How Brazil Has Dramatically Reduced Tropical Deforestation

July 3, 2014

NOTE: Images in this archived article have been removed.

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Photo credit: Rhett Butler, The 2009 beef moratorium created a supply chain through which ranchers were pressured to end deforestation.

In Brief

Over the past nine years, the rate of deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon has dropped by 70 percent. This success has been achieved despite high beef and soy prices, which in previous years had pushed deforestation upward, and during a time that Brazil had rapid economic growth and made important progress in reducing poverty, hunger, and inequality. Brazil’s reduction in emissions from deforestation is the largest contribution so far by any country—rich or poor—to reducing global warming pollution. The factors responsible for this accomplishment include government policies and enforcement actions by prosecutors, on both the federal and state levels; incentives created by Norway’s pledge of up to $1 billion in results-based compensation; the concerted pressure exerted by non-government organizations (NGOs) on the government and the soy and beef industries; and the positive response by those industries, resulting in the 2006 soy and 2009 beef moratoria. Political leaders, such as President Luis Inácio Lula da Silva, Minister of the Environment/2010 Green Party presidential candidate Marina Silva, the independent public prosecutors, and several state governors can also claim an important share of the credit. Ultimately, however, it was the change in the political dynamic of the deforestation issue due to years of effort by Brazilian civil society that made these actions and this success possible.

Key Concepts

  • Deforestation appeared to be an intractable problem for many years, with little progress in reducing it, despite many government and NGO projects and widespread global concern.
  • Brazil’s success has now shown that a large, rapid reduction in deforestation is possible. It has cut deforestation in the Amazon by 70 percent, compared to the average level in 1996-2005, making zero deforestation by 2020—or even sooner—a feasible goal.
  • Many actors deserve credit for the accomplishment. They include Presidents Lula da Silva and Dilma Rousseff, Environment Minister/Green Party candidate Marina Silva, state governors, independent public prosecutors, NGOs, the voluntary moratoria by the soybean and beef industries, and the results-based financing provided by Norway.
  • The overwhelming role of soy and beef as causes of Amazon deforestation means that successful civil society pressure on these industries’ supply chains could lead to rapid reductions in deforestation.
  • Brazilian civil society, including indigenous groups, rubber tappers, labor unions, and environmentalists, were able to change the political dynamics and framing of the deforestation issue. They forced governments and businesses to act and thus made the success possible.

After Decades of Failure…

During the second half of the twentieth century, the deforestation of the tropics became a global concern. Young people everywhere learned at an early age that “saving the rainforest” was one of the most urgent needs of the planet. Yet, for decades, these worries had no real effect on the reality of tropical deforestation.

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Photo credit: Global Carbon Project ( Figure 1: Global emissions from land use change—a good measure of tropical deforestation in recent decades—from 1960 to 2011. The horizontal blue line indicates the mean for the last four decades of the twentieth century.

The lack of progress until the start of the twenty-first century is evident in this graph. Figure 1 shows global greenhouse gas emissions from land use change—which for the past half-century (since 1961) have come almost totally from tropical deforestation. Although there was a fair amount of year-to-year variation up to the year 2000, the trend is absolutely flat, with no overall decrease in deforestation despite global concern and efforts.

Then, in the early part of the twenty-first century, there was a dramatic change. The curve drops sharply, with emissions from land use change falling by over a third in barely a decade. After decades of fruitless efforts, there were clear signs of a major success within a few years.

It turns out that most of the decrease in deforestation has been in the Amazon, and mostly in one country—Brazil. Amazonia is the largest tropical forest in the world with about five million square kilometers.1,2 Furthermore, about 80 percent of the basin’s forest remains basically intact.3<.sup> Brazil contains about 60 percent of the entire Amazon forest, 1 and at the peak of its deforestation in 2004, it was not only the largest tropical forest country, but also the leader in deforestation worldwide.

In this article, I describe the events and causes that underlie the rapid reduction in deforestation in Brazil. In a few short years, a large—indeed, historic—change has occurred. If Brazil’s success can be duplicated elsewhere, most of us living today could witness the end of thousands of years of deforestation in our lifetimes.

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Photo credit: INPE ( Figure 2: Deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon from 1988 to 2013, in square kilometers.

This second graph (Figure 2), using the annual data compiled from satellite imagery by Brazil’s National Institute of Space Research (INPE), clearly shows the downward trend of deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon over the past nine years (2004 to 2013). There was substantial variation from year to year through the 1990s and early 2000s, partly related to changes in the economic factors driving deforestation (e.g., recessions, prices for commodities such as beef and soybeans, and the exchange rate of the Brazilian real relative to the dollar and the euro).4 Variation in weather from year to year also had an impact, since most deforestation occurs during the southern hemisphere dry season (roughly June to October), when forests can be most easily cut down and burned. But until 2004, there was no up or down trend visible at all beyond the annual fluctuations.

Since then, however, there has been enormous progress. The rate of deforestation has been reduced by over two-thirds from its average level in the decade from 1996 to 2005 (the period that Brazil uses as its baseline), and by nearly three-fourths from its high point in 2004. How has this been accomplished?

A New Political Dynamic

This progress reflects the growth of the environmental and social movements in Brazil in the last two decades, including the rise to power of the new Workers’ Party (PT) and their leader, Luis Inácio Lula da Silva (known to Brazilians simply as “Lula”), who was elected President in 2002 on his fourth try. Lula’s government and its progress in reducing deforestation came out of a long history of engagement with social movements. Based in the trade union and landless peasants’ movements, but also having ties to forest peoples’ organizations such as those of indigenous peoples and the rubber tappers union, the PT provided a model for a broad-based coalition that focused on social, economic, and environmental transformation—rather than just on taking power. The PT had significant experience in pressuring both businesses and governments, including Lula’s own government, after he was elected.

At least as important as Lula was Marina Silva, his first Minister of the Environment. Her activism aimed at curtailing the rate of forest clearing went back to her early experience in the Amazon state of Acre, working with Chico Mendes to organize the rubber tappers union and the state branch of the PT. As Minister, she was responsible for implementing the government’s actions to reduce deforestation, which often brought her into conflict with other Ministries’ plans for development and economic growth.

Initially, the policies of Lula’s government were aimed at achieving broad-based social and economic development, particularly for urban workers and the peasants and landless laborers in the rural sector. In the six years after Lula’s 2002 election—through social programs such as Fome Zero (Zero Hunger) and Bolsa Familia (Family Allowances)—Brazil reduced its poverty rate from over 34 percent to less than 23 percent, while 29 million citizens rose into the middle class.5 Hunger and malnutrition rates dropped substantially, and important advances were made in reducing economic inequality.6,7
During the early years of Lula’s administration, actions aimed at reducing deforestation emphasized the creation of protected areas and recognition of indigenous lands, as well as enforcement actions against illegal logging.8

But equally important was the change in the political dynamic. For decades, the issue of deforestation had been seen in Brazil in terms of national sovereignty—as something raised by foreign NGOs pressuring to save Amazon forests even at the cost of Brazilians’ right to economic development. It was often pointed out that those concerned with “saving the rainforest” came from countries that had themselves become rich by exploiting their own natural resources, including destroying most of their forests. Yet, now they were lecturing tropical countries to avoid following this same course for the sake of the planet. Foreigners’ claims to speak for the natural world were counter-posed to Brazil’s right to decide how to use its own land.

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Photo credit: Rhett Butler, Soy production played a significant role in deforestation.

This changed under the Lula government. Deforestation was recast as the wasteful exploitation of resources that rightfully belonged to all Brazilians—particularly to forest peoples such as indigenous groups and the rubber tappers —by powerful forces such as expanding soybean farmers and cattle ranchers. Initially separate, organizations representing forest peoples and urban environmentalists began working together, and joined in 2008 to found the Zero Deforestation campaign. This movement—composed of a broad coalition of non-governmental organizations including environmental, indigenous, rubber-tapper, labor, human rights, and other groups—exerted strong pressure on the federal government. Although allied with international NGOs such as Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth, and World Wildlife Fund, they were fundamentally Brazilian in origin and in their sources of political power.

NGOs were to become the key actors in the widely publicized 2006 and 2009 exposés of the role that the soybean and beef industries had played in deforesting the Amazon, and in negotiating deforestation moratoria with those industries. The Zero Deforestation campaign proposed what became the Amazon Fund and its management by the Brazilian national development bank BNDES (Banco Nacional do Desenvolvimento), and members of the campaign now participate in the Fund’s steering committee as important stakeholders.

Marina Silva, as Minister of the Environment, led the effort to reduce deforestation from within the government, but was also willing to leave that government and join the social movement when it was necessary for the struggle against deforestation. After several years in office, she resigned from Lula’s cabinet in protest against the inadequate pace of action on deforestation, and became the Green Party’s candidate for President in the race to succeed Lula in 2010. Quite unexpectedly, she won nearly 20 percent of the vote in the first round,9 showing the strength of the popular commitment to ending deforestation and exerting pressure on the PT’s candidate, (Dilma Rousseff, Lula’s former Energy Minister and then Chief of Staff) to commit to continuing the progress that had been achieved. Indeed, Lula himself agreed before leaving office to move the deadline for Brazil’s target to reduce deforestation rates by 80 percent up to 2016 from 2020. The Zero Deforestation Campaign, going further, pushed for an end to deforestation by 2015. Rousseff’s partial veto in 2012 of the amendments to the Forest Code that would have given amnesty for past illegal deforestation reflected the new political dynamic that emerged at least in part through Silva’s electoral success.

Many Actors, Many Solutions

The reduction in deforestation would not have happened without the new political dynamic, but it still required the work of many actors, including governments (both at the federal and state levels, and those of other countries such as Norway, Germany, and the U.K.), businesses, and NGOs. Legal steps—including the enforcement of existing forest laws and prosecutions of actors in the soybean and beef supply chains who distributed products produced through deforestation—also played an important role. These prosecutions worked together with voluntary business commitments such as the soybean and beef moratoria, which were enforced using sophisticated satellite imagery.

Law Enforcement and the Soy and Beef Moratoria

The initial government actions, setting up reserves and increasing enforcement of environmental laws, were part of the historic Plan for the Prevention and Combating of Deforestation in the Amazon (PPCDAM), instituted by the Lula government in 2004. Although not originally motivated by climate change, over time the PPCDAM grew and was transformed, and its efforts are now a key element of the National Climate Change Plan. Since emissions from deforestation represented the majority of Brazil’s global warming pollution in the 1990s, making actions against deforestation part of the Climate Plan was a logical step, but it also made it possible to connect the country’s actions with an emerging global concern.

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Figure 3: Lands reserved for indigenous peoples (dark purple), or protected by federal and state governments (light purple), now cover over half of the Amazon Basin of Brazil.25,8

These high-level actions were complemented by on-the-ground steps to strengthen enforcement of existing laws, for example against illegal logging. The data made available by the national space agency INPE on a monthly basis have made it possible to crack down quickly in areas of new deforestation identified through satellite monitoring programs.1 Steps taken include the closing of illegal sawmills and jailing of the perpetrators, including government officials who had been taking bribes to ignore illegal deforestation. Although such enforcement campaigns are often episodic and occur in response to media coverage—which in turn is often generated by new monthly data on deforestation or burning—they have had a cumulative effect of making deforestation a risky activity rather than accepted business as usual.

The 2006 release of Greenpeace’s report, Eating Up the Amazon, proved to be a key step in scaling up pressure.10 The report linked the soybean industry to deforestation, global warming, water pollution, and even the use of slave labor to clear land. It focused particularly on two multi-national companies: the giant grain trader and exporter Cargill and the world’s largest fast food chain, McDonald’s.

Action came within weeks. The two associations that together included nearly all soybean processors and exporters in Brazil—the Brazilian Association of Vegetable Oil Industries (ABIOVE) and the National Association of Cereal Exporters (ANEC)—announced a moratorium on deforestation. Their members would not buy any soybeans produced on Amazon farmland deforested after June 24, 2006. This soy moratorium was followed by a similar one involving beef in 2009, likewise provoked by two hard-hitting NGO reports, Amigos da Terra Amazônia Brasileira’s Time to Pay the Bill and Greenpeace’s Slaughtering the Amazon.11,12

The actions of the independent federal public prosecutors, particular in the key states of Pará and Mato Grosso, have been an important link between these voluntary business actions and government enforcement.13 The moratorium commitments by exporters, soybean processors, slaughterhouses, and supermarkets that they would buy only non-deforestation soy and beef have been buttressed by strong threats from public prosecutors in those two states. First in Pará and then in Mato Grosso, slaughterhouses have signed agreements under which ranchers were required to provide the GPS coordinates of their property boundaries to the slaughterhouses in order to sell their beef to them. This in turn makes it possible to use remote sensing data not only to detect deforestation, but to know on which ranch it is taking place and to take action against it. The prosecutors’ warnings to supermarkets that they too would be held responsible for the sale of beef produced in violation of environmental laws, combined with the new ability to enforce them using GPS data, has effectively made the supply chain a part of the system through which ranchers are pressured, both economically and legally, to end deforestation.

The soy moratorium has been in place for six years, and there is now data to show just how successful it has been. Comparing satellite images showing deforestation with views of the same areas in subsequent years, Rudorff, et al., found that by the 2009/2010 crop year, only 0.25 percent of land with soybean crops had been planted in deforested areas since the moratorium began.14 These fields represented only 0.04 percent of the total soybean area in Brazil. The recent detailed examination by Macedo et al., of soybean production and deforestation in Mato Grosso, where the industry’s expansion has been concentrated, reinforces these conclusions and provides evidence that the link between soy and deforestation—strong until recently—has now been broken.1,15,16 Despite the rise of soy prices to record high levels since 2007, tropical forest clearing for soybeans has declined to very low levels in Mato Grosso. Furthermore, in the adjacent cerrado region, deforestation has also been substantially reduced.15

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Photo credit: Agência Brasil / Wikimedia. Marina Silva speaking as Brazil’s Environment Minister in 2007.

We do not yet have analogous data for the beef moratorium, which is more recent and involves a more complicated supply chain. However, there are initial signs of changes in the actions of ranchers in response to the moratorium, and within the next few years we should have clearer satellite evidence of how successful the beef moratorium has been.13

The soy and beef moratorium efforts show that the movement was based on a sophisticated understanding of the political economy and power dynamics of Amazonia, pressuring not only governments but also the industries that were the major drivers of deforestation. They used the threat of an international consumer boycott as a source of pressure on these industries, but the strategy emphasized pressure on businesses along the entirety of the deforestation-related supply chain, not just relying on individual consumers’ shopping decisions. All the businesses involved—not just the farmers and ranchers producing soy and cattle, but also the banks financing them, the slaughterhouses buying their cattle, the exporters shipping their products overseas, and the intermediaries and supermarket chains distributing them domestically—were targets of the campaigning. The point of the campaigning was not to persuade individual consumers to change their behavior, but to force action by businesses that were critical links in the supply chain.

Indigenous Lands and Protected Areas

Much of the success in reducing deforestation came from establishing —and effectively protecting —an extensive network of indigenous lands and protected areas across the Amazon.

Starting in 2002, more and more areas were brought under various state and federal classifications, so that now just over half of the forest in the Brazilian Amazon is protected in some form. Nearly half of this area is reserved for indigenous peoples, about a fifth is under strict protection, and about a fourth is designated for sustainable development (Figure 3). Some of the protected areas follow the model of state and federal preserves in developed countries. However, the protection of indigenous peoples’ territories is distinctive and plays a critical role in conservation of the Amazon rainforest.

The collective tenure of these lands by indigenous peoples—legally confirmed and enforced by the Brazilian government—gives them the right to use the land for sustainable forest management and the exploitation of timber and non-timber forest resources. In practice, they have generally chosen to keep almost all of their lands in forest, and studies of Brazil’s reserves have found that they have reduced the rate of emissions from deforestation by about ten-fold compared to neighboring areas.8 Beyond the reserves’ effectiveness as environmental measures, they represent the tangible recognition of indigenous peoples’ rights that had been denied for many years.
Rapid Economic Growth

The traditional framing of environmental issues in Brazil, as in developed countries, has seen a conflict between economic development and environmental protection. But Brazil’s reduction of deforestation by two-thirds occurred at the same time that it saw strong economic growth and significant advancement in social justice. The country’s GDP increased at a rapid rate during the 2000s, ranging from over 3 percent to over 7 percent annually for nearly a decade.19,20 The two industries previously most responsible for Amazon deforestation—beef and soy—both showed continued healthy growth at the national level, with production, exports, and the size of the cattle herd continuing to increase steadily even as deforestation dropped.17

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Photo credit: USDA’s Foreign Agricultural Service and Brazil’s National Institute for Space Research (INPE). Figure 4: Brazil’s national cattle herd (million head) and soybean production (million metric tons) have continued to increase despite the decline in deforestation (km2/year).25

While the first few years of decline were partly connected to the economic slowdown and lower commodity prices,1,16,18 more recent data show that the continuing reduction in deforestation rates has not been due to economic recession. Deforestation rates have continued to fall both before and after the recession of 2008-2009, and through the recent years of record agricultural prices (Figure 2).

State Actions

Under Brazil’s federal system, the states have been responsible for a substantial part of the country’s success in reducing deforestation. In Brazil, states share responsibility for land use policies with the national government in Brasilia, and governors in states such as Pará have both taken action themselves and pushed the federal government for stronger anti-deforestation policies.15 Another example is the state of Amazonas, which is Brazil’s largest: as big as Alaska, and over twice the size of Texas. Although its own reduction of the deforestation rate by 70 percent from 2002 to 2008 was from an initially low level, and thus not a major contribution to emissions reductions, its ability to maintain a rapid rate of economic growth while achieving this reduction —an increase of 65 percent in GDP in half a decade—showed how tropical forest regions can move to growth driven by urban sectors rather than by deforestation, and develop rapidly in the process. Amazonas has reduced deforestation to a very low level, with 98 percent of its forest still standing.

The Support of Norway

Brazil showed the seriousness of its commitment to combating deforestation by putting it into national legislation at the end of December 2009. The Climate Change Law inscribes the commitment to reduce overall emissions by between 36.1 percent and 38.9 percent, relative to business as usual, by the year 2020.21 This is equivalent to a 20 percent reduction from Brazil’s 2005 level.

An important indication of international support for this effort came at the 2007 United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) meeting in Bali, Indonesia, where Norway’s Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg announced Norway’s commitment to protecting tropical forests and offered $2.5 billion dollars during the next five years to finance such programs around the world. One of the most notable aspects of the pledge was the promise of up to $1 billion for Brazil’s Amazon Fund, to be used for what is called “results-based financing” or “pay for performance.” This means that the money will flow not on the basis of efforts, promises or attempts to reduce deforestation, but only as the goal of reducing deforestation is met.

The “REDD+” (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation) system that Norway negotiated with Brazil is simple and straightforward. The rate of compensation for reductions (the “carbon price”) is $5.00/ton of CO2. Each hectare of tropical forest is assumed to emit 100 tons of carbon when cleared, which is equivalent to 367 tons of CO2. The reduction in area deforested is calculated in comparison to the average from 1996 through 2005, which was 19,500 km2 per year in all of the Brazilian Amazon.

To date, over $670 million in compensation has been paid to Brazil under this agreement. As REDD+ is often identified— erroneously—with offset-based carbon-market financing, it is important to point out that the Norway-Brazil program—by far the world’s largest (it covers over one-fourth of the world’s tropical forests by itself) and the most successful —is strictly a non-market, non-offset program. Norway does not get the right to emit a single ton more of CO2 bin exchange for its funding of Brazil’s reductions in emissions. Although Germany, the U.K., and other donor nations, as well as international programs such as UN-REDD have also contributed support, no other country has committed to funding for REDD+ at a level close to that coming from Norway. The Norwegian contribution to REDD+ efforts worldwide in the initial period ($2.5 billion over five years) amounted to about $100 annually for each of its citizens. In comparison, the United States’ REDD+ pledge in Copenhagen ($1 billion over three years) added up to only about $1 annually for every American.

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Photo credit: Flickr/CIFOR. Logging has impacted the Brazil nut trees, one of the largest trees in the Amazon, which is a prime source of income for many rural people.

What Has Been Accomplished

Undoubtedly there will be both ups and downs in this story in the years to come. Indeed, the Amazon deforestation rate rose in both 2008 and in 2013, by substantial percentages if calculated only with respect to the previous year. But a glance at Figure 2 shows that despite these reversals, the overall trend is clearly downward since the mid-2000s. Compared to the average over the 1996-2005 baseline, Brazil’s Amazon deforestation had been reduced by 70 percent in 2013. This represents by far the largest success in solving the problem of tropical deforestation, and indeed has been an important contribution to the effort to slow climate change.22 It is particularly impressive in that it has occurred during a period in which the other Amazon countries have not shown any consistent decreases in deforestation.23
The credit for this progress should be shared by many actors. The Brazilian federal government under Lula and Dilma Rousseff has taken strong actions, as have the independent federal public prosecutors and state governments. Marina Silva, both as Minister and as a Presidential candidate, has been a transformative leader on the issue for many years.24 The voluntary moratorium adopted by the soy industry—and the NGO pressure that led to it—played important roles in reducing the pressure for deforestation by a commodity that was one of its major drivers. And the compensation provided by Norway, beyond its economic value, showed that the global community would support Brazil with concrete resources, not just rhetorically.

Ultimately, however, it is the change in the politics of the issue that has made progress possible, and for this, Brazilian civil society deserves most of the credit. The indigenous peoples, rubber tappers, labor organizers, environmentalists and other members of the broad social movement to end deforestation, made it possible and ultimately necessary for politicians and businesses to act. They have done a great service not only to their own country, but also to the climate and biodiversity of our entire planet.


This work was originally presented at the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies in 2011, and much of its content was subsequently published in a different form in the journal Tropical Conservation Science in 2013.25 It includes analyses supported by funding from the Climate and Land Use Alliance and by subcontracts from the European Federation for Transport and Environment and the Environmental Investigation Agency. I thank these organizations and my UCS colleagues, particularly Jordan Faires, Sarah Roquemore, Estrellita Fitzhugh, and the other members of the Tropical Forest and Climate Initiative, for their support and help. The detailed comments of the three reviewers were very helpful in the revision process, and I very much appreciate them.

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Photo credit: Flickr/CIFOR. The Amazon forest covers approximately 5 million square kilometers.


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Tags: deforestation, indigenous social movements