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Have Brazil’s deforestation policies hit the limits of their effectiveness?

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Written by Marion Davis

Tuesday, 14 October 2014 00:02

An aerial view of the deforestation frontier in São Félix do Xingu, in the state of Pará, in northern Brazil. Photo by Toby Gardner; click to enlarge.

Deforestation in the Amazon has fallen dramatically, by about 77% between 2004 and 2011, enabling Brazil to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by more than a third in that period, while also preserving biodiversity and maintaining other vital ecosystem services. The country achieved this, in part, through ambitious government efforts to create new conservation areas and strengthen deforestation monitoring and enforcement, supported by a host of private-sector and civil society interventions.

Yet progress has slowed in recent years, and a new study led by SEI researchers, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, suggests that if Brazil wants to keep reducing deforestation, it will need to implement a broader range of strategies. While the enforcement-based approach worked well to reduce the clearance of vast swaths of forest, especially by large landowners, the study shows it is unlikely to be equally effective in reducing deforestation beyond current rates, particularly by smallholders.

“Policies aimed at decreasing Amazon deforestation with a focus on command-and-control enforcement measures may have reached the limits of their effectiveness, says Javier Godar, a research fellow at SEI in Stockholm and lead author of the study. “New approaches are now needed.”

Soy field Santarem.
A soy field in Santarém, in the state of Pará in Brazil. Photo by Toby Gardner. Click to enlarge.

Although deforestation rates in the Amazon have plummeted since their peak in 2004, the amount of forest cleared each year has stabilized since about 2009, at between 5,000 and 7,000 km2, and even has increased 28% in 2013 with respect to the previous year. Aiming to address the critical question of who is responsible for ongoing deforestation, the new study for the first time combined fine-scale land use and census data for the whole of the Brazilian Amazon to examine deforestation by landowners of different-size properties.

The authors found that areas dominated by properties larger than 500 hectares contributed about 48% of the deforestation between 2004 and 2011, while areas dominated by properties under 100 ha contributed only 12%. But annual deforestation by large landowners declined faster, by more than 80% vs. 73% among smallholders, so that since 2004, the relative contribution to annual deforestation by large landowners fell by two-thirds, while that of smallholders increased by a similar proportion.

Still, although deforestation dropped fastest in very large land holdings (greater than 2,500 ha), by 83% from 2004 to 2011, the total area cleared during the period was 2.5 times as great as in the smallholder-dominated areas, 33,041 km2 vs. 12,789 km2. This finding undermines the dominant narrative both within Brazil and internationally, that deforestation in larger properties has been successfully dealt with, and smallholders are now the problem. In fact, the study shows, forests in smallholder areas are generally less fragmented and less degraded than those in areas dominated by large landowners.

“This in itself is a hugely significant finding,” says Toby Gardner, a co-author and also a research fellow at SEI in Stockholm. “It is often assumed that forests in areas dominated by smallholder farmers are in worse condition, because people depend on them more for their basic subsistence and are expected to be less efficient in using the land. However, our finding makes sense when you consider that wealthier landowners are more able to access and exploit their forests for timber, and underscores the vital need for incentives to be given to improve the condition of remaining forests.”

Understory fire in Amazon.
A smallholder and fisherman in the Tapajos River. Photo by Javier Godar. Click to enlarge.

The study also shows that deforestation in the Amazon is also shifting to more remote areas with a weaker government presence, for which no census data on land holding size is available. One-fifth of deforestation in 2004–2011 was in such areas, which also hold 39% of remaining forest in the Amazon, larger than the share attributed to any actor-dominated area. Smallholder-dominated areas have the second-largest share of remaining forest, at 24%, while areas dominated by large and very large landowners contain less than 18%.

These insights point to the need for more diverse deforestation policies that differentiate between areas dominated by different landowner types, the study concludes.

“Further reductions in deforestation in the Amazon are challenging both because deforestation is happening in more, smaller, and remoter areas and is therefore harder to detect and more expensive to control,” Godar says. “New approaches are needed, particularly to engage smallholders more. Targeting them with the same punitive measures used for large landowners, when they have far fewer resources, would be too costly and arguably not socially or politically acceptable. They hold more forested areas and their forests are on average in better condition, so it is important to help them preserve those forests, rather than point the finger at them”. 

Pablo Pacheco, a principal scientist at the Centre for International Forestry Research (CIFOR), who has studied deforestation dynamics in the Amazon for more than two decades, emphasizes this as perhaps the most important conclusion of the study. “Preserving remaining rainforests and promoting sustainable rural development will require complementing traditional enforcement-based approaches with incentive measures,” he says. “We need to take into account the socioeconomic difficulties facing many smallholder farmers, and work to alleviate rural poverty and foster sustainable development along with reducing deforestation.”

Read the article on the PNAS website (open access)

A map of the Brazilian Legal Amazon shows where land holdings of different sizes prevail. Click to enlarge.

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