Converting Forests to Farms: The Economic Benefits of Clearing Forests in Agricultural Settlements in the Amazon

Katrina Mullan, Erin Sills, Subhrendu K. Pattanayak, Jill Caviglia-Harris

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

20 Scopus citations


Agricultural expansion into tropical forests is believed to bring local economic benefits at the expense of global environmental costs. The resulting tension is reflected in Brazilian government policy. The national agrarian reform program has settled farm families in the Amazon region since the 1970s, with the expectation that they will clear forests in order to farm the land. On the other hand, recent Brazilian policy initiatives seek to reduce deforestation to mitigate climate change. We contribute to the policy debate that surrounds these dual goals for the Amazon by estimating the marginal effects of new agricultural land on the full income and assets of farm settlers over a 13-year period from 1996 to 2009. Using micro panel data from agrarian settlements where forest was being rapidly cleared, and controlling for factors that would otherwise confound the relationship, we estimate the effect of converting forest to agriculture on total household income to estimate the opportunity cost of conserving forest. Our measure of income reflects any re-allocation of resources by utility maximizing households and any productivity effects due to loss of forest ecosystem services. The estimated effect of new agricultural land on income is positive, but small relative to the income per hectare of previously cleared land. However, we show that income increases investment in physical assets, which raises households’ income generating capacity and future accumulation of assets. Thus, while there is only a small immediate income gain from clearing more forest, the long-term effects on wealth are still substantial. This demonstrates that given the right conditions, conversion of forest to agricultural land can be an impetus for asset accumulation by smallholders. It also highlights the importance of considering the indirect and long-term welfare benefits of new agricultural land when assessing the opportunity costs of forest conservation.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)427-455
Number of pages29
JournalEnvironmental and Resource Economics
Issue number2
StatePublished - Oct 1 2018


  • Agrarian settlement
  • Brazil
  • Deforestation
  • Dynamic panel
  • Welfare


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