In Brazil, governance key to resisting Mato Grosso deforestation — study

Can other tropical countries learn from Brazil's success at controlling export-driven deforestation?
Researchers have studied whether other tropical countries could follow Mato Grosso’s example to preserve their own forests.

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A state in Brazil central to the country’s cash-crop farm sector experienced a dramatic decline in deforestation between 2005 and 2010 through improved governance and monitoring, but other tropical forest countries may have difficulty replicating its success, a scientific study has found.

The state of Mato Grosso, the country’s largest producer of soya bean and cattle, was so successful in reversing a rapid increase in deforestation caused by agriculture and ranching that researchers studied whether other tropical countries could follow Mato Grosso’s example to preserve their own forests.

The study by scientists with the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR) was published in a special issue of Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B.

“A lot of countries with forests face similar pressures as those faced by the Mato Grosso region, but the governance is simply not in place to achieve the same kind of success,” said Ruth DeFries, a scientist with Columbia University’s Earth Institute in New York, and the paper’s principal author. “Only Malaysia and Costa Rica have structures strong enough to resist the drivers of deforestation.”


The seeds for Mato Grosso’s emergence as Brazil’s largest producer of soya bean and cattle — and the drivers of deforestation — were planted four decades ago.

Beginning in the 1970s, new crop varieties, improved soil management, government policies and investments in infrastructure led to agricultural expansion in Mato Grosso’s savannah and Amazon forest, according to earlier research.

Other studies also show how more than half of Brazil’s savannah — a grassy woodland of which 19 percent lies in Mato Grosso — had been transformed into pasture for cash-crop agriculture by the mid-2000s. Indeed, clearing forest for soya bean contributed about 12 percent of deforestation in areas larger than 25 hectares (60 acres) from 2000 to 2005.

Much of this demand for soya bean was driven by international markets for livestock feed. Citing statistics from the Food and Agriculture Organization, the researchers noted the quantity of Brazil’s soya bean production devoted to exports nearly quadrupled, rising from 10 percent to almost 38 percent between 1980 and 2010.

By this time, the CIFOR study noted, the Amazon region was also exporting beef internationally. From 1980 to 2010, for example, herds of cattle in Brazil increased from 120 million to almost 210 million heads, the study said.

“The biggest drivers of deforestation are often outside the areas where its impact is being felt,” said co-author Martin Herold, a scientist at Wageningen University in the Netherlands. “Much deforestation in the South occurs to meet consumption demands in the North.”

Driven by demands from domestic and international markets for Brazilian beef and soya bean, deforestation rates in Mato Grosso peaked in the early years of the 2000s, the study said.

However, after 2005, deforestation declined throughout the Amazon, most notably in Mato Grosso. The scientists reported that deforested area was only 11 percent of the 1996-2005 historical average in 2010.

The rates of deforestation in Mato Grosso are down, but the ultimate drivers haven’t really changed; the basic need for soya and cattle is still high, and in fact has even increased

Martin Herold

This dramatic decline coincided with reduced meat and soya bean demand owing to the global recession, but also with efforts by national, state and local governments to control deforestation, the study said. The soya industry also declared a moratorium on production in deforested areas in 2006.

Other factors that helped control deforestation were Mato Grosso’s strengthened capacity for real-time monitoring, as well as high-profile arrests. In 2005, Brazilian police arrested 89 people in the illegal logging of more than 83 million cubic feet (2.4 million cubic meters) of timber from the Amazon over 14 years. Double cropping, along with increased numbers of cattle per hectare, intensified production in both croplands and pasture, while deforestation declined.


To determine if other tropical countries could apply lessons learned from Brazil, researchers clustered countries together into one of four categories, identifying the pervasiveness of deforestation drivers similar to those encountered in Brazil and the measures to control deforestation.

Among the study’s findings, 36 of 80 tropical countries in Africa, Asia and Latin America, including Brazil, contain more than half of their land areas within the forest biome. A biome, or eco-region, has a distinct mix of species, geography and environmental conditions. These 36 nations, referred to in the study as “tropical-forest countries”, collectively contain 91 percent of all area in the tropical forest biome.

Researchers found that pressures on forests from market forces for international export and urban consumption are prevalent across the 35 tropical forest countries other than Brazil, and that 10 had deforestation drivers similar to Brazil. Together with Brazil, these 10 countries accounted for 74 percent of forest loss from 2000 to 2005.

With current projections of higher demand for food from urban populations and continued competition of land for biofuels, the study said, the pressure to cut down forests for the expansion of export-oriented agriculture will increase, even in Brazil.

“The rates of deforestation in Mato Grosso are down, but the ultimate drivers haven’t really changed; the basic need for soya and cattle is still high, and in fact has even increased,” Herold said.

Of the tropical forest countries, the study said, only Costa Rica and Malaysia had governance and monitoring capacity comparable to Brazil. Governance was judged by citizens’ perceptions about respect for rule of law in their country, while capacity for monitoring was measured by factors such as engagement in the U.N.-backed Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and forest Degradation (REDD+) process and ability to use remote sensing.

The study pointed out that these two countries contain only 3 percent of remaining forest and 9 percent of forest lost from 2000 to 2005 in tropical forest countries, excluding Brazil. Consequently, the remaining eight countries with similar drivers to Brazil may not have the capacity to resist deforestation, yet also have the most forest to lose.

“The answer is better governance,” said Herold. “Countries may not be able to control market forces, but the policies, monitoring and enforcement within Brazil show that it is possible to limit deforestation.

“It’s not easy for developing countries to deal with the drivers of deforestation, which so often are imposed from abroad,” he added. “At the next Conference of the Parties, we will be pushing for developed countries to take these drivers more seriously. Deforestation affects everyone, and solutions must be global in nature.”

For more information about the issues in this article, contact Ruth DeFries, or Louis Verchot at 

This paper was funded by the Norwegian Agency for Development Cooperation (Norad) and the Australian Government Overseas Aid Program (AusAID) for the global comparative study on REDD+ managed by the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR).  

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Topic(s) :   Deforestation