Trans-Amazonica; it sounds big right? Anything that can go through the Amazon has got to be immense. The road cuts 4,000 km across Brazil from the east coast (Atlantic) to its western border – in European terms that’s roughly the distance from Lisbon, Portugal to Moscow, Russia!
Its construction in the early 70’s intended to link the remote parts of the country as well as integrate with the neighbouring countries of Colombia, Peru and Ecuador.
It’s probably not the typical road you’d expect to find in Europe – mostly dirt and mud, especially in the rainy season. Not ideal for any highway and less so for one that runs through the biggest remaining rainforest in the world. As you might imagine, it can be wet at times in the Amazon!
The Trans-Amazonica opened up a new frontier which – encouraged by the Brazilian government – brought settlers to the region. Most of whom were farmers from the south of Brazil. To stake claim to land they had to demonstrate it was being used. This inevitably involved cutting down trees to make way for pasture, farms, and slowly communities began to grow. Many towns in the Amazon developed like this and Apuí is no exception.
Apuí lies in Amazonas state, in the middle of the Amazon. It’s not an easy place to get to. From Manaus (where England kick off their World Cup bid in a couple of months) it’s an hour and 45 minutes in a small plane over seemingly endless rainforest.
Approaching Apuí, it was strange to see patches of deforested land appear. Touching down on the tiny airstrip it’s apparent that all around this area there has been a lot of forest clearance to make way for ranching – initially triggered by the arrival of the settlers 40 or so years ago.
Cattle production is the biggest driver of deforestation in the Amazon and the cattle in Apuí are raised for both beef and dairy production.
Working for WWF to conserve the Amazon, it’s always difficult to be confronted by deforestation. I’d much rather be in a pristine rainforest. However, in order to support conservation efforts it’s important to understand the local context and what is driving the deforestation so we can find solutions to solve this problem. The aim of my recent visit to our project site in Apuí was exactly that, to find out the current status of cattle ranching in this area.
I met a lot of ranchers, mostly settlers from the south, who now call Apuí home. They simply want to make a viable living, but this comes with many challenges. The Amazon is not conducive to farming or ranching; firstly it’s got a lot of trees which – left standing – make it difficult to grow grass for cattle. On top of that the soil is unproductive and degrades rapidly, the temperature and rainfall are extreme, and once they have a final product (beef, milk, cheese) it’s a long long way from the closest commercial market.
The political conditions that brought these ranchers to the area have shifted and continue to do so at a local, regional and national level. Brazil’s law to protect the forest – the Forest Code – has undergone many transitions, which impact the amount of forest a landowner can legally cut down in order to use the land.
The poor quality of pasture in the Amazon means ranchers need more of it to produce enough to feed their cattle and make money. This scenario can lead them to clear trees from their land above and beyond the legal limit as defined by the Forest Code.
Compared to dairy, beef production is associated with larger areas of pasture, as generally herds of cattle reared for beef are bigger. The practicalities of daily milking routines dictate that the numbers of cows kept for dairy are smaller and in turn the land clearance less – which seems to be the case in the Apuí.
Switching to Dairy
We’re working to stop deforestation in Apuí with the support of Sky Rainforest Rescue funding. The project supports ranchers to increase their productivity and profitability through improved ranching practises, which increases the quality of the pasture without the need to expand the size of their pasture land. Improved pasture, on the same amount of land means fatter, healthier cows that produce better quality beef or milk, with more financial return. As a result, the ranchers are less likely to need or want to clear more forest.
Some readers may have seen the recent programme Flintoff’s Road to Nowhere, where Freddie Flintoff and Rob Penn cycle along the Trans-Amazonica. They stop in Apuí and meet a very successful local rancher. His situation is quite different to the majority of ranchers we work with. He could afford to employ cowboys to help run his farm, whereas the small and medium scale ranchers we support, often struggle to make ends meet.
The Apuí municipality has aspirations to become a ‘green’ leader. I spoke with the Environment Secretary and he explained they had been investing in dairy infrastructure, to support the smaller scale dairy farmers. They have invested in a dairy plant in Apuí where farmers bring their milk to be processed to cheese. This cheese is then sold direct to schools in Manaus. If the farmers have no transport to bring their milk to the dairy then two trucks – also supplied by the municipality – collect milk churns direct from the farms.
I met Ivo, he used to only raise beef cattle, but switched to focus on dairy. Although the daily milking routine is undoubtedly harder work he was happy with his decision as the change meant he now gets a regular monthly income. This is not the case with beef, as it is a longer process. Added to this, unlike with the dairy, there is nowhere in Apuí to process the beef; it is a long two-day river journey to Manaus for the cows.
There’s no doubt about it, life in the Amazon is tough. People in Apuí have to cope with many challenges day to day which are the result of a whole lot of historic decisions, like the construction of a great big road for example. The political and business agendas cannot be ignored and we continue to work with these factors to bring about a more positive future for the rainforest.