Tropical deforestation is one of the great challenges facing humanity. If we don’t slow it down soon, the chances of avoiding disastrous climate change, species loss and the disruption of indigenous and traditional people’s cultures grow slimmer. And this rapid deceleration will be possible only if the governments, farm sectors, rural communities, businesses and civil societies of tropical forest regions devise and implement effective strategies.

In the long term, the goal of taming deforestation must be embedded in public policies, programmes, business transactions and culture.

To put it bluntly, political leaders who embrace the goal of taming deforestation must be electable.

What is the political case for slowing tropical deforestation? This article attempts to highlight some lessons from Brazil. It builds on earlier reports by the Earth Innovation Institute, such as Making Corporate Deforestation Pledges Work, in which we describe the importance of a “jurisdictional approach” to deforestation.

Multistakeholder pathway

The jurisdictional approach can help to translate unilateral corporate deforestation pledges into collaborative agreements with local governments and farm sectors, building the political case for slowing deforestation. In a jurisdictional approach, the unit of performance is a landscape with policy-relevant boundaries – a political geography such as a state, province, district or an entire nation. This is the unit of performance that can effectively bring together multistakeholders on the appropriate pathway to sustainable development.

In Brazil – a shining example of a successful jurisdictional approach to slow tropical deforestation – progress has been possible because political forces were pushing in the right direction. The approach was jurisdictional because success was defined as a decline in deforestation for the entire Brazilian Amazon region and for all types of land use.

In many ways, a political case for slowing Amazon deforestation was handed to President Lula on a silver platter. He came into office in 2003 with a mandate to deepen Brazil’s international credibility just as Amazon deforestation was skyrocketing, triggering international outrage and a diplomatic headache for the new president. Meanwhile, national polls showed that most Brazilians wanted to see the Amazon forest conserved, especially left-leaning voters who were the core of Lula’s base.

It was in this favourable political context that Lula empowered his environment minister, Marina Silva, to draw on the most powerful branches of the government – including the army and central bank – to crack down on illegal deforestation and logging in the Amazon. In parallel, Silva led the effort to expand the area of the Amazon under formal protection, either as parks and reserves or as indigenous territories. These formal designations further weakened the land-grabbing schemes that were driving deforestation.

Then, in 2008, Silva’s team rolled out a plan to suspend farmer access to public agricultural loan programmes in counties (municipios) with high levels of deforestation.

Brazil’s Amazon governors were not passive observers; they were devising their own low-deforestation agenda through a different set of political entry points. In 1999, Jorge Viana became governor of the state of Acre, western Amazon, on a Government of the Forest platform, building on the legacy of Chico Mendes, the rubber tapper leader who was assassinated in 1988 for organizing a movement in defence of the forest. Acre is where Silva grew up as a rubber tapper and grass-roots leader.


A broader political base

The Government of the Forest used command-and-control measures to slow deforestation, but it also broadened its political base by paving its all-weather motorways to neighbouring Peru, providing access to Pacific markets. Acre succeeded in slowing forest clearing despite this paving, which is usually associated with an explosive increase in deforestation. It improved public services and attracted new low-carbon industries to set up shop through innovative incentive systems. It won German REDD Early Mover funding for a portion of its emissions reductions and is first in line for California’s international carbon-offset system. Its programmes for forest peoples has delivered benefits to rubber tappers, indigenous peoples and smallholders.

Since narrowly avoiding defeat in 2009, the Government of the Forest is still in power. Acre society – and a majority of Acre voters – like the pro-forest agenda and broader set of programmes and policies that surround it, presumably because they believe their lives have improved.

Governor Blairo Maggi of Mato Grosso, Brazil’s biggest agricultural producer, announced at the 2009 UN climate summit in Copenhagen his government’s commitment to reduce deforestation by 89% by 2020, a bold statement given the state’s rate of deforestation a few years before. That target was reached in 2012 thanks to the efforts of both the federal and state governments, as well as voluntary supply chains agreements such as the Soy Moratorium. Mato Grosso’s precipitous decline in deforestation represented half of the overall decline in Amazon deforestation achieved by Brazil.

The political context was favourable for Maggi’s announcement. First, soy markets in Europe and the Soy Moratorium were beginning to close their doors to soy grown on recently cleared land, threatening market access for this leguminous pillar of the Mato Grosso economy. And, second, rapid yield improvements in cattle operations were allowing more beef to be produced on a shrinking area of pasture. This meant that the highly lucrative soy industry could expand production by planting beans on former cattle pastures. The demand for new forest clearing had diminished.

A low-emission economy

Today, the lessons of Acre in building a green, low-emission economy, in which the goal of slowing deforestation is embedded in a broader set of sustainable development initiatives that appeal to a critical mass of voters, are crucial for Mato Grosso and the rest of Brazil. With the country’s economic and political crisis depleting public budgets for financing the command-and-control approaches that have been central to Brazil’s success in slowing deforestation, deforestation is on the rise. Brazil must make the transition to a “pro-development” approach to slowing deforestation in the Amazon region. As in Acre, the decline in deforestation must be associated with new economic opportunities, new low-carbon industries, and greater market access.

The deforestation agenda in Brazil needs a new, stronger political case.

Mato Grosso’s “Produce, Conserve, Include” (PCI) plan, launched in Paris in December 2015, is the perfect step in this direction. By establishing time-bound goals for slowing deforestation, increasing production and achieving greater social inclusion, the stage is set to negotiate state-wide sustainable sourcing agreements – such as those in progress with China and Europe for soy.

Business opportunities

The stage is also set to attract private financial investments into new low-carbon industries and farmer support programmes as the risks associated with rampant deforestation, illegal land-use practices and labour infractions are diminished. Like Acre, Mato Grosso is superbly positioned to add a new revenue stream to this state-wide PCI agenda: the sale of carbon emissions reductions.