To save Brazil’s forests, focus on big landowners

"In the future, Brazil will need to continue to work with its large landowners in the Amazon to preserve the state's remaining forest cover," says Peter Richards. "In some sense, this will likely mean continued restrictions on what can be cleared or how land in the Amazon can be used." (Credit: Deni Williams/Flickr)

A large proportion of deforestation Mato Grosso, Brazil, as well as remaining forest cover, is on large private properties, according to a new study.

The information, from Brazil’s third largest state, could be useful to policymakers seeking to focus government anti-deforestation efforts.

Brazil once had the world’s highest rate of deforestation. While land is still being cleared at an alarming rate, the country has been successful in reducing its deforestation in recent decades. Continuing that trend will require continued government enforcement of regulations and the cooperation of landowners who control the fate of much of the country’s remaining forests.

Brown University researchers Peter Richards and Leah VanWey used data on property size, type, and land use in Mato Grosso’s Environmental Registry of Rural Properties, the Global Forest Cover project, and Brazil’s National Institute of Space Research’s Monitoring Deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon by Satellite Project (PRODES) to complete their analysis, which appears in Nature Climate Change.

‘Many tons of carbon’

The study reveals the area’s distribution of deforestation and how much forest cover remains throughout the land. Looking at the current distribution of deforestation, remaining forest cover, and carbon stocks according to property size, Richards and VanWey find that nearly two-thirds of remaining forests and carbon reserves are located on private properties, with the majority of those properties owned by large landowners.

Much of the government’s current efforts focus on reducing forest loss in areas controlled by small landholders, as it’s believed that those landholders clear a higher percentage of their land. Additionally, the analysis looks back at the distribution of deforestation in Mato Grasso when rates were at all all-time high.

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The data indicate that between 2001 and 2012, when more than 83,000 kilometers (roughly 51,600 miles) of forest were cleared in Mato Grosso, 38 percent of that loss took place on large properties. Because those rates have since declined, it’s believed that some involved in the anti-deforestation movement that previous efforts to control deforestation on larger properties have already been successful, which is how the current focus on smaller properties is justified.

“Many researchers have basically declared victory on deforestation among large farmers. Small farmers clear a larger percentage of their land, and large farmers have reduced their rates of clearing in the last decade. But when you look at a whole landscape like Mato Grosso, the large farmers own so much of the land that even lower rates of deforestation translate into big areas and many tons of carbon,” says VanWey, associate professor of sociology.

Richards and VanWey predict that Mato Grosso is entering a period of renewed high rates of deforestation because of several factors, including the increasing value of farmland, the growing size of the state’s cattle herd, the current dollar-real exchange rate, and the Brazilian government’s continued support of export-oriented commodity agriculture.

Focus on larger properties

Brazil’s Plan for the Control of Deforestation in the Amazon III focuses on reducing deforestation in smallholder farms, given the success the government previously had in targeting owners of larger properties. But in looking at the results of their analysis, Richards and VanWey advocate for continued focus on larger properties.

Scarcity, not policy, slows deforestation in Brazil

They argue that high rates of forest loss on small properties will likely have significantly lower impact carbon emissions than forest loss over a broader area.

Richards and VanWey suggest that the government implement both incentives for landowners to maintain their forest cover, like payments for ecosystem services, and bureaucratic and legal obstacles for those looking to clear their lands.

“In the future, Brazil will need to continue to work with its large landowners in the Amazon to preserve the state’s remaining forest cover,” says Richards, a National Science Foundation postdoctoral fellow. “In some sense, this will likely mean continued restrictions on what can be cleared or how land in the Amazon can be used.”

The National Science Foundation funded the work.

Source: Brown University