A light in the forest

Published in the March/April 2013 edition of Foreign Affairs.

Brazil’s Fight to Save the Amazon and Climate-Change Diplomacy¬†

Across the world, complex social and market forces are driving the conversion of vast swaths of rain forests into pastureland, plantations, and cropland. Rain forests are disappearing in Indonesia and Madagascar and are increasingly threatened in Africa’s Congo basin. But the most extreme deforestation has taken place in Brazil. Since 1988, Brazilians have cleared more than 153,000 square miles of Amazonian rain forest, an area larger than Germany. With the resulting increase in arable land, Brazil has helped feed the growing global demand for commodities, such as soybeans and beef.

But the environmental price has been steep. In addition to providing habitats for untold numbers of plant and animal species and discharging around 20 percent of the world’s fresh water, the Amazon basin plays a crucial role in regulating the earth’s climate, storing huge quantities of carbon dioxide that would otherwise contribute to global warming. Slashing and burning the Amazon rain forest releases the carbon locked up in plants and soils; from a climate perspective, clearing the rain forest is no different from burning fossil fuels, such as oil and gas. Recent estimates suggest that deforestation and associated activities account for 10-15 percent of global carbon dioxide emissions.

But in recent years, good news has emerged from the Amazon. Brazil has dramatically slowed the destruction of its rain forests, reducing the rate of deforestation by 83 percent since 2004, primarily by enforcing land-use regulations, creating new protected areas, and working to maintain the rule of law in the Amazon. At the same time, Brazil has become a test case for a controversial international climate-change prevention strategy known as REDD, short for “reducing emissions from deforestation and forest degradation,” which places a monetary value on the carbon stored in forests. Under such a system, developed countries can pay developing countries to protect their own forests, thereby offsetting the developed countries’ emissions at home. Brazil’s preliminary experience with REDD suggests that, in addition to offering multiple benefits to forest dwellers (human and otherwise), the model can be cheap and fast: Brazil has done more to reduce emissions than any other country in the world in recent years, without breaking the bank.

The REDD model remains a work in progress. In Brazil and other places where elements of REDD have been applied, the funding has yet to reach many of its intended beneficiaries, and institutional reforms have been slow to develop. This has contributed to a rural backlash against the new enforcement measures in the Brazilian Amazon — a backlash that the government is still struggling to contain. But if Brazil can consolidate its early gains, build consensus around a broader vision for development, and follow through with a program to overhaul the economies of its rain-forest regions, it could pave the way for a new era of environmental governance across the tropics. For the first time, perhaps, it is possible to contemplate an end to the era of large-scale human deforestation.

For the first time, perhaps, it is possible to contemplate an end to the era of large-scale human deforestation


The deforestation crisis in Brazil ramped up in the 1960s, when the country’s military rulers, seeking to address the country’s poverty crisis, encouraged poor Brazilians to move into the Amazon basin with promises of free land and generous government subsidies. In response, tens of thousands of Brazilians left dry scrublands in the northeast and other poor areas for the lush Amazon basin — a mass internal migration that only increased in size throughout the 1970s and beyond.

But the government did not properly plan for the effect of a population explosion in the Amazon basin. The result was a land rush, during which short-term profiteering from slash-and-burn agriculture prevented anything resembling sustainable development. Environmental and social movements arose in response to the chaotic development, but it was not until the 1980s, when scientists began systematically tracking Amazonian deforestation using satellite imagery, that the true scale of the environmental destruction under way in the Amazon became apparent. The end of military rule in 1985 and Brazil’s transition to democracy did nothing to slow the devastation; the ecological damage only worsened as road-building projects and government subsidies for agriculture fueled a real estate boom that wiped out forests and threatened traditional rubber tappers and native peoples. Meanwhile, the total population of the Amazon basin increased from around six million in 1960 to 25 million in 2010 (including some 20 million in Brazil), and agricultural production in the Amazon region ramped up as global commodity markets expanded.

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