The Amazon rainforest has long been known as an important concentration of natural resources and biodiversity and, more recently, for the control it exerts on regional climate. Deforestation of the Amazon changes precipitation patterns, lengthens dry seasons, and increases the risk of flooding and fires. Worldwide, deforestation is a leading cause of greenhouse gas emissions, in part because trees release significant amounts of carbon after they are felled. The Brazilian government appears to recognize the rainforest’s economic and strategic importance: protection of the Amazon was a campaign issue in October’s presidential elections, and the military has been conducting exercises in the rainforest to simulate invasion by a large, resource-hungry country.
Unfortunately, about 20% of the Amazon was already cleared by 2012. In the severe drought years of 2005 and 2010, the Amazon emitted more carbon than it absorbed, and deforestation is probably in part to blame for the droughts’ severity. The primary drivers of Amazon deforestation are logging and forest clearing for cattle rangeland and soybean cropland. Paving dirt roads also accelerates deforestation. In addition to deforestation, the Brazilian space agency INPE estimates that over 100,000 square kilometers of forest were degraded between 2007 and 2013. Unlike deforestation, where forest is completely cleared, degradation refers to difficult-to-detect partial destruction of forest, and amounts to a significant threat in its own right.
There are reasons to be optimistic despite the bad news. Satellite imagery shows that yearly deforestation in Amazonia slowed 79% between 2004 and 2013, an improvement unmatched in any other tropical region worldwide. A July paper in Science led by Daniel Nepstad of the Earth Innovation Institute attributes the decline to a combination of market factors that reduced demand for forest-clearing activities, stronger punishment for illegal deforestation, government designation of millions of hectares of protected areas, and delays in paving roads.
The government’s Critical Municipalities program restricted lending to farms and ranches located within high-deforestation counties, and may be responsible for significant deforestation reductions in 11 counties. New laws against deforestation and stronger enforcement, including fines, arrests, and confiscations, supported by sophisticated surveillance, have also been effective. Particularly successful nongovernmental punitive measures included Greenpeace-led moratoria on soybeans grown on land cleared after 2006, and beef raised by ranchers who deforested after 2009. Market factors were also important in reducing demand for land: improvements in beef yield per hectare reduced demand for new grazing land, a significant portion of additional soybean planting occurred in land cleared before 2006, and fluctuations in prices of cattle and soybeans affected deforestation rates (albeit in complex ways).
Although the rate of forest loss is near its lowest since tracking began in 1988, deforestation remains a problem. The rate of deforestation, once in steep decline, stabilized in recent years and then increased by 29% from 2012 to 2013, before decreasing a modest 18% in 2014, with 4848 square kilometers cleared this year.
This end to the celebrated deforestation slowdown suggests that different mechanisms are needed going forward. Consistent annual reductions in deforestation will need to return in order to reach Brazil’s National Climate Change Plan goal of reducing deforestation rates 80% by 2020 (to 3,800 square kilometers cleared annually) from a 1996–2005 baseline. But that alone may not be enough: a recent literature review by the National Institute for Research in the Amazon concludes that deforestation must completely cease and net reforestation must begin in the states of Maranhão and Pará to forestall severe drought elsewhere in Brazil.
A new paper in PNAS led by Javier Godar of the Stockholm Environment Institute finds that Brazilian census tracts (CTs) dominated by large landholders (plots >500 ha) were responsible for about 48% of deforestation between 2004 and 2011, while CTs dominated by small properties (<100 ha) contributed only 12% of deforestation. But despite their disproportionate contribution to deforestation, large landholders have contributed the most to the annual decrease in deforestation, whereas the relative contribution of small properties to the problem has increased 69% from 2005–2011.
Existing punitive programs disproportionately affect large property holders, so their effectiveness will decline as smallholders become increasingly responsible for deforestation. In addition, because programs like Critical Municipalities (mentioned earlier) focused most on deforestation hotspots, it is not surprising that remote areas experienced the largest increase in relative deforestation rates. As small landholders become responsible for an increasing share of deforestation, individual deforested areas are likely to become less concentrated and harder to detect, making enforcement more difficult and costly.
Because of the changing pattern of deforestation, some researchers have called for a greater emphasis on positive incentive-based policies. Godar and colleagues emphasize the need for local testing of and experimentation with the wide array of incentive programs currently on the table, including REDD (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation) and carbon finance projects. REDD is a UN program that allows donors to compensate poorer countries that cut carbon emissions by reducing deforestation and forest degradation, and numerous REDD projects have already launched in Brazil. The Norwegian government has also pledged up to 1 billion USD to create the Amazon Fund, which rewards Brazil for annual reductions in deforestation.
At a micro scale, Nepstad and his coauthors advocate wider adoption of an incentive scheme like the Critical Municipalities program. This type of program encourages collective action by granting farmers and ranchers benefits, including simpler regulations or access to agricultural credit and larger markets, if their county achieves forest protection targets. These local goals could be staged and tied to national or international deforestation reduction targets.
Despite Brazil’s initial successes at controlling deforestation, it is clear that enormous new challenges are emerging. Although the Brazilian government rapidly protected millions of hectares between the mid-1990s and mid-2000s, forest protection has stalled since 2009. Meanwhile, millions of protected hectares have been quietly delisted, reduced in size, or downgraded. More large hydroelectric projects are planned in Amazonia, and these will likely contribute further to deforestation. In addition, Brazil refused to sign a United Nations pledge to end deforestation by 2030, arguing that it was not properly consulted during the drafting process. Achieving the Brazilian government’s goal of 80% reduction by 2020—or the UN goal of no deforestation by 2030—will require openness to new thinking, increased focus on degradation as well as deforestation, greater dedication to reforesting previously cleared areas, and intense commitment by stakeholders ranging from Brazil’s national government, to individual counties, to global NGOs.
Image Credit: CIAT via Wikimedia Commons