In the Amazon, It Turns Out You Can Make Money Without Destroying the Forest

This is good news, but the real question is, can it last?

Brazil 2014

By Ariel Schwartz

June 05, 2014

Also published by Fast Company's Co.Exist

Deforestation is a big problem in Brazil, which contains the majority of the Amazon rainforest. But it's getting better. A paper published this week in Science points out that deforestation rates have declined by 70% between 2005 and 2013, even as land-intensive beef and soy production has continued to grow in the country. How has Brazil pulled it off?

The authors say that this burst of growth combined with a lower rate of deforestation is the result of several converging factors, including a rise in beef yields and better law enforcement and fines leveraged against anyone considering deforestation. There's also been more protection of land located in agricultural frontier zones, as well as the so-called "Cattle Agreement" spurred by Greenpeace, wherein the biggest beef processing companies have stopped working with producers who deforested after late 2009. The expansion in soy production through 2013 occurred entirely on land that had already been clear-cut years earlier.

It's hard to say which of these factors has contributed to the present situation the most because they all overlap around the same time and place, the authors admit. But the authors do know that a continued decline in deforestation can't be guaranteed. Right now, deforestation is perceived to be risky--but that's largely dependent on whatever government is in power.

The authors write that the will to curb deforestation "may be weakening in the face of a stagnant national economy ... and if deforestation policies lose political will, positive incentives for farmers, counties, and states that are forgoing or reducing deforestation will grow in importance." None of these incentives, such as low interest loans given to landholders who aren't involved in deforestation, are operating at scale yet.

Campaigns by environmental organizations like Greenpeace have made it risky for companies to operate in the Amazon and preserve their reputations--and as a result, the authors speculate that responsible agricultural companies which could potentially help with sustainable development could be scared away altogether.

There are a lot of moving parts involved, and even if a decline in deforestation continues, the country has other issues in the Amazon to contend with, like overfishing, forest fires, and potentially problematic hydroelectric dams. But at least we've seen that a drop in deforestation rates--without stagnated economic growth--is possible.

Ariel Schwartz reported from Brazil as a fellow with the International Reporting Project (IRP).