The Brazilian Amazon is globally important for biodiversity, climate, and geochemical cycles, but is also among the least developed regions in Brazil. Economic development is often pursued through forest conversion for cattle ranching and agriculture, mediated by logging. However, on the basis of an assessment of 286 municipalities in different stages of deforestation, we found a boom-and-bust pattern in levels of human development across the deforestation frontier. Relative standards of living, literacy, and life expectancy increase as deforestation begins but then decline as the frontier evolves, so that pre- and postfrontier levels of human development are similarly low. New financial incentives and policies are creating opportunities for a more sustained development trajectory that is not based on the depletion of nature and ecosystem services.