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Is Brazil’s Forest Code failing to reduce deforestation?

  • Engagement with the land registration system that underpins the Forest Code was initially high, but the researchers found that it had little bearing on the amount of illegal deforestation.
  • Only 6 percent of farmers surveyed said they were actively restoring deforested parts of their land, while 76 percent said that they would only do so if forced by authorities.
  • After dropping off substantially in the late 2000s, deforestation rates are once again on the rise, reaching their highest levels since 2008 last year.

Brazil’s Forest Code, a set of laws passed in 2012 to protect the country’s vast wooded landscapes, carried with it the promise of stopping illegal deforestation and continuing the country’s trajectory toward ever-lower deforestation.

The laws were built around a system to register farmers with claims to forested lands in areas such as the Amazon and the drier Cerrado. But despite early enthusiasm for the registration system, progress has largely stalled, with scant incentives to encourage farmers to stop deforesting and too few repercussions for those who break the law, according to new research.

A cow grazes on a deforested plain in Brazil. Photo by Rhett A. Butler.

The underpinnings of the Forest Code have “big potential for reducing monitoring costs and figuring out who’s complying with the Forest Code,” said Marcelo Stabile, a researcher at the Amazon Environmental Research Institute in Brasilia and coauthor of the study, published online July 3 by the journal Proceedings of the National Academies of Science.

But right now, the laws are falling short. “There are better ways of using this tool that could make it fulfill its promises,” he added.

To get a better idea of how these registries affect illicit deforestation, Stabile and his colleagues looked at the Brazilian states of Mato Grosso and Pará, which hold large tracts of the Amazon rainforest. They also have their own rural land registries, known by the Portuguese acronym CAR, with their origins dating back to the late 1990s. Even with that history, few scientists have looked at whether these registries help to keep deforestation down.

The idea behind land registration is straightforward: By sorting out who is responsible for which pieces of land, authorities can track any changes to those parcels. If they find illegal deforestation using satellite imagery, officials can then identify the owner and issue a fine by mail.

A block of cleared forest for agriculture in Brazil. Photo by Rhett A. Butler.

Initially, in Pará and Mato Grosso, landowners were quick to sign up. In both states, the registry is mandatory, and participating in the registry was one way for farmers to show “evidence of environmental compliance,” a legal requirement to be eligible for the lower interest rates offered with public loans through Brazil’s central bank.

However, when the researchers tracked deforestation on registered versus unregistered land – covering nearly 50,000 properties in total – they found that participating in the registry didn’t necessarily decrease the amount of illegal deforestation that had occurred.

Under the Forest Code, 80 percent of privately held land in the Amazon, and 20 to 35 percent in the Cerrado, should be protected. Cutting into those required portions of native vegetation constitutes illegal deforestation.

In theory, this approach minimizes both monitoring and enforcement costs, and it was expected to slow deforestation rates.

“That was not actually happening all the time,” said Raoni Rajão, an environmental policy analyst at the Federal University of Minas Gerais and coauthor of the paper. He said that they found “no systematic effect” of the registration, particularly for medium- and large-size farms. While there might be lower deforestation within registered properties one year, the next year would see lower deforestation on properties outside the CAR.

“The system basically lost its appeal and deterrent effect,” Rajão said.

“It’s like a speed camera,” he added. “You might reduce your speed as you pass by it, [but] then you start noticing that its broken and everybody’s passing above the speed limit.”

Forest fragmented by clearing for agriculture in Brazil. Photo by Rhett A. Butler.

The authorities, for their part, were concerned that heavy-handed application of fines to registered land owners might “scare away people from the registry,” Rajão said.

In addition to stopping deforestation, the Forest Code calls for the restoration of previously deforested lands. But the researchers found that the costs of doing that were prohibitively high for most producers. What’s more, they were unlikely to face sanctions if they ignored this part of the law. The surveys they conducted revealed that only 6 percent of farmers in both states were actively trying to compensate for past deforestation on their lands. Three-quarters of the farmers they spoke with said they would only restore parts of their property if authorities made them do it.

As the federal government of Brazil has begun rolling out its own registry, it has run up against similar problems. By August 2016, some 3.7 million properties had been registered, and the goal is to reach 5 million by a December 2017 deadline. But Rajão pointed out that it’s been difficult to get past what has become a “comfortable position” for both landowners and the government.

He said that farmers are typically seeing “only the good consequences” of signing on, such as the access to public loans, while few fines have been levied for illegal deforestation. And the government, in spite of this “beautiful system” designed to clearly delineate responsibility for parcels of land, has taken a highly visible step giving the appearance to the world that it’s serious about addressing forest loss and climate change.

Rajão advocates incentives for farmers that do restore lost forest on their lands, in addition to tackling current and future deforestation. The benefit could be lower taxes, he said, or these producers could have special access to markets only available if they’ve complied with this part of the law. Right now, measures such as Brazil’s beef and soy moratoria, aimed at stopping the flow of agriculture from deforestation, primarily address recent clearing with few provisions for recouping the forest lost before the bans went into effect.

Deforestation in the Amazon since 1988.

Still, solutions relying on selective access to markets, as with the moratoria, are seen as one of the reasons for the recent steep slide in Brazil’s deforestation rates. After years of hemorrhaging tree cover, which in 2000 covered 519 million hectares (about 2 million square miles), deforestation rates between 2005 and 2012 dropped by 76 percent, which translated into a 3.2-gigatonne carbon dioxide emissions cut. Scientists also attribute this U-turn to other efforts to curb deforestation, such as the establishment of parks and reserves, and tightening credit for farmers who illegally cleared land.

Recently, however, the pace of deforestation has climbed once again. In 2016, it spiked to its highest level since 2008.

The national registry has the potential to protect more forest and contribute to further reductions, write the scientists, but only if the process moves along more quickly than it currently is.

“The best tool in the world to do this is the CAR,” Stabile said.

In response to the scientists’ study, Brazil’s Ministry of the Environment said it had issued 500 “experimental” fines in Mato Grosso in 2016 based on that state’s CAR, which, along with Pará’s, has now become part of the national registry. Right now, the system is stymied by overlapping claims that need to be validated, a process that won’t be easy, he added.

“It’s not a simple task,” Stabile said. “I don’t think we should take it for granted that it’s something you could do by pushing a button or two.”

Corn grows on a once-forested area. Photo by Rhett A. Butler.

But in Rajão’s view, the time to act is now.

“If you wait for those overlaps to be sorted out, it’s going to be too late, and there’s going to be very little forest to save,” he said.

In a way, Rajão added, it mirrors the as-yet unrealized promise of the country as a whole.

“Brazil is known as the country of the future, but it’s the country of a future that never arrives,” he said, and the Forest Code offers a chance to change that.

“We have built this beautiful engine with lots of potential,” he said of the Forest Code. “Let’s turn it on.”


 Banner image of deforestation for cattle pasture in Brazil by Rhett A. Butler.

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