Who deserves credit for protecting Brazil's Amazon rainforest? It's not even close.

Who’s responsible for the 70% reduction in Amazon deforestation that’s made Brazil the world leader in reducing greenhouse gas pollution, keeping 3.5 billion tons of carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere since 2005?

Who, if anyone, is responsible for the 29% increase in deforestation from 2012 – 2103 (which looks to repeat in 2014)?

Simon Romero’s New York Times story, Clashing Visions of Conservation Shake Brazil’s Presidential Vote, asks these questions from the vantage of wild-west frontier town Novo Progresso, Pará.

Terra do Meio_Brazil_map

The shaded area shows the indigenous territories and protected areas of the Terra do Meio region, whose 7 million hectares of protected forests Marina Silva created as environment minister.

Part of the answer lies just up the BR-163 highway from Novo Progresso, in the indigenous territories and protected areas of the Terra do Meio region of the Xingu River basin. When Marina Silva took over as environment minister in 2003, the Terra do Meio was overrun with gunmen working for land grabbers busy threatening forest communities, opening roads and clearing forest.

After Marina put together the national Plan to Prevent and Control Amazon Deforestation – and after American nun Sister Dorothy Stang was murdered nearby in 2005 – the government created about 7 million hectares of protected areas in the previously lawless Terra do Meio. The land grabbers and their hired guns left, because they knew they weren’t getting land titles in officially recognized indigenous territories and protected areas – and deforestation stopped.

This illustrates why legally recognizing indigenous territories and creating protected areas have been so effective in reducing deforestation on the Amazon frontier. Public lands not designated for any specific use (e.g., park, indigenous territory, national forest), like the Terra do Meio before 2005, are historically subject to invasion by land grabbers, who clear forest in order to claim the land. Once government declares land a park or reserve, it can’t be treated like no man’s land anymore, and the incentive to drive out local communities and clear forest goes away.

The science on how and why Brazil reduced Amazon deforestation agrees across the board that while various factors are in play (consumer and government pressure through commodity supply chains, law enforcement, increasing agriculture yields on cleared lands), creating protected areas and particularly legally recognizing indigenous lands is a very important part of the answer. (For more, see Nepstad et al, 2014; Soares Filho et al, 2010; Assunção, Gandour and Rocha, 2012; and Busch and Ferretti-Gallon, 2014.)

Going back to the question of who can claim credit for stopping deforestation, it is then notable that President Rouseff protected just 5% of the forest in indigenous territories and protected areas that her predecessor Lula did – with the large majority of Lula’s gains coming under minister Marina.

At a conservative estimate, Marina, not Dilma, protected an area of forests nearly the size of France on the Amazon frontier.

Indigenous Territories and Amazon Protected Areas Officially Designated 1995 – 2014
GovernmentIndigenous Territories Officially Designated (#)Indigenous Territories Officially Designated (Million Hectares)Amazon Protected Areas Created (#)Amazon Protected Areas Created (Million Hectares)MILLION HECTARES — TOTAL
Dilma Rouseff (2010 – 2014)2135N/A3
Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva (2003 – 2010)168324926.358.3
Fernando Henrique Cardoso (1995 – 2003)263773814.891.8
Source: Instituto Socioambiental (ISA) (Note: The table does not include the five Amazon protected areas Dilma created in the last leg of the election campaign, but they wouldn’t change the picture much.)


It’s too bad that in his otherwise very good story on Amazon deforestation today, Simon Romero didn’t point out this huge disparity.

As for why deforestation was up in 2013, and likely will be again in 2014, Beto Veríssimo of Imazon put it well in the Times:

We’re witnessing an increase in speculative deforestation and forest destruction for the government’s own infrastructure projects… There’s been a rearrangement of priorities

It doesn’t have to be this way.  If Brazil improved average pasture yields from the current 30% of sustainable potential to 50%, it could meet all the demand for agriculture commodities until 2040 with no more deforestation. Unilever, Nestle, and Cargill are only a few of long list of major consumer goods companies that have committed to zero-deforestation supply chains in recent years.

Brazil could be the go-to source for zero-deforestation commodities in emerging low-carbon, high-environmental quality markets – if it can avoid backsliding into business as usual on the Amazon frontier.

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