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Journal of Latin American Geography 3.1 (2004) 96-102

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Expansion of Mechanized Agriculture and Land-Cover Change in Southern Rondônia, Brazil1

Department of Geography and Environmental Studies Program, University of Kansas
Department of Geography, Texas A&M University
Corresponding author
Department of Geography, University of Kansas

Tractors in the Amazon

Ranchers, gold miners, loggers and smallholder colonists have been clearing forest in the Brazilian Amazon since the late 1960s (Hecht and Cockburn 1990; Schmink and Wood 1992). In the 1990s, new agents of environmental change arrived in the region: mechanized commercial farmers. Some cite statistical correlations between increases in region-wide soybean production and deforestation rates to suggest that soybean farmers are the next destroyers or "relentless foes" of the Amazon (Branford and Freris 2000; Fearnside 2001; Rohter 2003). It is argued that soybean cultivation will spread into frontier forests, resulting in deforestation and consolidation of landholdings. In turn, this consolidation is feared to create a rural exodus of peasants, leading to even further advancement of forest destruction (Fearnside 2001; Bickel and Dros 2003; WWF et al. 2003).

Agro-industrialists, however, describe mechanized farming as a "win-win" scenario for development and conservation, arguing that it increases land-use intensification which reduces the need for clearing new land while allowing for economic development (EMBRAPA 2002; Mueller and Bustamante 2002). No published empirical study has used spatially explicit data, human or physical, to measure or explain the mechanisms of forest change due to mechanized cultivation.

Our current project engages this debate by seeking answers to three main questions: (1) To what extent are forests converted for mechanized annual cropping?; (2) What are the key human variables that explain land change patterns? (3) What is the relationship between land-use intensification and forest conversion? Our study area is a modern agricultural frontier in southern Rondônia, an area at the humid Amazon forest savanna transition that is poised to become another major soybean-producing region. [End Page 96]

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Figure 1
Study Area: Southern Rondônia

A New Farming Frontier

Southern Rondônia, the locus of recent soybean expansion in western Amazônia, is our study region (Figure 1).

Chris Brown, doctoral student Matthew Koeppe, Master's student Benjamin Coles, and Kevin Price from the University of Kansas completed pilot research in one municipality of the region in 2002 (Brown et al. in press). The greater region includes the municipalities of Vilhena, Cabixi, Colorado do Oeste, Cerejeiras, Corumbiara, Pimenteiras, and Chupinguai. Southern Rondônia has emerged as an important soybean cultivation frontier in Amazônia, attracting investments by agri-business and the attention of scientists concerned about the threat soybeans pose to forests (Oliveira et al. 2002; Fearnside 2001: 26). Since the early 1990s, soybean production in Rondônia has grown considerably. First introduced to the state experimentally in the early 1980s, the area planted grew dramatically from 4,640 to almost 30,000 hectares between 1997 and 2002 (IBGE 2003). Fieldwork by Koeppe in 2004 indicates that new commercial farms open every year (Figure 2).

One major factor allowing for skyrocketing growth has been the establishment of storage and purchasing facilities and development of new tropical soybean varieties for southern Rondônia. Moreover, in 1996, the agro-industrial André Maggi Group provided the initial investment to construct a grain shipping port in Porto Velho, thus reducing greatly overland transport costs and making Rondonian soybean production profitable. Since 1997, all Rondonian soybeans are transported through Vilhena to Porto Velho where they are sent down river to Itacoatiara near Manaus for processing. Cargill has established [End Page 97] its own shipping facility in Porto Velho.

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Figure 2
Bulldozer clearing field for annual production, Vilhena, Rondônia, November (photo by Matthew Koeppe)

From Itacoatiara, soybeans are transported to European and Asian ports. The region's commercial agricultural economy is poised to continue its rapid expansion, with officials from the agro-industrial André Maggi Group...


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