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This is the seventh in a seven-part series highlighting the recent publication of a special issue of the International Forestry Review focused on CIFOR research.

The Brazilian states of Acre and Mato Grosso could not be more different. Acre, a small state situated at the westernmost point of the country is tucked deep into the Brazilian Amazon. A lack of major roads makes it notoriously hard to reach. “There is a joke among Brazilians that Acre doesn’t exist,” said Jazmín Gonzales Tovar, a researcher with the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR). “It’s so geographically isolated.”

Mato Grosso, on the other hand, is located near the middle of the country and is the third largest state. Although most of Mato Grosso — which means “thick brush” in Portuguese — is dominated by the Amazon, its capital Cuiabá is a metropolis and a busy travel hub. Moreover, the state is considered the Brazilian capital of agribusiness.

When these two states set out to map and plan their territories, they used the same national regulations and processes. Both followed a federal requirement to use a multi-stakeholder forum (MSF) for territorial planning. The objective: to produce a map that divides the state into land-use categories, to guide land uses and promote sustainability in the territory.

The same territorial planning mechanism led to vastly different processes and results, with Acre accomplishing the project from 1999 to 2007 and Mato Grosso completing a map, but still struggling to get it approved after almost two decades.

To understand what went wrong and what worked, Gonzales Tovar spent time in Acre and Mato Grosso from 2016 to 2018 to study these two cases. In her study, published recently in the International Forestry Review, she reveals how political, social and economic elites can nudge territorial planning processes into echoing their own agendas.

   A family enjoy the afternoon on a smallholders farm along the BR-364 highway in Acre, Brazil. Photo by Kate Evans/CIFOR

A map isn’t just a map

Brazil’s military government mapped the country’s Amazon region between the 1970s and the 1980s with no civil society participation. However, the country’s transition to democracy in the late 1980s, and international pressure to reduce deforestation in the Amazon led to regulations on Ecological-Economic Zoning (ZEE, in Portuguese) from the 1990s.

ZEEs were introduced as a policy tool to organize territories and guide decision-making toward sustainable and inclusive land use. Regulations called for ZEEs to be developed and implemented through participatory means such as a multi-stakeholder commission.

Gonzales Tovar’s study confirms that territorial planning and map making are not purely technical endeavors. “People often think it is as straightforward as getting data, then building maps” she said. “But territorial planning MSFs are highly political spaces, so maps aren’t a hundred percent technical.” In fact, she warns, “information considered as technical could be a way to disregard the priorities of certain groups and different lived realities.”

Considering the political nature of multi-stakeholder territorial planning, Gonzales Tovar examined how the composition and character of Acre’s and Mato Gross’s MSFs impacted their ZEEs.

   Mato Grosso, Brazil. Photo by Icaro Cooke Vieira/CIFOR
   Mato Grosso, Brazil. Photo by Icaro Cooke Vieira/CIFOR

Acre’s history of forest conservation produces a dream map

Acre’s location and isolation from the rest of Brazil has shaped the state’s history, goals and politics. Between the late 1970s and 1980s, the state’s Indigenous Peoples and other forest-dependent populations and grassroots groups resisted invasions, protected the forest and regularized their land rights.

These processes also slowed the expansion of agroindustry in the state. As a result, Acre has well-conserved forest areas and established indigenous lands and conservation units. In Acre, Indigenous and local peoples were able to rely on forest resources for their livelihoods. “Acre has retained about 90 percent of its forests,” Gonzales Tovar said.

Since the late 1990s, Acre’s politics have been steeped in the ideal of florestania, a local term for forest-citizenship. Acre’s government envisioned its ZEE map as a dream map promoting florestania and forest-based sustainable development as part of a social pact to overcome past conflicts and recognize the rights of historically marginalized peoples by giving all land-use actors an equal voice in building a common future vision.

Its ZEE commission was composed of the state and federal government, research agencies, small-scale workers’ or farmers’ organizations, business, indigenous organizations and non-governmental organizations (NGOs).

Acre’s government and diverse stakeholders fully supported the ZEE and florestania-oriented politics. Gonzales Tovar’s interviews revealed that most members of the commission had good relations with each other; most did not feel threatened by the government experts’ technical knowledge and considered them as collaborators. However, the state’s agribusiness federation considered the commission’s organizers to be biased towards environmental protection.

Acre’s ZEE commission produced a map that reflected florestania: it forbade further deforestation or agricultural expansion and called for its forests, land uses, land occupation, economic activities, and populations to remain as they were. Following approval by the commission and by state-and federal-level authorities, Acre’s map became law.

   Cattle farming is a key driver of deforestation in Brazil. Rio Branco, Acre, Brazil. Photo by Kate Evans/CIFOR

Conflict derails territorial mapping in Mato Grosso

Gonzales Tovar describes Mato Grosso as a state with “political and land use dynamics historically framed by powerful economic interests.” Throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, its state and the federal government prioritized projects that made it the leading state in agribusiness and deforestation.

“Data from different sources vary, but in general terms Mato Grosso has lost about 40 percent of its Amazon forest cover,” Gonzales Tovar said. A recent report, however, shows a welcome decline in deforestation in the state.

Leading figures in the state’s agribusiness, economics and politics have tight alliances and often exert power across sectors. However, the organizers of Mato Grosso’s territorial planning process were not part of the agribusiness alliance and instead envisioned the ZEE would diversify the state’s economy. To minimize confrontation with the agribusiness sector, the organizers changed the name from Ecological Economic Zoning (the term used in Brazilian legislation) to Socio-Economic Ecological Zoning.

State decrees changed the composition of Mato Grosso’s commission between its two phases. In phase one, the commission only included state and federal government, and civil society stakeholders. Participants from the state government were considered members of the commission, while participants from the other two groups were considered guests. There were no indigenous representatives in this phase and a single participant from one afro-Brazilian community (quilombo) represented all of Mato Grosso’s traditional population.

The diversity of the groups improved in the second phase where membership was expanded to also include representatives from municipal governments, environmental and social non-governmental organizations, small-scale farmers, traditional populations, Indigenous Peoples, and the agriculture, livestock and industry sectors.

Interviews revealed that Mato Grosso’s process was unclear and decisions were not made in a participatory manner. Contrary to the MSFs’ presumed participatory nature, organizers maintained control over decision-making within the commission, purportedly to minimize conflict and avoid interference by the agribusiness sector.

Participants across sectors were unhappy with the map, which they considered too environmentalist. Agribusiness alliances obstructed the process by lobbying Mato Grosso’s legislators and governor. They used public hearings to delegitimize the map and organized protests, convincing farmers that they would lose their lands if the map were implemented. There were reports that social-environmental activists who participated in the public hearings received death threats.

Although the commission finalized Mato Grosso’s map in the late 2000s, it still was not approved as of March 2020 when this study ended.

Recommendations for territorial planning MSFs

The study concluded that multi-stakeholder territorial planning does not necessarily ensure equitable and effective territorial planning processes. Acre shows their potential when they emerge from a context that embraces social-environmental local movements. Mato Grosso, where economically powerful elites dominate, shows a different outcome.

What then can governments do to make sure that territorial mapping MSFs achieve intended results in such different places? The study recommends explicitly recognizing the political nature of these spaces to begin with. “Don’t avoid controversial topics, acknowledge the politics, the power relations, the structural injustices that will come up during the discussions,” Gonzales Tovar said.

MSF organizers and participants must recognize that zoning and maps are both technical and political, she said. They represent the views, interests, and power dynamics of their makers. Active efforts must be made to ensure not only the presence of historically marginalized populations but also their effective participation.

Acknowledging these crucial issues may enable MSFs in areas like Mato Grosso to take on the challenges of territorial mapping for the common good.

The research supported by this work was undertaken as part of the CGIAR Research Programs on Policies, Institutions, and Markets (PIM) led by the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI), and Forests, Trees and Agroforestry (FTA) led by CIFOR. Both are supported by the CGIAR Fund Donors. It was carried out as part of a comparative study of subnational MSFs in Brazil,
Ethiopia, Indonesia and Peru, part of CIFOR’s Global Comparative Study on REDD+.

For more information on this topic, please contact Anne Larson at or Juan Pablo Sarmiento Barletti at

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