The Post-frontier: Land use and social change in the Brazilian Amazon (1992 - 2002)

TR Number



Journal Title

Journal ISSN

Volume Title


Virginia Tech


Deforestation of tropical forests is one of the most pressing environmental problems of the twenty-first century, leading to the loss of environmental services such as climate regulation and biodiversity. The expansion of the agricultural frontier by small landholder farmers continues to be one of the major drivers of land use change in the Amazon region. Much of the recent research in the Brazilian Amazon has been focused on modeling their behavior in order to prescribe policies that can curb current deforestation rates and promote more sustainable land use practices. The availability of more sophisticated remote sensing and economic modeling tools has led to the proliferation of agricultural household level models that attempt to explain land use change processes at the farm level. This dissertation tests the household life cycle theory in one of the oldest colonization fronts in the Brazilian Amazon: Rondônia, now a post-frontier.

The study examines household and farm level changes over time for specific aspects of the frontier process that can be tested using the household life cycle theory. This study introduces important additions to the life cycle theory in order to consider the more dynamic and complex set of factors that characterize modern frontier processes. Specifically the study examines: (1) property fragmentation and expansion processes, (2) property ownership, turnover and change, and (3) land use change processes at the property level. These are linked to changes in the social and economic features of the smallholder farmer as it moves along its life cycle. The central hypothesis is that these changes in property and land use dynamics can be explained by the corresponding changes in the life cycle of the household as the frontier evolves over time into a post-frontier.

It was found that the household life cycle theory did not adequately explain land use change processes over time. As the frontier evolved into the modern post-frontier, the labor and drudgery constraints associated with the initial frontier processes, as exemplified in the household life cycle theory, became less relevant. The Sauerian concept of cultural successions and the concept of scale from hierarchical ecology are used in order to explain the apparent inconsistencies found between the household life cycle theory and land use change processes over time and at different scales of analysis. The household life cycle theory is a useful theoretical framework from which to examine the effects of household level factors on land use; however, this must be embedded within concepts of time and scale that determine their differentiated impact and behavior.

Existing plans to expand road infrastructure into the Amazon region will open-up previously inaccessible rainforest regions to agricultural frontier expansion at a scale unprecedented since the mid-eighties. Findings from this study reveal that policies based on household life cycle postulates will have limited impacts in reducing deforestation rates and promoting sustainable land use practices. Appropriate accounting of the social and environmental costs of future infrastructure development projects should consider associated frontier agricultural expansion costs to discourage further deforestation.



agricultural frontier, household life cycle, Rondônia, land use and land cover change, deforestation, Amazonia