Nacho Doce / Reuters A deforested plot of the Amazon rainforest in Brazil, September 3, 2015.

Brazil Cuts Down on Deforestation

How It Became an Environmental Leader

During the Paris climate talks last December, Brazil broadcast its ambitions to reduce its overall emissions by at least 36 percent by 2020 and 43 percent in 2030. These may seem like lofty targets for a developing economy, but Brazil has a significant advantage in meeting its goal: it is already halfway there.

This is no small feat. In the 1990s, the country was a rabid logger, shaving off El Salvador-sized chunks of its rainforest every year. That had a significant impact on the climate since clearing forests releases carbon dioxide; deforestation is responsible for one-fifth of carbon emissions worldwide. But in Brazil, the rate of yearly deforestation fell 70 percent between 2005 and 2013 and so did its carbon footprint. Greenhouse gas emissions decreased 41 percent between 2005 and 2012.

Understanding Brazil’s remarkable transformation requires some historical context. Until the early 1960s, the country’s rainforest remained intact. But at the beginning of that decade, farmers ran out of cropland and began borrowing from the Amazon. They soon realized that the soil at the fringe of the forest was not fertile enough to sustain long-term growth and moved further in, eventually causing great amounts of tree loss. Because this was a new phenomenon, and strict surveillance of the forest did not exist at the time, policies forbidding logging in the Amazon were difficult to enforce.

The issue finally drew national attention in 2004 when government data revealed that the deforestation rate had hit a record high, climbing to roughly 17,000 square miles per year, from 7,500 in the 1990s. In an attempt to mitigate the havoc logging was wreaking on biodiversity and the climate, the Brazilian government began a rigorous program of prioritizing the environment, passing the right policies, and setting up an effective Amazon surveillance system to make sure its new anti-deforestation rules were followed. It helped that the environmental minister at the time, Marina Silva, was once a fierce environmental activist.

Enacting good legislation began with setting the right boundaries for legal deforestation. Brazil created the 20–80 rule, allowing private land

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