Cattle Ranching in the Amazon Rainforest
While most people think of logging as the largest threat to the Amazon Rainforest, much more land is actually cleared for use as cattle pasture. In fact, while only 3% of the land cleared in the Amazon Rainforest every year is done so through logging, 80% of all land deforested is cleared for cattle use. As a result, the beef industry has exploded in Brazil, which now boasts the largest commercial cattle herd in the world and the position of the global number one beef exporter. With its ranching industry still growing rapidly and steadily becoming more important to its economy, the harm that ranching can do to the rainforest must be addressed.
How Cattle Ranchers Use Rainforest Land
Cattle don't do well in a dense rainforest environment, so ranchers must first clear the land. This is usually accomplished through the use of slash-and-burn techniques, which are good at clearing large amounts of land relatively quickly, but produce poor quality soils. First, people move through the forest, cutting down small trees and plants and scoring larger trees so they die over time. Then, a few weeks or months later when the chopped-down plants have dried, people set the plant material on fire, which clears the land for use.
There is also little for cattle to eat in a normal rainforest environment, so ranchers must bring in more ideal food plants. Some of the most popular are African savannah grasses, which provide a good supply of food to cattle. Unfortunately, these grasses are not well adapted to the rainforest soil and quickly deplete the soil of nutrients, forcing ranchers to clear yet more land to raise their cattle on.
Damage Caused by Cattle Ranching
As well as direct attacks on the rainforest such as slash-and-burn clearing, cattle ranching damages the rainforest in other ways.
The constant movement of heavy animals such as cattle on the rainforest soil has been shown to compress the soil. This compacting makes it so that, even if ranching is suspended, it is not possible for the large plants that make up so much of the rainforest system to re-grow in an area.
Also, attempts to reinvigorate the soil tend to cause more harm than good. Because rainforest soil is actually rich in nitrogen, normal nitrogen fertilizers do little to help depleted soil. Instead, fertilizers run off the land into the Amazon river system, harming aquatic ecosystems. While some efforts have been made to adapt fertilizers to the particular problems of the Amazon region, rainforest soil is very poor at retaining nutrients, and fertilizing land enough to make it useful again is quite expensive.