in Amazonia

Although much of land change science focuses on the assumption that land use activities are motivated by income maximization, the drivers of cattle ranching are recognized as being substantially more complex. The existing literature identifies low labor requirements, cost, and risk, as well as speculative and cultural value as factors influencing decisions to pursue cattle ranching. Yet, in our sample, the per hectare operating and labor costs for cattle properties were not statistically lower that other land uses, despite providing significantly lower farm incomes. Still, the on-average larger farm sizes and very low per hectare incomes generated by cattle ranchers in our sample do support the narrative of ranching as an “unproductive profit-seeking” mechanism to maintain control over large areas while awaiting infrastructure developments and higher land prices (Hecht 1993, Bowman et al. 2012).

Yet, a majority of the cattle-focused properties in our sample do not have large agricultural areas (< 50 hectares) and still engage in extensive cattle ranching, earning low per hectare incomes relative to cropping. For these smaller ranchers the cultural value of ranching and its social embeddedness (Hoelle 2011) is a more potent explanation of land use choices. Households that migrate from the northeast, who are often of Portuguese and Spanish descent, are significantly more likely to pursue ranching. In contrast households that migrate from the south, who are mainly of German and Italian origin, tend to pursue cropping or other forms of livestock production. Over 88% of cattle-focused properties participate in at least one agricultural association, which may increase the persistence of this land use by providing a sense of community and enabling better credit and market access.

Specialty and mixed cropping as a pathway to higher incomes for small farmers

Our study provides a glimpse into the promise of specialty and mixed cropping for increasing incomes on small farms. Citrus, black pepper, and vegetable production all provide up to 10 times higher returns than other land uses. Even staple cropping (bean, rice, and manioc production) provides significantly higher returns than cattle and mixed cattle-crop production. In contrast, soy production provides only moderate incomes and sustains itself through economies of scale.

The use of specialty, staple, and mixed cropping as the primary farm activity was most common on very small farms located in peri-urban areas among farmers who migrated from the south. Because of their background from a region where small farms and annual cropping are substantially more common and their location in relation to expanding urban markets, these farmers are likely characterized by an entirely different set of cultural preferences, experiences, and incentive structures. For example, earlier studies in the study region linked specialty crop production to an “economy of affection” among women (WinklerPrins 2002, WinklerPrins and De Souza 2005). Yet, unlike these studies, we find that fruit and horticulture products grown by households in our sample were largely sold, not gifted, and play a large role in generating income. Additionally, gender did not explain specialization in fruit or horticulture production.

Although specialty cropping may be a culturally appropriate and potentially economically appealing land use for small farmers located close to urban areas, it will likely remain limited in more remote regions of the Amazon because of inadequate processing, storage, and supply infrastructure and high costs of transportation (Dinham 2003, Pereira et al. 2016). Moreover, the high start-up costs associated with fruit and horticulture systems may be too high for farmers to afford or accept despite their long-term potential profitability (Simon 2008). Even in urban areas the expansion of specialty cropping is not without risks. For example, the application of pesticides and other chemical inputs will likely increase because fruit and vegetables are highly susceptible to pests (Dinham 2003, Simon 2008). If access to more distant markets remains limited, then increased local production of fruit and vegetables could outpace growth in demand, leading to a reduction in the price of these goods. On the other hand, such a reduction in the prices of fruits and vegetables could benefit the urban poor (Midmore and Jansen 2003).

The complex determinants of subjective well-being

Our analysis provides empirical evidence that income is not an adequate proxy for rural well-being in Amazonia (Macdonald and Winklerprins 2014), because neither on- or off-farm income were associated with higher perceived life quality. The disconnect between the income associated with land uses and its value to farmers may help explain why higher income land uses, specialty and staple cropping, are not associated with higher perceived life quality and why ranching, a low income land use, remains highly prevalent. Only mixed cropping, which falls somewhere in between ranching and specialty cropping in terms of abundance and profitability, investment costs, and risk, is associated with significantly higher perceived life quality. This implies that there are trade-offs between the nonmonetary benefits, long-term payouts, and annual incomes associated with different land uses.

Elsewhere in the rural south, studies have noted a process of “deagrarianization” and trends toward multilocality and pluri-activity among rural and urban areas, whereby farming activities have become less important to rural livelihoods (Rigg 2006, Greiner and Sakdapolrak 2013, Hecht et al. 2015). In our study region only 27% of households received income from off-farm employment and 7% received remittances. In fact, 65% of the off-farm income was from rural, not urban, employment opportunities, most commonly, housecleaning, as found elsewhere in Brazil (da Silva and Del Grossi 2001), though taxi-driving, working on neighboring farms, and agribusiness services were also noted. Roughly 22% of households received some level of income from forest products, most commonly açai palm fruit and Brazil nuts, but there was little overlap between households with off-farm and forest income (only 14% of households had farm, forest, and off-farm income). Nevertheless, those with higher income diversity did report higher perceived life quality, likely because diversity helps to reduce intra- and interannual income variability and risk (Ellis 2000, de Sherbinin et al. 2008). Income diversification into nonfarm activities among farm households is thought to be particularly appealing as wages in the nonfarm sector grow (Ellis 2000). However, opportunities for income diversification may be limited for families living in more remote regions of the Amazon (Jonasson and Helfand 2010), further cementing reliance on extensive cattle ranching.

Feeling secure and liking one’s neighbors were strongly associated with higher perceived well-being. This suggests that a person’s current condition relative to their past, is more important than any objective measure of their current condition, including income (Knight et al. 2009). For example, migrants from urban areas perceive countryside living as desirable because of its increased safety and calm compared with city life and focus less on the income generated from their agricultural activities (Macdonald and Winklerprins 2014).

Finally, differences in natural capital were also associated with differences in perceived well-being. Having a larger farm size and a larger proportion of the farm cleared (a smaller forest reserve) were both associated with higher perceived well-being, likely because they enable higher overall income and a greater range of land use and speculative possibilities, especially in the context of increasing restrictions on deforestation.

Implications for improving environmental and agricultural conditions in the Brazilian Amazon

The complexity and heterogeneity of the patterns, drivers, and outcomes of different land use in agricultural-forest frontier regions such as Amazonia highlights the urgent need for environmental and development policies that are better tailored toward the asset conditions and social preferences that influence the types of activities that farmers engage in, while also highlighting the pitfalls of focusing development and environment policies exclusively on monetary outcomes (Angelsen and Wunder 2003, Kingdon and Knight 2006, Eriksen and O'Brien 2007). Yet, most policy instruments aimed at smallholders in this region focus on the provision of subsidized inputs, credit, and insurance to address market failures and promote specific crops (Hazell et al. 2010), rather than building up the capacity of farmers and local communities to engage in more locally appropriate production practices (see A1.2 for discussion of rural development policy in Brazil).

To improve the design and targeting of alternative agricultural and development policies, we suggest that agricultural census data could be used to gather data and classify regions according to dominant household attributes and land use activities, though this suggestion is contrary to the direction planned for the next Brazilian Agricultural Census (Guimarães 2017). Enhanced diagnostic and planning tools are needed because households with larger, more remote properties need qualitatively different types of support than households residing in peri-urban areas with a small property. Farmers with a cultural preference for cattle and strong social capital need to be approached by extension agents and nongovernmental organizations with a different mindset and potential solutions than farmers with a long history of cropping. The former may indeed benefit from existing measures to provide targeted credit and extension to establish rotational grazing and irrigation to improve pasture quality (see A1.2). However, farmers with a preference for cropping, particularly those in more remote regions, would benefit more from larger-scale efforts to strengthen storage, processing, supply chains, and cooperative structures for high value crops. In particular, the profitability and attractiveness of crop production systems would be strengthened by directing more resources toward supply chain development for fruit and horticulture products, which generate 200–1600% more income per hectare than any other land use system in our study. Reaching regional or national markets will be critical to avoid local market saturation for these products.

Most successful cases of fruit export in the Amazon, including some fruits that now have global markets, have occurred in places where effective cooperatives have been created, backed by strong social cohesion and cultural identity (Piekielek 2010). Fostering these conditions is essential for any effort seeking to replicate such success stories. This more nuanced approach to detecting the attributes of households that define what is cultural appropriate and economically feasible would result in an improved regional typology of rural households beyond “small” or “family,” as has been advocated by previous studies in the Global South (Reardon and Vosti 1995, Sunderlin et al. 2005, da Silva 2009, Medina et al. 2015).

In addition to improving the mechanisms by which household needs are assessed, policy makers should pay more attention to the diverse and changing social objectives of rural households (Pannell et al. 2006, Greiner et al. 2009, Key and Roberts 2009). Existing attempts at cattle intensification via pasture recuperation and crop integration throughout Brazil have been held back, in part, by a failure to appreciate the importance of cultural barriers and create knowledge systems that effectively communicate the financial viability and technical specifications of these systems (Gil et al. 2015). Similarly, throughout the tropics the success of organizations aiming to reduce fire usage has been limited by a failure to frame the problem in ways that make sense to local people (Carmenta et al. 2011, 2013, Clark et al. 2011). Thus, we emphasize here that future interventions to promote higher income, lower environmental degradation agricultural activities must focus on “local projects, not projects for locals” (Pokorny et al. 2005:438), harnessing the strengths of social networks and informal knowledge, rather than disseminating land use information via a top-down “technology transfer” approach.

Finally, we suggest that promoting win-win outcomes at the conservation-development nexus in Amazonia has proven elusive (Wunder 2001) because the development component has focused too heavily on income objectives. Agriculture continues to be an important part of rural livelihoods in the Brazilian Amazon, but not necessarily because of its income generating capacity. Although a baseline level of income is clearly necessary to meet certain objective needs (food, shelter, energy, etc.), other objectives can have a strong influence on land use decisions, such as safety and social status. Thus, policies based solely on raising incomes may lead to unintended environmental and social consequences, including rebound effects on deforestation and increased social inequality. Instead, it may be more fruitful to focus future development and environment programs on coupling conservation objectives with investments in household assets, particularly health and education, as well as novel mechanisms to promote social status based on the sustainability of land use activities.


Despite growing agricultural exports that have given rise to expanded market opportunities for some farmers, low incomes and environmental degradation remain pressing challenges in agricultural-forest frontiers throughout the world, particularly in regions dominated by cattle ranching. These challenges raise the question of how to transition more farmers away from lower income and environmentally damaging activities toward alternatives that both conserve nature and improve well-being, including potentially abandoning agriculture altogether. In our study region in the eastern Brazilian Amazon, farming remains the largest source of income amidst major changes in the surrounding region, including urbanization, migration, and wider globalization processes. In this context, we find that opportunities to generate higher income on small properties through specialty cropping exist, but are impeded by lagging supply chain infrastructure. Similarly, opportunities to improve the productivity of larger scale ranching through better management are now abundant, but slowed by a lack of machinery and the fact that generating high annual revenues is not the primary objective of cattle ranching as a land use. In both cases asset and access deficiencies and nonmonetary aspirations are mutually enforcing conditions that explain why lower income land uses persist in agricultural-forest frontiers.

Given the low quality of life in many urban areas and the relative affordability and tranquility of a rural lifestyle (Macdonald and Winklerprins 2014), it is worth exploring major amendments to the focus and targeting of agricultural policies and programs in the Brazilian Amazon, rather than abandoning land-based development altogether (e.g. as suggested by Rigg 2006 elsewhere). Our research suggests that past efforts to promote changes in land use in the Brazilian Amazon have been stymied by a mischaracterization of well-being in purely economic terms and a misunderstanding of the factors that motivate farmers’ decisions including social context, nonmonetary objectives, and asset and access limitations. In the future, households should be identified and discriminated based on a broader set of attributes than are traditionally applied. Decision makers should work closely with local communities to frame “development” goals with a better understanding of households’ nonmonetary objectives. Future research to aid these policy efforts in the Brazilian Amazon should focus more attention on the causal pathways and interdependencies between farmer assets, preferences, and activities as much as the endpoints of environmental degradation and development.


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We are grateful to William C. Clark for his insightful feedback on an earlier version of this manuscript. RDG was funded by the Giorgio Ruffolo Fellowship in Sustainability Science at Harvard University and the National Science Foundation Science, Engineering, and Education for Sustainability Program (Grant #1415352) while undertaking this research. Support from Italy’s Ministry for Environment, Land and Sea is gratefully acknowledged. SM was funded by the Université d'Auvergne (FUDA). We are also grateful to the following for financial support; Instituto Nacional de Ciência e Tecnologia - Biodiversidade e Uso da Terra na Amazônia (CNPq 574008/2008-0, and 400640/2012-0), Empresa Brasileira de Pesquisa Agropecuária - Embrapa (SEG:, the UK government Darwin Initiative (17-023), The Nature Conservancy, the UK Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) (NE/F01614X/1 and NE/G000816/1, NE/F015356/2; NE/l018123/1; NE/K016431/1), the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) (ES/K010018/1; ES/M011542/1), the Swedish Formas 2013-1571. We also thank the farmer and worker unions of Santarém, Belterra, Mojui dos Campos, and Paragominas and all collaborating private landowners for their support. The funders had no role in study design, data collection and analysis, decision to publish, or preparation of the manuscript.


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