Editor’s Desk: Agroforestry vs. ranching in the Amazon

Photo by Luisa Dörr

Each year, we see pictures of the Amazon burning. In fact, 80 percent of tropical forest lost in the Amazon arises from cattle ranching, much of it illegal. And while Brazil pledged at the recent UN Climate Summit to halt deforestation in eight years, the rate in 2021 was at a 15-year high.

These stark figures underscore how important agriculture is in the climate crisis and why it needs to change. But to understand what’s happening on the ground, we sent two journalists, Brian Barth, a California-based freelancer, and Flàvia Milhorance, based in Rio de Janeiro, along with Bahia-based photojournalist Luisa Dörr, into the Amazon in northwest Brazil earlier this year to investigate the situation. Their work is part of our ongoing biodiversity reporting initiative.

Last week, FERN published with The Guardian our final piece from their trip, about a venture that makes the dubious claim that cattle ranching in the Amazon can be sustainable. It promises intensive ranching in an 180,000-square-mile region in northwest Brazil, encompassing the nation’s fifth largest protected area, and the Kaxarari Indigenous territory, where the tribe has struggled to defend its land against loggers. Our investigation shows that while some ranches might avoid clearing forest, they depend on a network of other ranchers to supply them with cattle — and those suppliers may not only fell the forest but do so illegally.

While the team reported on ranching, they also looked into the alternatives, such as an agroforestry cooperative that provides a livelihood for people who might otherwise turn to ranching. They did another piece on the supply chain for these forest products that makes such ventures economically viable. Although açaí is probably the best known of these products — used in foods and drinks — they also include rubber, plant oils for cosmetics and Brazil nuts.

All these stories are worth your attention, but as an added bonus FERN will host a virtual panel with the reporters on Dec. 1 at 7 p.m. I’ll moderate the discussion, but we’ll also welcome your questions. The event is free to anyone who donated to FERN this year, so if you’re interested and haven’t yet donated, please give now and we’ll send you a registration link. If you have already donated this year and you’d like to attend, let us know and we’ll send you the link.