Two decades ago, the tiny town of Sorriso, deep in the heart of Brazil’s tropical savanna, wasn’t much to look at: three or four streets and a cluster of cheap multiunit buildings. “There were no cultural activities, there was nothing to do,” recalls Boston University economist and geographer Rachael Garrett. “Just agribusiness and soy.” It took 12 hours to get there by bus from the nearest airport.
Last year she flew in to the local airport—no more 12-hour bus rides—and saw a Sorriso transformed. There was a yoga studio, a Crossfit, shoe shops, and luxury hotels with aquamarine swimming pools. The dusty outpost at the end of the world now looks like Tucson. “It just sprawls and it sprawls and it sprawls,” says Garrett (CAS’03).
The growth of Sorriso, though an extreme case, epitomizes the changes in Brazil over the last few decades, as farms, ranches, and cities have consumed vast areas of wetland, savanna, and rainforest. Those changes have helped expand the economy—Brazil’s is eighth in the world—but at a cost: Since 1990, Brazil has lost about 150,000 square miles of rainforest, an area almost three times the size of New England.
Forest destruction in Rondonia, Brazil from 1975 to 2012.
Brazilians destroy native habitats for two major reasons: to grow soybeans, such as those that fed Sorriso’s sprawl, and to raise cattle. In 2004, facing pressure from international organizations and internal protests, the country began to curb deforestation. The rate of forest destruction slowed until 2008, then rose until 2016. Between August 2016 and July 2017, about 2,500 square miles of rainforest were destroyed.
Garrett, a College of Arts & Sciences assistant professor of earth and environment and associate director of the Land Use and Livelihoods Initiative, has spent the last decade visiting towns like Sorriso, trying to understand what makes farmers and ranchers tick. Why do they ignore government incentives to make better use of the land? Why don’t stricter laws keep them from clearing rainforest? Why do ranchers keep herding cattle, when they could make more money doing something else? Her ultimate research goal is to help craft policies that will allow farmers and ranchers to thrive, while also curbing deforestation. It’s a thorny problem, and Garrett is using a painstaking, boots-on-the-ground approach to crack it.
Cattle ranching is a particularly vexing—and grievous—threat to Brazil’s rainforest. Ranchers cut down forest to create pasture, which becomes less productive each year until they abandon it, then clear more rainforest to create new grazing space. And most ranchers, it turns out, aren’t getting rich doing it. In the Brazilian state of Pará, they earn only about $250 per hectare (about 2.5 acres) by raising cattle. For a small rancher with fewer than 10 hectares, this translates into less than $2,500 a year. And that doesn’t reflect the debt they often acquire when buying cattle and land, says Garrett, which leaves them vulnerable to unexpected expenses.
“When you make a decision that has an environmental impact, you expect that you get some kind of economic reward in return,” says Toby Gardner, senior research fellow at the Stockholm Environment Institute, and an expert on sustainable land use. “The double tragedy of most deforestation across the tropics is that you’ve got huge environmental damage and huge social damage to local people who live in these environments, often for very little long-term benefit.”
“Many cattle farmers wish to remain cattle farmers because that’s all they’ve ever done,” says gardner. “They’re proud to be cattle farmers.”
Ranchers could make more money—and save land from further degradation—by growing oranges or açaí; fruit pays about $3,300 per hectare, 13 times as much as ranching, according to data Garrett published in the journal Ecology and Society in 2017. The Brazilian government has offered ranchers economic incentives to adopt horticulture, but they don’t often work. To find out why, Garrett, whose work is supported by the National Science Foundation and the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation, has taken a somewhat unique approach for an economist: rather than just scanning data and making assumptions, she has spent a decade interviewing hundreds of farmers and ranchers in northern and northeastern Brazil, trying to understand their motivations.
“It’s a really cool approach—most economists sit in their offices and do controlled experiments with already available datasets,” says Kimberly Carlson, an assistant professor at the University of Hawaii at Mānoa and a frequent collaborator with Garrett. “Research is much more messy when you go out to the field.”
Garrett’s research so far has uncovered two major reasons the ranchers stick with unprofitable cattle. The first is infrastructure: they don’t have access to good roads and refrigerated trucks that make fruit farming practical. The other reason is less tangible, but perhaps more important. When Garrett interviewed ranchers and farmers, a term that kept coming up was segurança, which translates to “security,” but implies a bit more: a quiet, safe, and contented life. Ranchers care about money, sure, but they care more about family traditions, local relationships, and a familiar way of living. There’s also the status of owning cattle, and the sheer fun of being a cowboy. There are rodeos and cattle fairs and country singers—a culture that families are loth to leave, or even change.
“Many cattle farmers wish to remain cattle farmers because that’s all they’ve ever done,” says Gardner. “They’re proud to be cattle farmers. So they’re not going to suddenly change to growing black pepper, which is incredibly profitable, because someone suggested it to them. Trying to expose some of these nonmonetary factors has been a really valuable contribution of Rachael’s work.”
This finding shouldn’t be a complete surprise, says Garrett. After all, many people prioritize family, location, and segurança over income when choosing a career. But programs to reduce deforestation in the Amazon generally ignore farmers’ aspirations and lifestyle goals, and focus instead on economic incentives. Garrett wants to change that. She partners with the Brazilian Agricultural Research Corporation—a government agency akin to the US Department of Agriculture—coauthoring papers and leading a workshop for them last August. Her collaboration has made a difference, prompting the organization to incorporate the perspectives of the ranchers and farmers when proposing new systems. “We think of farmers as firms,” says Garrett. “But farmers are also consumers, they’re households, they’re us.”
The current state of Brazil mirrors the relationship of the United States with its own frontier. In 1862, President Lincoln signed the Homestead Act into law, offering settlers 160 acres of federal land if they lived on it for five years and “improved” it. Over the next seven decades the US government gave away more than 270 million acres of land, and more than 1.6 million homesteaders migrated west to take it. The Homestead Act, and other laws that followed, effectively obliterated the tallgrass prairie and the American frontier.
“We had the same sort of programs that Brazil actually had, to incentivize people to clear the land and develop agriculture,” says Garrett. “That was the basis of a lot of the land tenure policies in Latin America.”
Garrett cites a Brazilian phrase, integrar para não entregar, which translates to “integrate so that others can’t enter.” Like the American concept of Manifest Destiny, this motivation drove many settlers of the Amazon. “This was a very important mission that these farmers were on, to help secure the country by clearing the forest. And that’s why I have so much sympathy for them. They were always taught that this was the right thing to do, until just the last 10 to 15 years,” says Garrett. “You can’t go talk to the people who you think are doing something bad, and not come out of it understanding their way of thinking.”
The settlement policies have had mixed results, in both the United States and Brazil. Garrett has pointed out, to the dismay of some environmentalists, that some of the soybean centers of Brazil, places “where they have wall-to-wall soybeans,” also have some of the highest human development indicators, such as educational attainment, life expectancy, and income. In addition, she says, developing countries can use agriculture as a stepping-stone to manufacturing, which can bring a higher standard of living. “A lot of people believe that having a very productive agricultural sector is the backbone of development. So that can be good.”
But there’s a downside. “I don’t think the way that we’ve gone about agriculture in the United States has always been smart. We’re trying to maximize throughput of the system, and we’re not necessarily worrying about the long-run sustainability,” Garrett says. “We’re eroding the soils; we’re putting in a lot of fertilizers, a lot of pesticides; we have monocultures. The whole thing is a technological treadmill that is continuously creating problems we are trying to solve.
“We’ve also lost a lot of biodiversity along the way, and we’ve created a lot of ecological problems: dead zones in the Gulf of Mexico, health impacts in rural communities, greenhouse gas emissions. From a sustainability perspective, I wouldn’t say what we’ve done is great.”
Economists talk about something called the environmental Kuznets curve: the relationship between economic growth and environmental degradation. As a modern country develops, the thinking goes, residents rapidly deplete natural resources. Then, when average income reaches a certain point, citizens start to value and protect their water, air, mountains, and forests. “Ideally, as we know more, we can shortcut that component of rapid resource depletion and go straight to good environmental governance,” says Carlson. “I think that’s a goal that everybody’s trying to go for.” And there’s still time for Brazil.
Garrett believes that a solution for Brazil—or at least part of it—lies in an approach called “integrated crop, livestock, and forestry”: growing crops, cattle, and trees in rotation, or in unison, in a way that decreases the need for fertilizer and pesticides, and increases profit. “That’s one potential solution for these ranchers,” she says. “We’re not going to get rid of ranching. Being a cowboy is so well respected. Having cattle gives you social status. Even eating beef is associated with status. It’s so socially embedded. So how do we make ranching better?”
When she visited Brazil last summer, Garrett saw some striking success stories. One example was a beef cattle rancher who switched to more profitable dairy cows, planted eucalyptus trees to shade the animals, and rotated crops to renew the soil. “The cattle graze in the shade; it’s very hot there. That makes the cattle more comfortable, makes them produce more milk,” she says. (She notes that some dairy products, such as powdered milk, don’t require the same careful handling and refrigeration as fruits and vegetables for long-distance transport.) The cattle eat crop residues and their manure fertilizes crops and trees. The rancher eventually harvests the trees and sells the wood for fuel. It’s easy to see the benefits: the rancher keeps ranching and makes more money, and the soils are improved.
Garrett thinks systems like this can become more widespread in Brazil when one high-status person buys in and others follow. “It’s actually worked well among a small subset of the population that are leaders, and then it spreads out to other people,” she says. According to the Brazilian Agricultural Research Corporation, farmers used integrated systems on about 5,800 square miles of land in 2010. That number rose more than sevenfold by 2016. “Status counts. Somebody needs to prove that it works.”
While much of Garrett’s work has focused on this bottom-up approach, she is looking at top-down policy, as well. One hot topic is “zero deforestation” policies, signed by hundreds of large international corporations, from Cargill to Krispy Kreme, pledging to stop purchasing products, such as soy or palm oil, that were grown on newly deforested land. Garrett is working with Hawaii’s Carlson, who studies palm oil production in Southeast Asia, to measure the effect of these policies, and whether they actually produce a global good. The answer to that question, again, is not a simple one.
“Say they do reduce deforestation, but maybe it also reduces the amount of soybean produced in South America. That potentially could drive up prices in the global markets and then make it more likely that somebody somewhere else is going to deforest for soybean production,” says Carlson. This is a problem called “leakage,” and it’s a biggie. The scientists hope that if many companies commit over many regions and across multiple commodities, then the zero deforestation commitments will have an effect. Otherwise, maybe not.
“There’s a lot of loopholes,” says Garrett. “There are definitely still problems with farmers who are deforesting somewhere else, or they’re selling their product to somebody else, or the deforestation is all moving to the Cerrado, which is the tropical savanna, or it’s moving to the Chaco forest, which is in Argentina and Paraguay and Bolivia.”
Garrett is not one for simple solutions. Her interdisciplinary background in economics, ecology, and geography, her willingness to look at problems from multiple angles, and her curiosity about people prod her toward conclusions with many shades of gray. She embraces the complexity. And maybe, for a problem like deforestation, where politics and culture and ecology combine, her approach has the best chance of success.
“Most people start with a hypothesis that’s very clear, black and white, and an experiment is supposed to answer that hypothesis. But what happens when the answers aren’t black and white? They never are,” says Garrett. “Yeah, it’s messy.” She laughs. “But I like messy.”