- As a deforestation front sweeps across the Brazilian Amazon, a cultural phenomenon linked to cattle ranching is emerging in its wake: North American-style rodeos.
- More commonly seen in the rural interior of the state of São Paulo, such events are becoming increasingly commonplace in the southern part of the Amazonian state of Pará.
- The stars of these rodeos are the tropeiros, as the farmhands of the Amazonian cattle ranches are known locally, for whom the dream of becoming a rodeo champion contrasts with their generally low-paid, often informal day jobs.
- Cattle ranching in the Amazon is notoriously inefficient, since it’s driven more by speculative occupation of the land: cattle are raised in clearings in the middle of the rainforest, in the hope that one day the land will be connected to the road network.
The sun has barely risen above the mountains, yet the cavalcade is already in full swing at the Agricultural Exhibition Park. While men attempt to mount powerful zebu cattle or mules adorned with decorative iron rings, women parade around in colorful sequin-spangled clothing.
Fashion takes on something of a syncretic nature at such events, where bikinis are worn alongside cowboy hats or North American Indigenous headdresses. Sertanejo, the Brazilian flavor of country music, blasts from loudspeakers while announcers greet the authorities and entertain the public. Meat is generously distributed among the local population.
It’s a scene that wouldn’t be out of place in Texas or Barretos, Brazil’s rodeo capital. But instead, this is Canaã dos Carajás, a municipality in the southeast of the state of Pará, on the edge of the Amazon Rainforest. Founded 40 years ago when those occupying the land won official recognition of their claims, it wasn’t until the turn of the millennium that the municipality really took off, when the discovery of vast iron ore deposits led to an economic and social boom: in just three years, between 2010 and 2013, the population tripled. Today, Canaã dos Carajás is home to nearly 40,000 people.
After the mining, both legal and illegal, came cattle ranching, and with it, an exponential surge in deforestation. It was not only in Canaã dos Carajás that forest was cleared, but across the whole of Pará’s Amazonian region. Nowhere more so than along the Arc of Deforestation, a great frontier of pasture eating away at the edges of the Amazon from the south and east.
“Everything around here was once rainforest,” says Manoel dos Santos, who has lived in the region since the time of the Serra Pelada gold rush. “Parauapebas did not exist, nor did Curionópolis,” he adds, naming some of the many municipalities that sprang up in this part of Pará. “There were collared peccaries, tapirs, armadillos, pacas and deer. At the beginning, people only lived off what they hunted.”
According to MapBiomas, a multidisciplinary mapping platform, human settlement and exploitation of the land has led to the loss of 46 million hectares (114 million acres) of the Brazilian Amazon in the past 40 years, or an area larger than California. Most of this land has been turned into pasture for cattle, fueling Brazil’s rise as the biggest beef exporter on Earth.
Early on, in the 1970s and 1980s, the growth of cattle ranching in the Brazilian Amazon was limited to the vast agricultural estates that were created in the eastern part of the Amazon region, in the states of Pará and Mato Grosso, on the back of government-driven land speculation, credit and incentives. Today, it’s the children and grandchildren of these landowners and their employees who dominate the cattle-ranching industry in the region, one of the few work opportunities available here. It’s also the descendants of the initial wave of settlers who are today’s cowboys, creating a subculture that merges the traditional image of North American cowboys with Brazilian sertanejo music and normalizes deforestation as a form of mastering the land.
In the early days, cattle ranching in the Amazon was highly profitable, owing to the generous incentives and subsidies that the Brazilian government gave out in an attempt to stimulate the sector. Although many of these incentives were later cut, new ones took their place, which drove the expansion of cattle ranching activities deeper into the Amazon region. When, in 2004, Brazil became the world’s largest exporter of meat, it was in large part thanks to increased production in the Amazon, where, over the 1990s, the cattle-ranching industry had grown at a rate 10 times quicker than the national average. The eradication of foot-and-mouth disease and favorable climatic conditions turned the Amazon into a suitable region for cattle ranching, which had previously taken place on more costly land located closer to large urban centers. In 2011, cattle ranching in the nine states that make up Brazil’s Amazon region accounted for 38% of the country’s total meat production, with the seven states of Brazil’s North region home to 25% of the country’s total number of cattle, according to the Brazilian Institute of Geography and Statistics.
Speculative land occupation
It’s precisely those working on these ranches who are on the frontline of deforestation in the Amazon. The cattle drovers, known in the region as tropeiros, are renowned for their cattle-handling skills, celebrated annually at rodeos such as the one in Canaã dos Carajás. For Paulo Barreto, a researcher at Imazon (the Amazon Institute of People and the Environment), the tropeiros are the principal agents of what’s known as premature deforestation.
“Deforestation for economic reasons can be understood by three factors,” Barreto says. “The first is the interest that an area of forested land attracts, whether it is an attractive proposition for livestock farming or mining. The second is whether there are laws protecting the area and whether these laws are actually enforced. The third factor is whether the area can be easily accessed or not, such as if there is a road or a river that facilitates arrival in the area targeted for deforestation. In the Amazon, deforestation takes place even when these factors are not present. This is ‘premature deforestation,’ whereby very remote areas of forest are occupied by people who believe that a road will one day be built to reach it, and that their ownership will be regularized and the land will increase in value.”
In this strategy of speculative land occupation, cattle ranching is an ideal tool, since it can do without the need for auxiliary infrastructure, such as the silos required for crop cultivation.
“If a landowner decides to plant soybeans, he is going to need to be close to specific infrastructure in order to be able to store what is produced during the harvest, [as well as] have roads nearby for transporting [the crop], etc. Cattle don’t need this kind of infrastructure,” Barreto says.
For producers, cattle ranching offers a number of advantages over other kinds of land use, particularly for poor and isolated groups, since it’s less risky and requires less upfront investment than other activities, as well as needing a smaller workforce compared to crop cultivation. On top of this, cattle are a liquid asset that maintains its value and can be easily moved to nearby markets.
The tropeiros play a fundamental role in this process: they open tracks in the rainforest and drive cattle through them, sometimes for days on end, without the need for proper roads. Once they reach the far-flung patch of land that has been selected for deforestation, they put the young female cattle to graze on the land. These heifers soon mature and produce calves. It can take six to seven years between the initial occupation of the land and the selection of the fattened cattle for sale.
“For the farmer, this is a biological asset similar to a banking investment,” Barreto says. “If, in the worst-case scenario, no road shows up [connecting the deforested area to the road network], he just takes his cattle out and sells them. If he’s in a rush, he can sell the calves before they have been fattened to a farm closer to a slaughterhouse.”
In short, this kind of speculative land occupation results in inefficient, unproductive cattle-ranching practices and, from an economic standpoint, highly unnecessary deforestation.
Low wages and the dream of becoming a champion
The aim of this model of cattle ranching is not to maximize the level of productivity per hectare of land, but rather to deforest the largest area of land possible, and in doing so seize land that’s either public or protected by the state. From the perspective of regional development, it’s not just an ecological disaster, but a social one, too.
“They open up vast areas, with extremely low productivity. Consequently, few jobs are created, and those are low in quality,” Barreto says.
Even within the Amazon region itself, cattle ranching offers higher levels of informal work and lower wages compared to other sectors. “These are workers that are spread out over a vast area, and have demands for energy, health care, education, [but] very little tax is collected” to pay for these services, Barreto says.
The low wages in the sector makes the dream of becoming a rodeo champion an even more attractive proposition for the cattle ranches’ farmhands, who all know that a rodeo champion can win up to 30,000 reais ($6,000) — along with fame and sponsorship opportunities — if they can ride a bucking bull for at least 8 seconds.
“Every farmhand wants to come to the rodeo, wants to be a champion,” says Mateus de Assis Pereira, who works on a cattle ranch in Canaã dos Carajás. “The adrenaline that courses through your veins when you’re on top of the bull, with your foot on the gate before it comes charging out … once you’ve done this once, you’ll never let it go. You break a joint, your foot, but it doesn’t stop you. If your arm gets injured, you just tie it up and get back on the bull.”
The rodeo and the cavalcade are the two high points of this Amazonian country culture. Reminiscent of the bands of men on horseback who have roamed country trails through the center and south of Brazil since colonial times, the cavalcade is made up of different associations of riders, known as comitivas, each with its own sponsor — generally cattle farms, tobacco and snuff brands, and shops selling clothes, saddles or riding equipment. The riders set off from one end of the city and cross it on horseback until arriving at the arena where the main event, the rodeo, takes place.
Trailers and trucks lead the way, playing sertanejo country music, which is often performed live by musicians. After slowly making their way through the city for hours, everyone gathers at a camp or exhibition center to drink and eat churrasco, or Brazilian barbecue, with meat donated by local farmers or businesses. In 2022, more than 9 metric tons of meat were served during the event in Canaã dos Carajás.
Until recently, those who wanted to participate in rodeos would have to head to the Southeast or Central-West regions of Brazil, far from the Amazon, where large-scale livestock shows have traditionally been held. In the Amazon, the explosive growth resulting from cattle ranching has brought money and investment to livestock shows, the apex of which is the rodeo. Although the events are held annually, the rapid spread of such events through the cities of the region means that barely a month goes by without some sort of cavalcade or rodeo taking place here.
And so the Amazonian country culture marches on, driving deforestation, eating away at the rainforest to the sounds of sertanejo, while the smell of churrasco wafts through the air.
Leandro Santos is a tropeiro who built a proper training center for other tropeiros wanting to participate in rodeos in Brazil and perhaps, the ultimate dream for many, in the United States.
“The city used to be small, there weren’t many of us here,” he says. “Then it started to grow and things began gaining value. The cavalcade in Canaã is one of the most beautiful in the region and people [then] started supporting the rodeos. In the past, if you wanted to see a nice rodeo, you had to go to Rio Verde or Barretos. Now we have our own here and, God willing, it’s going to keep on growing.”
Banner image of a boy blowing a horn during the cavalcade procession in the city of Paragominas, Pará, Brazil. Image by Ricardo Teles.