SPECIAL REPORT: How a remote Amazonian state is leading the way in climate change policy

Lessons learned in Acre could be critical for the development of Brazil's national REDD+ framework.
Forest landscape in Acre, Brazil. Kate Evans/CIFOR

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In Brazil’s wild west, a state government is trying to prove that it is possible to safeguard the Amazon – and improve the lives of rural people at the same time.

Acre is one of the country’s most remote jurisdictions: the state capital Rio Branco sits on a tributary of a tributary of the Amazon River, nearly 4,000 km by road from Rio de Janeiro. Nearly 90 percent of the state is still blanketed in rainforest – and a progressive series of state governments have decided there are huge advantages for their people in keeping it that way.

They’ve established an innovative, comprehensive, and statewide legal framework that attempts to change the state’s entire model of development to one rooted in forests.

Acre is not a wealthy state (although GDP has been steadily growing since the 90s) so the government is hoping that flows of money from governments or private investors will help to fund the scheme, for example through the mechanism of REDD+: a UN-backed scheme that aims to combat climate change by reducing carbon emissions from deforestation and forest degradation. When forests are cut down – or degraded by fires or mismanaged selective logging – they release tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.

REDD+ aims to tackle climate change by paying developing countries to keep their forests standing. But although international negotiations on how this scheme will be financed have stalled, Acre has pushed ahead.

“Acre state has always been in a hurry,” says Rodrigo Neves, the state’s Attorney General, who has been instrumental in setting up the scheme.

“We can’t wait for the ideal conditions of international negotiations or national discussions on REDD+. This sense of urgency has led us to take action—we didn’t sit and wait for a big international treaty or a national law to do our job.”

Neves and a handful of public officials, including Eufran Amaral and Monica de los Rios of Acre’s Institute for Climate Change and Regulation of Environmental Services, have spent the past few years trying to prove what can be done in a sub-national jurisdiction if the political will is there, so that once the money starts flowing, Acre will be set up to receive it.

“The world needs action today, not in the future,” says de los Rios. “If we don’t take action here in our state, the deforestation and degradation will continue.”

Innovative strategy

In 2010, Acre’s state Assembly approved a new law called the State System of Incentives for Environmental Services (SISA). SISA is the culmination of more than a decade of pro-environmental policies initiated by Acre’s self-proclaimed “Government of the Forest” and its successors since 1998, when it announced the goal of halting deforestation at 18 per cent of the state’s surface area and placing 25 percent of the state’s forests (approximately 4 million hectares) under sustainable forest management.

The new law establishes the foundation for creating incentives to maintain and restore “environmental services” – forest carbon stocks, water, soil, biodiversity, traditional knowledge – and includes a framework enabling the state to establish links with the markets for these services that have started emerging internationally.

Before, in the burning season, there was fire everywhere, you saw smoke rising everywhere

Lima de Silva

In contrast to some other jurisdictions worldwide, where incipient REDD+ programs operate in isolation, Acre developed the legal framework of its state-wide program before encouraging forest carbon projects. This involved setting up a range of institutions to regulate the system, trade carbon credits, give scientific advice, and negotiate with civil society, says Neves.

“We wanted to set out a system that was as complete as possible. Of course, we were pioneers, and as such we had lessons to learn—we had to invent a lot during the process and are still doing so,” he said.

SISA incorporates Acre’s existing Certification of Smallholder Properties Program. This program provides incentives to small producers to engage in more sustainable land use activities, including strategies to make already-deforested land more productive.

Incentives for sustainable development

Sebastião Lima da Silva and his family live on a small property just off Acre’s newly paved BR-364 highway, identified by the government as a “Priority Assistance Zone”. The road – cutting northwest across the state to Brazil’s border with Peru – passes through a vast, intact forest.

Until recently, it was a dirt track, impassable in the wet season. The improved access since it was paved in 2010 hugely benefits local people like Lima da Silva, allowing them to sell their products and making it easier for their children to get to school or to see a doctor – but it also means the area is now at risk of accelerated deforestation.

Ronei Santana is from the Secretariat of Agroforestry Extension and Family Production (SEAPROF), which is implementing the Certification Program. He’s visiting Lima da Silva’s farm and other properties along the highway to check on the progress of the scheme.

“We don’t want to see here what you find so often in the Amazon: careless forms of development, like the unplanned expansion of livestock production, increased burning, and difficulties in helping producers raise their incomes while ensuring food sovereignty,” Santana says.

“So the State Government is aware of the importance of changing this tradition – but at the same time it must find alternatives for producers.”

So, like the other small farmers along the highway, Lima da Silva receives assistance from Santana’s team to adopt more sustainable practices. He and his family were given assistance to develop chicken and fish farming and to enrich his forest with acai seedlings (a native forest fruit that is widely eaten in Brazil.)

They were also trained in techniques to produce food without the use of fire. Soil-enriching legumes are being used to fix nitrogen and fertilize soils, as an alternative to swidden agriculture.

Until recently, every year around August or September, Lima da Silva cleared new agricultural fields with fire – an important component of small farmers’ land management systems for millennia.

Like countless other smallholders across the Amazon, it was the only way he could get new land to grow the staples of life: rice, beans and cassava. After a few years, the nutrients in those fields were exhausted – and he would have to cut and burn again.

“Before, in the burning season, there was fire everywhere, you saw smoke rising everywhere,” he says. Despite social and biodiversity benefits associated with swidden agriculture, conservation policies – like REDD+ – often restrict swidden practices, since in dry years, fires risk spreading into wildfires that can degrade huge areas of forest.

2005 was a particularly bad year in the southwestern Amazon – in Acre alone, 300,000 hectares of forest burned. While most large-scale deforestation and fires in the Amazon are associated with cattle ranching and conventionally logged forests that are more susceptible to burning, small farmers are part of the picture.

In Acre, they’re estimated to be responsible for 36 percent of the state’s deforestation. Without support for more sustainable agriculture, Lima da Silva says, he would still be clear cutting and burning the forest.

“We had to find a way to subsist.  We need cassava, we need beans, we need corn, we need rice, and if we didn’t burn or deforest, we had no way to live,” he said.

“We would even risk paying a fine from IBAMA [the federal environmental enforcement agency] because there was no other way out.  We would deforest to plant something to eat.”

He says when the SEAPROF team first came to the area, farmers were sceptical about producing food without the use of fire. “We were used to cutting, clearing and burning to produce, and we thought it would take more work,” says Lima da Silva.

“But then…people stopped using fire. When you go along the road now, you don’t see fire anymore.”

What might this program mean for livelihoods and forests?

In 2010, as the BR-364 was being paved and in the early days of the Certification Program, Amy Duchelle and a team of researchers from the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR) spent several months in the area, interviewing 240 smallholder families about their land use and livelihoods as part of CIFOR’s Global Comparative Study on REDD+.

They’ll return later this year to repeat the interviews – and see what early impacts the SISA program has had on human wellbeing and forests in the area. This process is being repeated for 5 other subnational REDD+ initiatives across the Brazilian Amazon – and at 17 other sites worldwide.

Some of the schemes, like Acre’s, take the approach that offering incentives to change people’s behaviour may be more effective than the threat of punishment alone – as Lima da Silva’s case shows – although they can’t fully replace efforts to ensure environmental compliance.

“What we really see here in Acre is a lot of incentives for making production systems more sustainable. And that has a lot of power, because people just can’t be punished if they have no alternatives, Duchelle says.

“That said, our research can help inform if such policies are actually beneficial for local people and for forests.”

Beyond REDD+

The CIFOR team are examining SISA as an example of a sub-national REDD+ initiative: but in some ways, Acre’s scheme goes further than REDD+ as it is often conceptualized, Amy Duchelle says.

“The sustainable rural development aspect comes first,” she says. And in fact the architects of SISA are careful not to label their scheme as REDD+.

“We are trying to avoid the traditional concept of REDD+, trying to put other benefits together in the process of emission reductions,” says Monica de los Rios from Acre’s Department of Climate Change.

“There are many misunderstandings of the REDD+ concept. That is because there are many examples in the world, trying to look just at emissions reductions at any cost and causing fear in people,” she said.

Even economically, focussing on carbon alone doesn’t make sense, says Fábio Vaz de Lima, the head of another branch of Acre’s Government involved in implementing SISA, the Secretariat of Forest Development (SEDENS).

“Even if the current five-dollar price [per ton of carbon] goes up, it will never be enough to fully ensure forest protection, because the cost of maintaining forests is extremely high,” he said. “In some areas, the costs for producers are really high. So we cannot live in the illusion that this kind of payments for environmental services alone can protect forests; they need to go hand in hand with other activities,” he said.

According to Duchelle, Acre’s experience shows that REDD+ could be reconceptualised as part of a broader low-emission rural development model – as has been suggested by other researchers. “I think it’s an important re-framing of REDD+,” she said.

“It is more palatable to people who are actually on the ground, and people who need and want development. It’s just development in a different way. And I think that’s the key, and Acre is really at the forefront of that.”

She says smallholders across the Amazon have their own ideas about how REDD+ should work.

“During our research, some of the community members have given us recommendations for how REDD+ type initiatives should move forward,” she says.

“We’ve actually brought those ideas back to some of the proponents, who have been extremely receptive to some of them – REDD+ doesn’t have to be a top-down process.”

Fábio Vaz de Lima believes a bottom-up approach – from local people to local governments, from local governments to international bodies – may be just the key to REDD+’s success.

“For something to work internationally, it needs to be the sum of local experiences. This way it has more chances to be successful. It’s better if the world learns what is being done in Brazil, Indonesia, Mexico, and Costa Rica, than to apply a global rule and have everyone adapt to it,” he said.

Nationally and globally connected 

With the legal framework in place, Acre’s government is now starting to connect with the handful of regulated voluntary carbon markets emerging around the world. The state has already reached an agreement with Germany for five million tons of carbon under the REDD Early Movers program, it has received a grant of US$ 35 million from Norway’s Amazon Fund, and is also partnering with WWF and Sky to help fund the Certification of Smallholder Properties Program.

It is also collaborating with one of the world’s most economically powerful sub-national jurisdictions: California. The US state is in the process of setting up a cap-and-trade system for carbon and is in talks with the Acre government about the possibility of buying carbon offsets generated through the emissions reductions achieved by SISA – although this has proved controversial.

“We believe the state has matured and can now take the second step—enter a regulated market and start carbon credit offerings. This shows that we’re on the right track and that our ongoing adjustments are accepted and successful. Our commitment is now to ensure all this brings about benefits and life quality improvements for people,” says Neves.

Acre is also part of a new body, the Governors’ Climate and Forests Task Force, which brings together the Governors of all the Amazonian states with Brazil’s federal government to discuss a national strategy for emissions reductions. Acre is by no means the only Brazilian jurisdiction making advances in this area.

Each site has to analyze its own reality and its own social relations dynamics to make the process as participatory as possible and try not to leave out any variables

Rodrigo Neves

In the state of Amazonas, Bolsa Floresta is an incentive-based forest conservation initiative that includes the Juma Sustainable Development Reserve, Brazil’s first certified REDD+ project; the municipality of Paragominas in Pará dramatically reduced deforestation through a combination of enforcement and incentives after being black-listed in 2008 as one of the country’s 36 top-deforesters.

The Task Force allows the states to compare notes on what works and what doesn’t, says de los Rios. “It’s impossible to have the same recipe for every state or every region in Brazil,” she says. “But we are sharing the lessons we have learned from this process.”

Spreading the message

This raises the question: What can other states of Brazil – and other sub-national jurisdictions around the world – glean from Acre’s experience?

In some ways, Acre is a special case – given its history of strong social movements supporting forest conservation; the assassination in 1988 of famous rubber tapper and union leader Chico Mendes, which brought international attention to Acre and further galvanised support for forests; and 14 years of stable state governments of a similar persuasion with the same approach to development.

Together these have created a political context that is supportive of sustainability policies, says Rodrigo Neves.

“We can share views, but each site has its own social dynamics. So there’s no ready-to-use package; there’s no magic solution to the problem. Each site has to analyze its own reality and its own social relations dynamics to make the process as participatory as possible and try not to leave out any variables,” he said.

But Neves and de los Rios both agree there are three important things Acre has learned that might reduce the time other jurisdictions take to get to the same point.

Firstly, they say, the legal framework is crucial. Emissions reductions need to be integrated into a wide-reaching sustainable development strategy.

Secondly, the zoning map of Acre made in 2007 – which classified the soil, vegetation, crops, and social organisation of the whole territory, and demarcated lands for agriculture, sustainable management, preservation and indigenous use – made establishing the legal framework much easier.

Finally, both stress that public consultation, and constant dialogue with civil society, has been key to the program’s success.

“We’ve held all kinds of meetings,” says Neves. “Meetings with representatives from NGOs from Brazil and abroad, research and knowledge centers, universities, companies. And meetings in remote areas, with no cell phone service or access to communication, discussing how this work should be conducted.”

“One of SISA’s institutions is a joint state-civil society commission, which aims to ensure social legitimacy—as we believed that we couldn’t move forward without the support of local people and social movements,” he said.

Consultation – and criticism

Eduardo Amaral Borges, from the NGO PESACRE (Group of Research and Extension in Agroforestry Systems of Acre), was involved in the consultation – and says this process is essential.

“The fact that we were participating in these consultations doesn’t mean we agree with 100 per cent of the policies, but we believe that we must participate,” he says. “As an NGO, we think that without civil society involvement, these programs and policies wouldn’t have been successful; not even 10 percent of the outcomes would have been obtained. We cannot overstate the importance of civil society for co-implementation, development, and monitoring of public policies and programs,” he said.

“This doesn’t mean that after 12 years of a political project on sustainable development it’s all going perfectly well or there are no problems in Acre.  Challenges remain – but there have been successes—good things that have changed the situation and life quality of forest families.”

Others, though, are more critical. In April, 25 mainly Acre-based NGOs and 40 individuals wrote an open letter to California’s governor, opposing REDD+ in principle, and any attempt by California to buy carbon offsets from Acre. Among their complaints, they argue that they weren’t sufficiently consulted about the SISA law.

SISA’s creators admit they can’t reach everyone – but say they are doing as much as possible to make SISA work for forest dwellers. “Not everything is beautiful and wonderful – there are problems,” says de los Rios.

“The policies in this state are very innovative, but the government still lacks the money and the capacity to help every single rural producer that needs to be helped.” “But the benefits that we can get from this program should help the government to share these benefits to all the people that need it. I really believe that,” she says.

“I cannot say that we asked every one of the 700,000 people in this state, because that’s impossible. But we asked people from every sector, to bring the ideas and the needs and the realities to help us design the law,” she says. “We are aware that we can lose legitimacy with any false step,” adds Neves. “So we’re always re-evaluating and discussing with civil society to make sure our steps are right.”

When CIFOR’s team returns to the Zone of Priority Assistance in September, they’ll gather empirical evidence on changes in land use, livelihoods and forests in the area, as well as local people’s perspectives on the early interventions.

Policy laboratory

It’s now a race against time for the Government of Acre to fully implement SISA – and show it is achieving results – before the state elections in 2014. And even if the current government is re-elected – or a new one decides to continue the scheme – the longevity of SISA’s carbon program will only be ensured by national or global willingness to pay for this kind of avoided deforestation.

“If we don’t have the global flows of money for these initiatives, the government’s motivation will diminish – because we could wait and wait for something that never comes,” says Monica de los Rios.

But whatever happens, Acre’s experience – its successes and its failures – has already informed the development of national and even international REDD+ policies.

“It’s kind of a laboratory for innovative policy,” says Duchelle.

“The lessons learned on the ground in Acre will be critical for the development of the national REDD+ framework – as well as informing international negotiations, because Acre has gained so much attention for what they’ve done, that it holds a lot of promise to have impact at higher levels.”

“The passing of the SISA law in 2010 was revolutionary,” she says.

“And that was important to send a message worldwide that subnational efforts to mitigate carbon emissions from deforestation and forest degradation can move ahead.”

For more information on issues discussed in this article, please contact Amy Duchelle at This research was carried out as part of the Global Comparative Study on REDD+ and the CGIAR Research Program on Forests, Trees and Agroforestry and was supported by AusAID, the Norwegian Agency for Development Cooperation (NORAD), the UK Department for International Development (DFID) and the Program on Forests (PROFOR).

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