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Modelling the agriculture-deforestation interface in the Brazilian Amazon and Cerrado biomes at the University of Edinburgh


Date & time Nov 22
Ends on Nov 29
The University of Edinburgh, United Kingdom
Creator LouiseLHarris
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Modelling the agriculture-deforestation interface in the Brazilian Amazon and Cerrado biomes at the University of Edinburgh

Mathematical modelling will be used to understand the dynamics of land use change and agricultural intensification and deforestation related to beef cattle and soybean production in Brazil.

Apply by Thursday January 06 2022 at 12.00

Registration website

Project background

Land-use change (LUC) for agriculture continues to be a significant driver of forest loss globally (Fig.1). There is a need to reconcile agricultural production with the protection of globally significant ecosystems. In Brazil, cattle ranching is the main driver of deforestation, and pastures occupy around 80% of all recently deforested areas in the Amazon. However, the relationship between beef production and deforestation is not straightforward. It is still unclear to what extent beef production acts as a strong economic driver or as an opportunistic channel for land occupation - for gaining property rights, and for mere speculation. To understand the dynamics of deforestation we need to understand the heterogeneity of the processes underlying beef cattle and soybean production and pasture intensification/degradation in Brazil.  We also need to understand the role of different policy measures and incentives and spatially dependent factors, e.g., proximity to slaughterhouses and roads.

Research questions

  1. How do we define sustainable intensification in livestock production and what economic and environmental trade-offs are implied by alternative definitions?

  1. How do spatial-and temporal patterns of beef cattle intensification relate to agricultural expansion in Brazil?

  1. How much of the direct and indirect LUC and deforestation are explained by pasture degradation?

  1. What are spatially dependent drivers of sustainable intensification?

  1. How can trading scenarios influence deforestation?


The first phase of this PhD will draw on several spatially explicit datasets from the TerraME programming environment (www.terrame.org/doku.php), Terraclass initiative (TerraClass, 2014), Mapbiomas, Agricultural Census,Rural Environmental Registry (CAR), FAOSTAT, EMBRAPA PECUS and the new TNC pasture degradation data (https://agroideal.org/), and will use polygons and spatial analysis tools to identify spatial-temporal agricultural intensification/pasture degradation patterns. A second phase will model the degradation/restoration patterns using behavioural models to couple phase 1 results with a deeper understanding/modelling of socio economic and other indirect drivers of intensification and deforestation. The PhD will involve close collaboration/training with INPE (Brazilian Institute for Space Research ), EMBRAPA and TNC data scientists.  


Year 1 

Chapter planning, literature review, presentation and research skills courses. Attendance of appropriate masters degree modules – e.g., programming, Agent Based Modelling, ecological economics and GIS/statistics model training.  Conference attendance, training at INPE, Field visit (Brazil)

Year 2 

Data processing  and analysis using TerraME, field work (EMBRAPA) in Brazil, Conference attendance

Year 3 

Behavioural modelling  – write up and publication planning


A comprehensive training programme will be provided comprising both specialist scientific training and generic transferable and professional skills.


A student seeking to expand their expertise in the field of global environmental change with big data analysis and spatially explicit modelling. Applicants with a quantitative background (maths, engineering, physics, economics and agricultural sciences) aiming to develop cross-disciplinary skills.


Further reading and references
  1. De Oliveira Silva, et al (2016) Decoupling livestock production from deforestation in Brazil: how increasing beef consumption can lower greenhouse gas emissions, Nature Climate Change . DOI: 10.1038/NCLIMATE2916.

  1. Curtis, P.G., Slay, C.M., Harris, N.L., Tyukavina, A. and Hansen, M.C., 2018. Classifying drivers of global forest loss. Science, 361(6407), pp.1108-1111.

  1. Pretty et al (2018) Global assessment of agricultural system redesign for sustainable intensification. Nature Sustainability, 1. 441–446. doi: 10.1038/s41893-018-0114-0

  1. Balmford al (2018) The environmental costs and benefits of high-yield farming.Nature Sustainability, 1. 477–485.

  1. TERRACLASS, P. Levantamento de informações de uso e cobertura da terra na Amazônia. (2014) ainfo.cnptia.embrapa.br/digital/bitstream/item/152807/1/ TerraClass.pdf. Accessed in 23 August 2018.

  1. Carvalho et al,  "Diversity of cattle raising systems and its effects over forest regrowth in a core region of cattle production in the Brazilian Amazon." Regional Environmental Change 20.2 (2020): 1-15.

  1. Zu Ermgassen, Erasmus KHJ, et al. "The origin, supply chain, and deforestation risk of Brazil’s beef exports." Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 117.50 (2020): 31770-31779.


Rafael De Oliveira Silva


[email protected]


Dominic Moran


[email protected]


Luis Gustavo Barioni


[email protected]


Peter Alexander

School of GeoSciences

[email protected]


E4 supervisors are happy to hear from candidates who would wish to adapt the project to their own ideas and research background.

How to Apply

Please find all relevant information, application forms and instructions for referees via -


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