26 Feb 2017

Cattle herds, a symbol of destruction or wealth?

Joeri writes*

Did you ever pass a McDonalds during your daily run and think to yourself "Never ever will I get one of those burgers", only finding yourself two days later eating a full big Mac menu? Or, did you ever watch a tv commercial about chickens getting stuffed in a battery cage thinking "I will never buy cheap meat again!", but paying for broiler chicken meat the next day because "you're also just a student". Well, you are not the only one! Actually, this logic of thought contributes to deforestation of the Amazon rainforest.

In the 1970s two cultural groups migrated to Acre in the Amazon, the colonist, and the ranchers. The ranchers, mostly rich Brazilian elites, were driven to Acre by economic incentives such a cheap land subsidies, which they used for their cattle ranches. The colonists, poor citizens of overcrowded regions in Brazil, were placed in Acre via a government initiative to create agriculture settlements in the Amazon rainforest. These two groups, both in need of land, clashed with the a third group that settled in Acre around 1900, who were the rubber tappers. The rubber tappers earned a living by extracting products from the rainforest such as rubber and the Brazilian nut, an activity also called extractivism.

The problems emerged primarily due to property rights, granted by the Brazilian government, to the ranchers. These rights enabled the ranchers to convert big parcels of land into pasture land for their cattle herds. The rubber-tappers who were dependent on products produced by the rainforest lost considerable amounts of their income. This resulted in both protest and disdain towards the cattle of the ranchers. Cattle became a symbol of Amazon deforestation and the rubber tappers were given the title of saviors of the rainforest, by the international community. Due to increasing pressure from both the international community and the rubber tappers in 1990, the Brazilian government decided to establish RESEX regions for the rubber-tappers, where only a 10% amount of cutting was allowed.

However, this victory by the natives could not be celebrated for long. Shortly after the government cut rubber subsidies, which propped up the prices for years, rubber tapping was no longer an economically valuable way of living. As a result, it became barely possible to sustain a livelihood solely on extractivism, and rubber tappers started working on the cattle ranches. This shifted paradigm surrounding cattle and made the good into a symbol of wealth. Rubber-tappers themselves deforested so they could maintain cattle herds increasing unsustainable use of the Amazon but ensuring themselves an income.

Bottom Line Although you might disdain McDonald's, the benefits (easy dinner, close by, no cooking) of eating there can outweigh the costs (costs of the burger, the high amount of calories, environmental issues). On the one hand, the benefits of cattle production became greater such as cheap land subsidies, cattle that can be used as saving for later, and cattle being a symbol of wealth. While on the other hand, costs of extractivism became too high for rubber-tappers due to the cut on rubber subsidies and environmental regulations. This resulted in rubber-tappers converting to unsustainable cattle production and an increase of Amazon deforestation.

* Please comment on these posts from my environmental economics students, to help them with unclear analysis, alternative perspectives, better data, etc.

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