Conservation incentive program shows economic, environmental payoffs in Brazil

Direct payments to families in exchange for conservation, community development and public services.
The Bolsa Floresta program reinforces conservation through a combination of community development, payment for environmental services, provision of public services and support for community organizations.

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A Brazilian program that compensates families for conserving forests shows promise for reducing deforestation and helping small farmers improve their livelihoods, a new study co-sponsored by the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR) shows.

Launched in the Brazilian state of Amazonas in 2007, the Bolsa Floresta — “forest allowance” — program provides direct payments to families in exchange for conservation, community development, public services, and support for local associations.

The program targets families living in Brazil’s Sustainable Development Reserves, which were established to enable residents to combine sustainable land and forest uses based on a management plan. By 2012, Bolsa Floresta benefited more than 30,000 people in and around 15 forest reserves covering more than 10 million hectares.

The study, which focused on the impact in two reserves, Juma and Uatumã, found that most of the participants — mainly small farmers who depend heavily on forest resources — reported that they were better off than before Bolsa Floresta began. Deforestation rates, although low from the outset in the remote forests where the program is implemented, were also slightly lower in those areas than surrounding regions.

“The cash transfer helped many families to cover basic expenses for food and clothing,” said Jan Börner of CIFOR, who co-authored the study. “Many residents also reported that the reserves are better protected from people from outside who used to fish or log illegally in the reserves.”

Those results point to possibilities for conservation incentives in other parts of the Amazon that also face deforestation pressure from logging and ranching, the researchers said. They warned, however, that programs and the provided incentives must be tailored to the particular situation in each place.

The Juma and Uatumã reserves were chosen for the impact study because they were among the first to implement Bolsa Floresta and had shown higher deforestation rates than other reserves when the program began.

The Juma reserve was established along the lower Aripuanã River in 2006, in southeastern Amazonas, a year before the Bolsa Floresta program began. Some 380 families live in the 5,900 square-kilometer reserve, about 70 percent of which is tropical forest. The reserve is also the site of one of the first certified REDD+ (reducing emissions from deforestation and forest degradation) projects in the Brazilian Amazon. The Uatumã reserve, established in northeastern Amazonas in 2004, spans 4,200 square kilometers and is home to more than 360 families.

In each reserve, zoning regulations specify which areas can be used for farming, limit the clearing of mature forest and strictly control the use of fire.

It allegedly protects forests from the local people, but at least as much protects them for the local people

Sven Wunder

The Bolsa Floresta program reinforces conservation through a combination of community development, payment for environmental services, provision of public services and support for community organizations, said Sven Wunder, senior economist at CIFOR’s Brazil office and a co-author of the study. Families agree to comply with the reserve’s management plan and limit the amount of forested lands converted for farming. They must also participate in a local association and send their children to school, if there is one nearby.

“The program requires that people adhere to the rules and do a little bit more, and compensates them for that additional effort,” Wunder said.

Each family receives a payment of about $33 a month. Failure to comply with regulations could result in a warning or suspension of payments. The local association receives an amount equal to 10 percent of the family stipends for activities benefiting the members. Each community also receives investments in income-producing activities that are in line with the reserve’s management plan, such as the processing of farm products, non-timber forest products, fish farming or ecotourism.

The government provides a slightly smaller amount per family for public services, such as health care, education, transportation and communication.

In Amazonas state, the program is managed by the Amazonas Sustainable Foundation (Fundação Amazonas Sustentável, FAS), which co-sponsored the study with CIFOR and the Center for Development Research at the University of Bonn in Germany.

Monetary income levels for families in the reserves are so low that even the small monthly stipend becomes an important cash injection, Wunder said. That might not be true in a place that is more closely connected with markets, or where there is more timber production or cattle ranching. In those places, the size and combination of incentives should be tailored to the particular situation, he said.

The study found that deforestation had decreased about 12 percent more inside the reserves than in the rest of the state of Amazonas since the Bolsa Floresta program began, resulting probably in a modest difference of about 1,500 hectares of additional forests preserved from deforestation.

Remote-sensing data provided by Brazil’s national PRODES monitoring system was not detailed enough to monitor small-scale deforestation or degradation in the reserves, the study found. The researchers used CLASlite, a system developed by the Carnegie Institution for Science, for more precise information.

“For the type of small-scale deforestation that dominates in the Bolsa Floresta areas, it will probably always pay off to move towards higher-resolution monitoring systems,” Börner said.

One key benefit of Bolsa Floresta is that it supports local conservation efforts that help protect against invasion of the reserves by outsiders, Wunder said. Although many people blame small farmers for clearing forest, “in thinly populated, remote areas that are dominated by smallholders or indigenous people, most of the deforestation is usually done by people who come in from outside to cut timber or clear land for cattle ranching,” he said.

A reserve with people inside provides a buffer against that deforestation, and Bolsa Floresta can reinforce that by providing greater incentive for conservation.

“It allegedly protects forests from the local people, but at least as much protects them for the local people,” Wunder said. “These people can become better allies of conservation, and one advice to the implementers from our report was to link the rewards more to active local monitoring against external degrading forces.”

For more information about this study, contact Sven Wunder at

This study is part of CIFOR’s Global Comparative Study on REDD+.

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Topic(s) :   Deforestation REDD+