Is Brazil starting to lose the battle against deforestation?

In the past 10 years Brazil has reduced its greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions levels more than any other country through a historic effort to decrease deforestation. The deforestation rate dropped by 71% between 2004 and 2015. But, while Brazil’s downward trend in deforestation has been impressive, this is now threatened by the weakening of conservation policies and by a recent increase in deforestation. Moreover, the social impacts of deforestation reduction in the past years are still uncertain.

 How did Brazil slow deforestation so effectively?

There are several reasons for the successful decrease in deforestation rates. First, Brazil has a sophisticated monitoring system that compiles high-resolution images of forest cover in the Amazon biome. Over the past 10 years, it has been providing real-time information to Brazil’s environmental enforcement agency, the Brazilian Institute of Environment and Renewable Natural Resources (IBAMA). Since 2004 IBAMA has been improving its enforcement strategies (e.g. confiscating material resources) and bringing other government agencies on board. This increased the effects of command and control measures on the ground at the same time that the national Plan for Prevention and Control Deforestation in the Amazon (PPCDAm) emerged as a key policy to reduce deforestation. PPCDAm integrated action across different government institutions and introduced novel procedures for monitoring, environmental control and territorial management.

Second, between 2002 and 2010 the federal government designated several protected areas in the Amazon and recognized many indigenous territories. And in 2007–8, new policy measures targeted priority municipalities with critical rates of deforestation (the so-called ‘federal blacklist’) and restricted rural credit to those who could provide proof of compliance with environmental regulations.

Finally, a series of demand-side measures started to play a key role in the process of reducing deforestation. Multi-stakeholder roundtable groups put together industry with non-governmental organizations, retailers and producers to increase the dialogue on how to better produce the commodities that drive deforestation. Zero-deforestation agreements or trade embargos in which an industry, retailer or producer agrees to not buy a commodity from illegally deforested lands have had several positive impacts.

Although this is a successful mix of measures that culminated with large reductions in deforestation rates in the Amazon, most of the impacts come largely from a more rigorous environmental monitoring and law enforcement. Or, in other words, increasing command and control measures. IBAMA has been monitoring priority municipalities more closely and dedicating a larger share of its resources to them. Licensing and georeferencing requirements for rural lands (mainly through the implementation of the rural environmental cadastre – CAR) are harsher and, in an effort to identify fraudulent documents and illegal occupations, private land titles were revised.

Why are deforestation levels raising again?

Current deforestation rates in the Amazon are the highest of the last four years. From August 2014 to July 2015, Brazil clear-cut 6,207 square kilometres, which represents a 24% increase over the previous period. In the past two years Brazil has faced one of the most turbulent political moments of its history. The economic and ethical crisis that has dominated the country – culminating with the impeachment of president Dilma Roussef in August 2016 – resulted in an 80% cut of the Ministry of Environment’s annual budget and in climate change being dropped from the national agenda. Policy is now moving in the opposite direction, with several new constitutional amendments that threaten forests and the environment. Among the most worrying policies and measures are:

  • The 2012 Forest Law, which grants amnesty to landowners who deforested illegally before 2008;
  • The lack of financial resources to keep deforestation monitoring in locu;
  • The reduction of the number of conservation units in the Amazon, leading to an increase in illegal occupation;
  • Constitutional Amendment (PEC) 215, which requires Congress to approve the demarcation of indigenous lands;
  • Constitutional Amendment (PEC) 65, which will facilitate licensing for the construction of major infrastructure projects without evaluation and mitigation of environmental impacts;
  • Delaying twice the obligation for farmers to register their property under CAR and the obligation to restore or provide compensation for illegally deforested areas;
  • The proposed construction of 334 dams throughout the Amazon Basin;
  • The registration of over 1 million square kilometres of the Brazilian Amazon for mining.

Persistent concerns have also been raised about the potential negative impacts of command and control on local livelihoods and socioeconomic welfare of smallholders in the Amazon. The fact that command and control measures are effective only for smallholders, who fear being punished and cannot hire lawyers to challenge or disrupt administrative proceedings, was the main reason for the Forest Code amnesty. Assunção et al. (2015) also show how centralized measures that treat the Brazilian Amazon as a largely uniform target can create spillover and heterogeneous effects (i.e. adaptions in the behaviour of individuals who lead deforestation on the ground). Furthermore, in some cases it has also increased migration to less monitored areas, which may cause leakage.

The recent increase in deforestation levels is a clear sign of the possible shortcomings and problems of interventions based on prohibitions and punishments when applied to situations that are complex, non-linear, full of heterogeneities and difficult to understand – such as deforestation trends in the Brazilian Amazon. Land use change is still the main cause of GHG emissions in Brazil. It is difficult to imagine how much of the remaining ‘residual’ deforestation can be curbed through increased command and control, especially considering the recent opening of the Brazilian beef market to the US and China. Meanwhile, Brazil is facing one of the most intense El Niños in recent decades – it has already exacerbated fires during the dry season all over the Amazon. With this increase in deforestation levels, the country calls into question decades of conservation efforts and the commitments assumed under the Paris Agreement, which should enter into force this month.



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