Deforesting deforestation

Brazil significantly reduced deforestation rates in the past decade, establishing a positive outlook for further reduction.

Beginning with the construction of the Transamazon Highway in 1970s, the deforestation of Brazil’s Amazonia has become a significant global issue, not only because of the biodiversity loss and ecological disruption, but also because of the extensive amount of carbon dioxide (CO2) released from burned forests and the loss of a valuable carbon sink, all of which contribute to climate change.

During the 1990s, when every year an area of Brazilian rainforest the size of Belgium was cut down, Brazil was deemed the world’s environmental villain by international authorities. At the 1992 Rio de Janeiro Earth Summit, deforestation was a key issue; several nations, including Brazil, were offered incentives by the international community to curb their rates of deforestations.

Despite remaining at high levels for a long time, deforestation in Brazil’s Amazonia fell by 70% in the past decade, from a 10-year average of 19,500 square kilometers per year in 2005 to 5,800 square kilometers in 2013.

Brazil’s efforts to curb deforestation have persisted despite high beef and soy prices, which have been pushing global deforestation rates upward. Remarkably, the ambitious conservation plans concerning the Brazilian Amazonia were put into action concurrently with the country’s rapid economic growth and progress in eradicating poverty, hunger, and fighting inequality.

Brazil’s reduction in emissions from deforestation is the largest progress made so far by any country. Most other rainforest countries, such as Indonesia and the Democratic Republic of Congo, have failed to stop the chainsaws. Thus, it is of utmost importance to understand the motivation of the Brazilian government vis-à-vis deforestation.

Who is responsible for deforestation?

Although the Amazonian forests have been cut for various reasons, such as for logging, mining, infrastructure, and hydroelectric dams, cattle ranching dominates. Cattle ranches account for about 70% of clearing activity in Amazonia. The livestock industry receives substantial subsidies from the federal government, while employing poor migrants from the northeast region of Brazil as cheap labor. Some capitalized farmers, including agribusiness for soy production, are also fueling deforestation in certain areas, such as Mato Grosso in central Brazil.

Between 2000 and 2012, up to 90% of deforestation in Brazil’s Amazonia was categorized as illegal by the United Kingdom’s Department for International Development (DFID). However, much of the illegal activity occurred prior to 2004, before the Brazilian government instituted much-lauded reforms to preserve its forests. Actions to mitigate rampant illegal conversion and develop effective surveillance systems were some of the most important drivers of this success.

Brazil takes action against deforestation

The methods utilized by the government may be categorized in three time periods with different programs targeting a diverse set of actors and actions.

The first period occurred between the mid-1990s and mid-2000s. The government implemented the Brazilian Forest Code, which required all farms to maintain 80% of their land as forest reserve. Due to such a high percentage requirement, farmers were unable to comply with the code. Moreover, due to extraordinarily high commodity prices between 1999 and 2004, Brazil witnessed some of its worst deforestation, as soybean farming and cattle ranching rapidly expanded into the southeastern fringe of the Amazonia rainforest.

During the second period, from 2005 to 2009, the Brazilian government tried to strengthen its ability to protect the Amazonia. Then President Luis Inácio Lula da Silva made mitigating deforestation a priority action item, which resulted in improved cooperation between different government actors, such as the police and public prosecutors. Brazilian authorities began to implement a number of new high-tech tools to increase the ability to detect deforestation. These tools consisted of higher spatial and temporal resolution satellite and radar images to identify changes and categories of land use and forest degradation, as well as to detect burned areas.

Brazil aggressively expanded its forest conservation programs. These efforts resulted in an increase from one-sixth to nearly 50% of the Brazilian Amazonia being under legal protection, and where farming activity was banned. The restrictions were reinforced by complementary actions; for example, consumers boycotted particular products ranging from animal products to tropical agriculture products, and middlemen for soybean pledged not to purchase crops planted on land that had been cleared. Thus, both the soybean and beef industries were forced to find alternative ways to use existing farmland more productively.

In the third period, which began in the late 2000s, the Brazilian government stepped up its enforcement efforts while shifting its focus from farms to counties. Farmers in the 36 counties with the worst deforestation rates were banned from receiving farm credit until the rates decreased.

The combination of the aforementioned policies and instruments caused deforestation rates to decrease significantly. However, the major beneficiaries of deforestation did not compromise. On the contrary, beneficiaries such as cattle farmers and producers increased their productivity and competitiveness in global markets; cattle farmers were able to raise more animals on fewer hectares, and producers obtained well-respected production certifications for their environmental friendly business cycles.

Looking ahead

In conclusion, there is no guarantee that deforestation rates in Brazil will continue to drop — in fact, the trend has been moving upward in the past few years. Farmland is a finite resource, and the extent to which Brazil’s farmers and ranchers can squeeze more out of their existing lands in the face of growing global demand is unknown.

But by any standards, Brazil’s Amazonia policy should be considered a triumph because it relied more on restrictions than incentives. Over the course of its deforestation policies, Brazil also turned itself into a farming powerhouse, thus proving that deforestation and agricultural productivity can be decoupled. So far, the policies have been successful among commercial farmers and ranchers who respond to market pressure; but the policies concerning the smallholder-related deforestation remain weak. Nonetheless, deforestation rates have been remarkably slowed as a result of the government’s policies.

Brazil’s success has proven that a large and rapid reduction in deforestation rates in the Amazonia is possible. Deforestation rates in the Amazonia were cut by 70%, compared to the average level between 1996 and 2005, thus making Brazil’s target of zero deforestation by 2020—or even sooner—a more feasible goal.

Burag Gürden

Burag Gurden is a masters student at Lund University's International Development Programme. Before moving to Sweden, he obtained a BA degree in economics and got experience by working for a multinational bank in Turkey. He is a WWF volunteer and has a great interest in environmental conservation and preservation. His other enthusiasms are for consumer behavior and consumption patterns.
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