Brazil is home to one third of the world’s remaining rainforests, including most of the Amazon Basin, a rich, diverse network of ecosystems that plays a critical role in balancing the global environment.
Since 1970, the Amazon rainforest has experienced rapid deforestation, with some experts estimating that 19% of its total surface has been cleared. Farming is among the chief causes of deforestation; both small-scale farmers and large commercial agriculture enterprises clear the forest to raise cattle or to grow crops.
But although farming poses big threats, new research by Mushfiq Mobarak, a development economist at the Yale School of Management, has revealed a hidden conservation tool: raising more crops and fewer cattle actually benefits the rainforest.
Mobarak is working with the Brazilian government to help identify methods of encouraging farmers to adopt behaviors that would improve their economic standing and, at the same time, spare the rainforest. Governments in developing countries often struggle to protect the rainforest with regulation alone, because monitoring and enforcement resources are insufficient.
“Governments have taken a more indirect approach of seeing whether we can induce farmers, or deforesters, to adopt behaviors or technologies that are going to be less threatening to the forest,” said Mobarak, who studies the role of policy in changing behavior, in an interview with Yale Insights.
When the government first approached him, Mobarak worried that making farming more profitable would only induce farmers to clear more rainforest land. But a review of Brazil’s rich historical land-use data revealed an unexpected benefit already at work. In the last half of the 20th century, as more farms were electrified and irrigation practices spread, crops—and the acres on which they grew—became more profitable.
“Farmers switched into crop cultivation, away from cattle,” Mobarak said. “Because cattle are so much more land intensive, this allowed farmers to keep a lot more of the land within their farms in native vegetation, and that’s what benefitted the forest.”
Cattle grazing is not only more land intensive than raising crops but also, per acre, much less profitable. Brazil’s 2006 agricultural census revealed that while crop cultivation accounted for only 10.6% of the country’s total farm area, it contributed 60% of the farming output value.
So in this case, increased crop productivity—a result of electrification—benefitted farmers and indirectly benefitted the rainforest. Even when farmers irrigated and cleared additional land for crops, curtailing cattle still provided a net benefit to the rainforest.
The larger lesson is that economic development doesn’t necessarily conflict with environmental conservation, since greater productivity can mean less use of resources.
“In terms of policy, this means that there is some hope that if we were to increase productivity in the right set of activities, it’s an indirect way to protect the environment and address the economic needs of farmers,” Mobarak said.
Mobarak has researched methods of instigating behavioral change in Asia, Latin America, and Africa. “The tie that binds together all of my work across countries and across sectors is that it’s very difficult for us to encourage behavior change,” he said.
Risk aversion is one major reason. People living in poverty are afraid to gamble with new technologies or practices.
“When people are really poor and they cannot handle the downside risk, then they cannot think about the upside and take advantage of that upside potential,” Mobarak said. “That’s what keeps some people poor. They’re not changing behavior to a more productive option.”
Farmers, for example, may be reluctant to incorporate practices that could increase their income in the long run, if they fear the practices could damage their immediate crop yields.
This kind of behavior perpetuates economic inequality, Mobarak says. Government-funded insurance to cover the downside risk for those in poverty could be an effective policy response.
“Then if it doesn’t work, you’ll be covered. You’ll be no worse off,” Mobarak says. “That’s what allows people to experiment with new things and potentially get income growth in the long run.”
Read the working paper “Electrification, Agricultural Productivity and Deforestation in Brazil” by Juliano Assunção, Molly Lipscomb, Dimitri Szerman, and Ahmed Mushfiq Mobarak.
Photo: A soy plantation in the Amazon rainforest near Santarem, Brazil. Ricardo Beliel/Brazil Photos/LightRocket via Getty Images.