I had the opportunity to spend three months in Brazil in the summer of 2015 as part of an Erb internship with Imaflora, a Brazilian organization that works with agricultural and forestry certification. Working with students from the University of Michigan (SNRE), Universidade de Sao Paulo and Oxford University, we surveyed 41 farmers in five relatively new sustainability programs in the Amazon.

Sitting on one farmer’s porch, deep in the Brazilian Amazon, the farmer cut me off before I could even begin the interview. He was concerned that I was working undercover with an NGO whose real motivation was to end cattle ranching in the Amazon. Many farmers believe that NGOs care only about forests at the expense of rancher livelihoods. He did not want to support that kind of work.

I quickly explained that my interest was to understand farmers’ participation (or lack thereof) in sustainability programs and what on-farm practices they are adopting. Satisfied with my answer, we continued with the interview.

During my internship, I reflected more on his concerns and realized that increasing alignment between ranching and environmental interests is crucial to improving farmer livelihoods in the Amazon.

The dominant paradigm in the Brazilian cattle sector has been to clear forests to expand herd size. However, increasing evidence shows that farmers can raise more cattle on less land through “intensification.” By systematically rotating livestock in smaller pasture areas, rather than freely roaming in larger areas, farmers are able to stock more animals on the land, slaughter them at a younger age and allow their pasture to recover and regrow between each rotation. Intensified rotational management could allow the cattle industry to meet a growing demand for beef while simultaneously achieving conservation goals through “land sparing.”

Increasing forest regulation limits farmers’ ability to deforest their land. If the code is eventually fully enforced, increasing productivity on existing pasture will be critical to sustaining a profitable cattle ranching enterprise.

As part of our research, we visited five different programs promoting sustainable practices in the cattle sector and found that NGO efforts are leading the way in promoting intensified rotational grazing in the Amazon.

Changing behavior is difficult in agricultural extension, especially when the new practice requires greater technical knowledge and financial investment than the previous one. Four NGOs offer farmers extensive one-on-one assistance to help them transition from conventional farming to intensified rotational management on their small plots.

It will take time for these farmers to scale up intensification on their properties and even longer for these practices to become common across the industry. The farms in these sustainability programs represent a miniscule percentage of total cattle farms in the Amazon. Direct overlap between environmental and farmer interests provided the spark to make these programs possible.

As these programs begin to show results, farmers might ask for NGO-supported programs to come to their farms to help them increase their production. This might have seemed paradoxical 10 years ago, but it offers a possible path forward to improving livelihoods and conserving forests.

You can read more about our work in this working paper.