deforestation Amazon

National policy reversals and deforestation in the Amazon


Published 05.04.24

Evidence from the Amazon highlights the crucial role of policy continuity and political commitment to achieving sustainable conservation outcomes

The fight against deforestation, particularly in tropical forests, is a pivotal battleground in the war against climate change. Headline-grabbing reports, such as those from Stern (2007) and IPCC (2022), have underscored the significance of preserving ecosystems as a cost-effective strategy for mitigating climate change. Among these ecosystems, tropical forests are crucial due to their vast expanse, pivotal role in climate regulation, and unparalleled biodiversity (IPBES 2018, Dasgupta 2021). However, the efficacy of conservation policies often hinges on factors such as enforcement capacity, political will, and socioeconomic dynamics (Greenstone and Jack 2015).

Figure 1 illustrates the divergent deforestation trajectories observed across the three major areas of tropical forest in the world: the Amazon (predominantly in Brazil), the Congo Basin (predominantly Democratic Republic of Congo), and Southeast Asia (predominantly Indonesia). Brazil's Amazon region stands in stark contrast to other countries, including its neighbouring counterparts, as deforestation rates have increased markedly in recent years. This disparity underscores the potential influence of national policies in shaping conservation outcomes.

Figure 1: Forest Change in the Amazon, DR Congo, and Indonesia, 2001-2020

Forest Change in the Amazon, DR Congo, and Indonesia, 2001-2020

In our research (Burgess et al. 2023), we study the effectiveness of national conservation policies by examining deforestation patterns at international borders. This methodology combines impartial satellite monitoring with the use of national borders as cut-offs. Satellites circumvent limitations posed by patchy or manipulated government data due to limited state capacity or political interests (Donaldson and Storeygard 2016, Martinez 2022). Because political and policy jurisdictions stop at the national border – but satellite data on conservation outcomes can be measured uniformly across the geography – we can therefore estimate the effect of national policies on conservation outcomes.

Focus on the Amazon Rainforest

Our research focuses on the Amazon rainforest, a critical global ecosystem renowned for its biodiversity and role in climate stability. Within the Amazon rainforest, Brazil holds significant sway, encompassing the majority of the rainforest's territory. However, neighbouring countries like Bolivia, Peru, and Colombia also harbour substantial portions of the Amazon. Examining deforestation patterns across these borders provides insights into the differential impact of national policies on forest conservation.

Impact of conservation policies

To assess the effectiveness of conservation policies in Brazil, the study applies a regression discontinuity design (using 30x30 meter resolution Landsat 7 data in 27km bands) on either side of Brazil’s 12,800km border with seven other nations in the Amazon from 2000 to 2020 (Hansen et al. 2013). Figure 2 shows the regression discontinuity estimates and unveils two reversals in Brazilian conservation policy.

Figure 2: Regression Discontinuity Coefficients by Year

Regression Discontinuity Coefficients by Year

Until 2005, the annual deforestation rate was more than three times higher on the Brazilian side of the border than in neighbouring countries, attributable to policies promoting land conversion for agricultural purposes. The first reversal, occurring around 2005, marked a transformative shift driven by Brazil's adoption of stringent conservation laws and enforcement measures. The implementation of the Action Plan for the Prevention and Control of Deforestation in the Legal Amazon (PPCDAm) designed in 2004 signified a concerted effort to combat illegal deforestation through enhanced enforcement and penalties. This comprehensive strategy yielded tangible results, leading to a notable decline in deforestation rates. Figure 2 shows that the discontinuity in deforestation rates disappeared precipitously in 2006.

However, starting in 2014, as Brazil grappled with economic challenges and growing lobbying from the agricultural sector, environmental protection took a backseat, leading to a resurgence in deforestation rates. Deforestation resumed being discontinuously higher on the Brazilian side of the border after 2014. This second reversal underscores the fragility of conservation efforts in the face of shifting political landscapes and underscores the imperative of sustained policy commitment to achieve lasting environmental impact.

Our research estimates that deforestation would have been 30% smaller had Brazil maintained stringent conservation policies throughout the last decade. A back-of-the-envelope calculation suggests that 460 million tons of CO2e would not have been released had the stronger policies implemented starting in the mid-2000s remained in effect until 2020.

Implications for conservation policy

Combined, these results – the sharp discontinuity in deforestation levels and rates at the border, the dramatic change in deforestation at the border following the government crackdown, and the reversal of deforestation rates exactly in the areas where environmental policies were previously firmly enforced – demonstrate the remarkable reach of the Brazilian state to exploit or conserve its natural resources. They suggest that the rapid deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon in the early 2000s was a consequence of a pro-exploitation policy environment, and that the temporary reversal, from 2006-2013, was indeed a consequence of the introduction and enforcement of laws to protect the Amazon rainforest, which unraveled in the subsequent 2014-2020 period as pro-exploitation political forces took hold.

These findings have implications for conservation policy formulation and implementation, both within Brazil and globally. By leveraging innovative methodologies and rigorous analysis, this research has shed light on the efficacy of conservation efforts and the challenges posed by political dynamics and socio-economic factors. Moreover, the study underscores the importance of policy continuity and political commitment to achieving sustainable conservation outcomes. Furthermore, the findings emphasise the need for international cooperation and collaboration in addressing transboundary conservation challenges (Hsiao 2021).


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