How much credit can Brazil take for slowing Amazon deforestation – and how low can it go?

Brazil’s government claims a 76 percent reduction in deforestation rate since 2004.

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Aerial view of the Amazon Rainforest, near Manaus, the capital of the Brazilian state of Amazonas. Neil Palmer (CIAT).

Aerial view of the Amazon Rainforest, near Manaus, the capital of the Brazilian state of Amazonas. Neil Palmer (CIAT).

BOGOR, Indonesia (15 January, 2013)_Brazilian policymakers can take some of the credit for a dramatic slowdown in the deforestation rate in the Brazilian Amazon, say experts – but that’s not the whole story.

In November Brazil announced deforestation rates in the Amazon declined 27 percent from August 2011 to July 2012, reaching the lowest rates ever recorded for the fourth consecutive year.

According to Brazil’s National Institute for Space Research (INPE), 4656 square kilometres of Amazon rainforest were cleared over the twelve months, compared with 27,772 square kilometres in 2004.

Brazil’s government says this represents a 76 percent reduction since 2004 – coming close to the country’s commitment to reduce deforestation in the Amazon region 80 percent by 2020.

It has attributed the dramatic results to a package of policies known as PPCDAm (The Action Plan for Prevention and Control of Legal Amazon Deforestation) that were first implemented in 2004.

PPCDAm comprises more than 200 initiatives across 14 ministries that together aim to reduce deforestation in the Amazon.

Research from CIFOR and others for the United Nations Environment Program Emissions Gap Report 2012 has found that policies that effectively curb deforestation include establishing protected areas, using command-and-control measures, putting in place economic instruments including payments for environmental services, and creating policies affecting the drivers of deforestation.

Brazil has utilised these kinds of policies to varying degrees.

Over the last decade, the country has established new protected areas, indigenous lands and sustainable use areas covering 709,000 square kilometres.

This has decreased both deforestation and the incidence of fires – and crucially, more of them than previously are located near particularly threatened areas, making them more effective.

We know every day where deforestation is going on in the Amazon…from detection to having people in the field stopping illegal loggers takes just five days.

One of the most successful policies has been the implementation of ‘command-and-control’ efforts, said Francisco Oliveira Filho, Executive Secretary of Brazil’s Ministry of Environment, at a side event dedicated to the topic on the sidelines of the recent UN climate talks in Doha.

Command and control policies entail enforcing Brazil’s forest laws by identifying and punishing those responsible for illegal deforestation and forest degradation, and Brazil’s methods are becoming increasingly sophisticated, Oliveira said.

“We know every day where deforestation is going on in the Amazon,” he said.

Oliveira said Brazil’s space agency, remote sensing centre, and law enforcement agencies collaborate to detect and precisely locate deforestation and forest degradation, and to apprehend perpetrators.

“From detection to having people in the field stopping illegal loggers takes just five days,” he said.

“Last year we confiscated 110 chainsaws, nine bulldozers, and 329 trucks.”

Ongoing CIFOR research indicates that, for stopping deforestation, command-and-control policies are the most cost-efficient intervention from the regulator’s point of view, CIFOR scientist Sven Wunder said.

But they also induce larger costs to Amazonian land users than other measures like payments for environmental services, he said.

“The research suggests the government may thus have to balance disincentives with incentives to make a low-deforestation scenario politically sustainable in the longer term,” Wunder said.

New research

Several recent studies have found that Brazil’s public policies have contributed substantially to the reduction in deforestation in the Amazon.

Jorge Hargrave – who also worked with Wunder on the UNEP report – and colleagues assessed the effectiveness of the PPPDAm policies.

They found that these policies were responsible for curbing deforestation – and that the command-and-control policies, particularly the issuance of environmental fines, had the most impact.

The government’s decision to focus on 36 specific municipalities where deforestation was most intense was also very effective, they found, as was the cross sector coordination and high-level political support for the program.

However, Hargrave also cautioned against over-confidence about the recent encouraging results.

“It’s not clear that if the government changes or the policy changes, deforestation can’t go up again,” he said.

“In addition, the lack of land tenure security in the region was consistently identified as a key problem and the biggest bottleneck to further progress.”

This echoes recent CIFOR research that found that conservation policies in Latin America need to be better aligned with land tenure policies if outcomes for people and forests are to be improved.

Conservation and land tenure policies need to be better aligned to improve livelihoods of people living in Latin America's forests. Neil Palmer/CIAT

Conservation and land tenure policies need to be better aligned to improve the livelihoods of people living in Latin America’s forests. Neil Palmer/CIAT

In another recent study, Clarissa Costalonga e Gandour and colleagues from the Climate Policy Initiative showed that environmental policies are important – but are only part of the deforestation-reduction story.

The study found that agricultural prices – particularly meat and soybeans – had a significant impact on deforestation as well.

Deforestation rates in Brazil plummeted from 2004-2012 (with a small increase in 2007) – the period in which the country enacted the PPPDAm policies.

However, from 2003-2006, agricultural prices were also falling.

“So the decline in prices may have contributed to the slowdown,” Costalonga e Gandour said.

“However, after 2006 prices started to increase, and the reason why deforestation did not follow that trend is most likely linked to the policies that helped contain that effect.”

Costalonga e Gandour’s research disentangled the influence of prices from environmental policies using econometric techniques, and found that Brazil’s environmental policies were responsible for around half of the avoided deforestation between 2005 and 2009 – equivalent to around 600 million tonnes of stored carbon.

“Our results reveal these policies’ valuable contribution to conservation efforts in the Amazon, especially during periods of rising agricultural prices,” she said.

The study makes special mention of a 2008 policy that made rural credit for agricultural activities in the Amazon conditional on proof of compliance with environmental regulations – with exceptions for smallholders.

Costalonga e Gandour says this policy restricted the availability of credit in the Amazon by 20 percent from 2008-2011, and prevented 3000 square kilometres from being deforested between 2009 and 2011 – a 15 percent reduction.

“The policy was implemented at a time when deforestation was already comparatively low, so although in absolute terms it appears to be small, it’s actually an impressive effect,” she said.

She says this shows that policies that conversely increase the availability of financial resources may boost deforestation in some areas – with implications for schemes like Payments for Environmental Services (PES) or Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation (REDD+).

“Our analysis shows the need for the economic environment of specific areas or municipalities to be taken into account by policymakers during policy design.

“Homogeneous policies that are implemented at a federal level or at the Amazon-wide level may actually have very different effects depending on each municipality or each region’s reality.”

CIFOR research has also shown that the impact on deforestation of other state-led policies like land reform are heterogeneous and depend on the social and economic context of the frontiers where it takes place.

Net zero deforestation?

But how low can deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon go? And can it last?

There have been some indications that the downward trend may be at risk of reversal – recently-released data by Imazon, a Brazilian NGO, suggests that deforestation since August 2012 is well ahead of last year at the same time, with more than three times as much forest cleared during October 2012 than October 2011.

The political processes around the reforms to the Brazilian forest law, and the efforts to weaken the mandate of IBAMA (the central enforcement agency for environmental command-and-control policies) could both point further into that direction, Sven Wunder said.

But Francisco Oliveira believes Brazil will achieve its target of an 80 percent reduction on 2004 levels of deforestation by 2020 – although he agrees it will be challenging.

“It’s like a tennis player holding on to a number 1 title – it’s not going to be easy. We have seven years to keep these very low levels of deforestation,” he said.

“It was ambitious at the time that we set these numbers, and I think it’s still a big challenge – some people might say you are very close to the target – and we are – but don’t forget that these last steps are going to be the hardest.”

Others are even more optimistic.

Speaking on a panel at Forest Day 6 in Doha, Tasso Azevedo, a consultant to the Brazilian Government and former head of the country’s Forest Service, said it is feasible for Brazil to further reduce net deforestation to a ‘marginal’ level by 2020.

That means the area that is deforested in a given year would be balanced by the amount of regrowth in natural forests.

“I think it’s feasible. We showed in the last eight years that it’s completely possible to have a deep decrease in deforestation.”

“I don’t want to be discussing drivers of deforestation in 2020 – rather the drivers of restoration and sustainable forest management.”

Azevedo said some Amazon states and municipalities have already committed to zero net deforestation by 2020.

“We want Brazilians to be proud that we are capable of developing at the same time as protecting the forest – to be proud of the fact that we provide a service not just for ourselves, but for the whole world – and to be really shamed if we don’t take care of that.”

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