- While deforestation rates have plunged, up to 80 million hectares (198 million acres) of the Brazilian Amazon have already been destroyed, most of it on private and undesignated public lands.
- Reforestation pledges have promised to replant more than 12 million hectares (30 million acres) in the coming decade.
- Carbon credit enthusiasts say they believe the market could inject billions into the region and pay for reforestation.
- Experts are skeptical that either of these plans would work at the scale needed, as landowners often see value in clearing the forest.
Starting in 2008, Rodrigo Junqueira spent five years in the Brazilian state of Mato Grosso, on the southern border of the Amazon Rainforest, having one-on-one conversations with ranchers. An organizer for Instituto Socioambiental, an NGO that advocates for Indigenous and environmental rights, he urged them to restore forest patches on their lands.
While Junqueira made some progress, the task was challenging. “I received death threats,” he told Mongabay. “Some people told me to leave and never come back.” They had built ranches and farms on old forestland and had no intention of letting the trees grow back.
In 2017, Junqueira again faced the difficulties of recovering the Amazon. He was part of an ambitious reforestation project that pledged to replant 73 million trees over 30,000 hectares (74,000 acres). Less than 20% of the goal was achieved as organizers hit numerous roadblocks — including uncooperative government agencies, criminal activity and the sheer scale of the Amazon.
With a new wave of reforestation and restoration projects driven by climate initiatives, Junqueira, now an executive secretary for ISA, wonders how to finally get this done.
While deforestation rates are plummeting under Brazil’s new government — down 66% compared with last year — large swaths of the Amazon have already been lost.
Scientists estimate that up to 20% of the biome, equivalent to 80 million hectares (198 million acres), has vanished since the 1970s. An additional 17% of forestland has been damaged to varying degrees. Most destruction has occurred in the rainforest’s eastern and southern edges, in what’s known as the Arc of Deforestation.
Brazil’s President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva has vowed to reforest 12 million hectares (about 30 million acres) by 2030 – reaffirming a commitment first made by the nation in the 2015 Paris Agreement. Nonprofits and startups, including Rioterra, the Black Jaguar Foundation and Mombak, have made similar promises to recover thousands of hectares by the decade’s end.
However, experts warn that new efforts will encounter old issues. “It’s an unimaginable challenge to recover the entirety of what’s been lost or degraded,” Paulo Amaral, a senior researcher at the Brazilian conservation nonprofit Imazon, told Mongabay. “Mostly because many of these lands are currently occupied and productive.”
Scientists at INPE, Brazil’s space agency, found that deforestation has primarily occurred on private lands – up to 44% between 2019 and 2021. Land-grabbers cleared these once-public lands of vegetation and sold them as cropland or pasture. New owners managed to acquire land titles, although sometimes illegally, to legitimize these lots as private property.
Some organizations are attempting to purchase this land back to meet reforestation goals. Others are trying to persuade landowners to abandon livestock and farming altogether, urging them instead to embrace economic activities that revolve around the forest, including agroforestry and carbon capture.
Amaral is skeptical that either of these plans would work at the scale needed, as landowners often see value in clearing the forest. “They believe a clean landscape is what’s beautiful,” he said. “They fear if they don’t cut the forest, people will say they are lazy, unproductive and their land is dirty.”
Meanwhile, Amazon public lands have also been destroyed. Deforestation in undesignated public lands jumped from 11% in 2008 to 18% in 2021. These stretches of forest are not labeled as national parks, Indigenous land or extractive reserves. The lack of status makes them more susceptible to criminal logging and land-grabbing.
Land use and ownership
For Pedro Brancalion, professor of tropical forestry at the University of São Paulo, recovering the Amazon requires more than planting seedlings. First and foremost, illegal deforestation must end, starting with protecting undesignated public lands.
“We need to close the border to land-grabbers and end the cycle of privatizing public land,” he told Mongabay. “Otherwise, it’s like trying to treat a patient with lung disease who smokes two packs of cigarettes per day.”
As for private lots, the Brazilian federal government should enforce the decade-long forest code that mandates up to 80% of native vegetation on private lands. “Landowners feel it’s beneficial for them not to follow the law,” Brancalion said. “This has to change.”
Since taking office, President Lula has vowed to protect the forest. The president promised to halt illegal deforestation, create conservation units, and allocate 57 million hectares (140.8 million acres) of public lands. His government has also worked to rebuild environmental agencies and reboot the Amazon Fund for conservation, now worth more than $1 billion. undesignated
On another front, Lula has defended the mixed use of the Amazon by restoring pastureland that’s too far gone for reforestation. He has also encouraged the region’s bioeconomy. In August, the government launched an Amazon Safra Plan with credit lines and incentives for small-scale, sustainable farming.
Besides the vast scale of the Amazon, the government has faced resistance from Brazil’s powerful agroindustry and blows from a conservative-majority Congress that has scaled back Indigenous and environmental rights.
Making a comeback
There’s some good news. Last year, Amaral and colleagues found 7.2 million hectares (17.8 million acres) of damaged forestland that ranchers and farmers had abandoned. Most were deserted because of rough terrain that made them unsuitable for agriculture. To everyone’s surprise, they were regenerating.
The finding showed the potential for the forest to come back. “This is the best-case scenario,” Amaral said. “All we have to do is protect these lands and wait for the trees to grow.”
The scientist warned, however, that a full recovery could take a long time, even decades. Moreover, some of this land was so damaged by repeated agricultural use that it would require human intervention and reforestation efforts.
Among the potential techniques is the “muvuca method,” in which a mixture of native seeds is spread across targeted areas. There are also experimental and high-tech alternatives, including robot arms and drones. But they are all costly.
Lots with thoroughly degraded soil would require even more work. “It’s very challenging to recover soil, and that would raise the cost considerably and take a lot more time,” said Amaral.
The carbon capture vision
Enthusiasts of the carbon credit industry say they believe the system could help foot the bill. At the Climate Week NYC in late September, Brazilian and American economists stated that selling carbon credits in the Amazon could generate enough money to recover the forest in 30 years while capturing 16 gigatons of carbon.
In a new preprint paper, the economists wrote that Amazon carbon credits could be sold for $20 per ton of CO2 captured, a conservative estimate. This means a total of $320 billion would be injected into the region.
“This would be enough money to purchase lands from landowners or convince them to give up ranching,” co-author Juliano Assuncão, executive director of Climate Policy Initiative, told Mongabay. “And enough for the government to create new conservation areas and pay for reforestation.”
While carbon capture is controversial, as companies purchase the right to emit greenhouse gases, the author said he believes this proposal is slightly different. “Companies would actually be investing in capturing carbon while helping conservation and reforestation efforts.”
For the authors, the main challenge is implementation and monitoring at a large scale, especially as carbon capture scams become more common. The responsibility would primarily fall on the Brazilian federal government.
Banner image: Cattle raising in recently destroyed forestland in the municipality Aripuanã, in Mato Grosso state. Image © Bruno Kelly/Greenpeace.
Camara, G., Simoes, R., Ruivo, H. M., Andrade, P. R., Soterroni, A. C., Ramos, F. M., … Adami, M. (2023). Impact of land tenure on deforestation control and forest restoration in Brazilian Amazonia. Environmental Research Letters, 18(6), 065005. doi:10.1088/1748-9326/acd20a
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