National Geographic News
Aerial photo of a soybean farm in Brazil.

In Brazil's Mato Grosso state, Route 163, also known as the Soybean Highway, cuts across farmland that had been Amazon rain forest a few decades ago.

PHOTOGRAPH BY JOHN STANMEYER, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC CREATIVE

Brian Clark Howard

National Geographic

Published June 5, 2014

Brazil's success in slowing rain forest destruction has resulted in enormous reductions in carbon emissions and shows that it's possible to zealously promote sustainability while still growing the economy, suggests a new study out Thursday.

A second study out this week also underscores Brazil's success and shows that deforestation has also slowed in several other tropical countries.

Since 2004, farmers and ranchers in Brazil have saved over 33,000 square miles (86,000 square kilometers) of rain forest from clear-cutting, the rough equivalent of 14.3 million soccer fields, a team of scientists and economists from the U.S. and South America report in Science. At the same time, production of beef and soy from Brazil's Amazon region rose.

The country has reduced deforestation by 70 percent and kept 3.2 billion tons of carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere, because forests use carbon as they grow and release it when they are removed, often through burning. That makes Brazil's the biggest reduction in greenhouse gas emissions of any country in the world; the cut is more than three times bigger than the effect of taking all the cars in the U.S. off the road for a year.

"Brazil is known as a leading favorite to win the World Cup, but they also lead the world in mitigating climate change," the Science study's lead author, Daniel Nepstad of the Earth Innovation Institute in San Francisco, said in a statement.

Brazil's success in saving about 80 percent of the original Amazon serves as a model for other countries around the world and represents a "completely different trajectory for forest areas over the last few centuries," says Toby McGrath, a senior scientist at the institute and another of the study's co-authors. (See "Photos: The Last of the Amazon.")

"For the first time in history, we are stopping the process of forest loss on a frontier before it gets seriously depleted, while continuing to develop economies that still have substantial forest cover," says McGrath.

Globally, deforestation is responsible for about 10 percent of all climate emissions, says a study released Wednesday by the Union of Concerned Scientists. That's down from 17 percent of emissions in the 1990s, thanks to falling rates of deforestation.

"Brazil is most notably lauded for their deforestation reductions, but the report found numerous example of successfully saving forests in unexpected locations," study author Doug Boucher, director of the Union of Concerned Scientists' Tropical Forest and Climate Initiative, said in a statement. Mexico, El Salvador, and six countries in Central Africa, in particular, have shown decreased rates of deforestation.

Measure of Success

For the Science study, scientists and economists analyzed how Brazil was able to reverse decades of high rates of deforestation in the Amazon, starting in 2005, when then-president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva announced the ambitious goal of slashing the rate by 80 percent over the previous year. After that, things turned around due to a number of factors coming together, says McGrath.

One important element was the advancement of remote sensing technology. Although Brazil first passed a forest code requiring landowners in the Amazon to protect at least 50 percent of native forest in 1965, enforcement was spotty. "Officials didn't have good information on where deforestation was occurring and who was on the ground," says McGrath.

Over the past few years, satellites have given officials a more precise picture of the forest, often in real time.

Another boost to deforestation efforts: The forest code was updated in 2012 and now requires landowners to preserve 80 percent of the Amazon's virgin forest, as well as protect watersheds. Those that have violated the rules have increasingly received fines and even jail time in extreme cases.

Nonprofit groups, meanwhile, have helped publicize data on rule breakers and have built support for enforcing the law. Campaigns by Greenpeace, Conservation International, and others put pressure on companies that buy products from the Amazon, especially beef and soy, shaming those that have been found to contribute to deforestation. Market agreements signed by companies took that a step further, prohibiting practices that lead to deforestation.

"In Brazil, there was rising awareness of the value of nature and how essential it is to our society," says Fabio Rubio Scarano, the vice president of Conservation International's Americas Division, who is based in Rio de Janeiro.

In a tough regulatory approach called "critical counties," the Brazilian government also prohibits government loans to all agricultural producers in a county if there's a lot of deforestation going on there. There has been rising opposition to this program, but it has been effective, says McGrath. "It increases internal pressure to make everybody fall in line."

The Brazilian government has also created new protected reserves of forest in the Amazon, especially along frontier areas where deforestation had started. Managing these new areas has effectively stopped its tree loss, says McGrath.

Photo of a cowboy with a herd of cows in Brazil.
Cattle are big business in the Amazon, though landowners are required by law to preserve 80 percent of the forest.
PHOTOGRAPH BY ALEX WEBB, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC CREATIVE

Keeping Production Up

Although landowners in the Amazon face restrictions on how much land they can clear, overall production of beef and soy has risen over the past decade, the scientists and economists note.

McGrath says producers have been focused on increasing their efficiency and productivity, in part because they often don't have the option of clearing more land. As a result, many have successfully adopted better management practices.

That process can go further, says Scarano. If land that is currently not very productive could be managed better, then Brazil "could double food production without cutting a single tree," he says.

But farmers could use more support from the government, with a policy that encourages efficiency, he says.

Emerging Threats and Next Steps

Scarano and McGrath both note that 2013 saw a slight uptick in the rate of deforestation in Brazil's section of the Amazon, although the rate remains much lower than it was decades ago.

The cause of the recent changes is unclear, but it could be related to weather patterns, which can encourage more land clearing, as well as rising global demand for food. It also highlights the need for further improvements, both men agree.

A new government program that requires landowners to register their usage plans should help, says Scarano.

McGrath adds that another step should be to strengthen the system for incentives for landowners who follow good management practices. They could receive payments from emerging carbon markets for the amount of greenhouse gases they prevent, or for other "ecosystem services" like protecting water quality.

A few pilot projects have been under way, some funded by a one-billion-dollar grant from Norway and others, tying in to California's growing carbon market.

In a suggestion that some environmentalists might find counterintuitive, McGrath also says international food companies that are committed to preventing deforestation should consider working in additional areas in the Amazon.

"If they don't move into those areas because they are afraid of getting accused of deforestation, then other groups that don't care will move in and will exploit the resources," says McGrath. "Because it is going to get developed somehow."

Brazil’s agricultural lobby had battled with environmentalists over the most recent updates to the Forest Code. But now that the law is in place, the next step has been trying to figure out implementation, says Gustavo Diniz Junqueira, the president of the influential Brazilian Rural Society, which represents agricultural producers in the country.

Junqueira says large producers in the Amazon have effectively ceased deforestation, although some smaller producers are still removing trees. To help reduce that, small-scale producers need more access to technology. They also need insurance coverage, he says.

The Brazilian agribusiness industry is trying to shake its reputation as being “an enemy of the environment,” says Junqueira. “Instead of expansion in new areas, we are looking at how to produce more in the same areas,” he notes. In that way, over the past few years, soy production has been rising six percent a year.

Scarano adds that despite Brazil's success on deforestation, many other environmental problems remain. The country faces big challenges in "reconciling nature conservation with the needs of human well-being," he says.

Planned development of large-scale hydroelectric plants in the Amazon and elsewhere in the country could erase some of the gains that have been made in protecting forests, he warns. The country also hopes to build additional infrastructure as the economy grows.

Some environmentalists, such as celebrity Bianca Jagger, have criticized Brazil for not doing enough to protect indigenous rights and for poor living conditions in vast urban favelas, including water quality issues. As the world looks to Brazil for the World Cup and Olympics, those issues may come into sharper focus.

"Planning must take into account many factors, including nature," says Scarano. And when it comes to stopping deforestation, "there's no one right way," said Boucher of the Union of Concerned Scientists. "But rather a smorgasbord of options."

Follow Brian Clark Howard on Twitter and Google+.

59 comments
Ross Coomber
Ross Coomber

Broad acre farming with annual cops, after clear felling, with no thought to long term outcomes, will inevitably result in a breakdown of soil structure and rapidly declining fertility.Widespread wind/water erosion and loss of the topsoil is the inevitable result. The very things that were sought so vigorously with clear felling. These are the precise reasons that more and more forests are cleared and history will repeat itself!.

Laszlo Erdosy
Laszlo Erdosy

Amazing what a little resolve can do.  Congratulation to all of Brazil from the top down to the last farmer.

Yveline Rakotondramboa
Yveline Rakotondramboa

an example to follow jn Madagascar.

A smart combination of development and preservation.How could it be financed ?


Alessandra Schneider
Alessandra Schneider

I am Brazilian and I am sorry for disappointing you. But the real news about the environment in Brazil are not so good as NG shows.

First, apart from Amazon, here we have other important ecosystems such as the Atlantic Forest, and the Cerrado. The Atlantic Forest has been practically extinct. We have only 5% of the original vegetation. The Cerrado, the Brazilian savannah and spring of the main Brazilian river basins, including the Amazon, each year is burned and replaced by soybeans, sugar cane and exotic trees, like pinus and eucaliptus, which are destroying our water resources.

Burn the forest (and waste) is considered a traditional cultural practice, and then there is no effective control of fires that are responsible for Brazilian CO2 emissions.

In addition, last year, the Brazilian government approved the new forest code, which encourages deforestation and decreases preservation areas.

Another serious concern is about the transgenic and pesticides.

Corn and soybeans transgenic seeds have been planted indiscriminately everywhere, even by small farmers. 

Besides that, Brazil is the world champion in pesticide consumption, including the use of 14 products that have been banned in other countries.

These are the products that feed Brazilian people and the "beefs" that are exported to Europe and U.S.

And we have not commented about social conflicts between indigenous farmers and loggers ...

Nothing to celebrate. :(

Bijoy Bhuyan
Bijoy Bhuyan

Wonderful ! What is India doing in this regard ?

Marisa Aun
Marisa Aun

I am happy to see my country doing well!


Beth Esquivel
Beth Esquivel

Now everybody else in this world should start doing the right thing and clean up their mess too.

Rob VonEssen
Rob VonEssen

Did anyone look at the pictures link posted in this article?(Last of the Amazon)

"A boy mourns activist Dorothy Stang at a gathering to mark the first anniversary of her murder. The 73-year-old nun, who dedicated her life to saving the forest and helping workers, was killed by hired gunmen in 2005 after trying to stop ranchers from clearing land. White crosses represent 772 victims of land wars in the state of Pará, and 48 red crosses symbolize local people now under death threats."

Rob VonEssen
Rob VonEssen

I am amazed that so many people are praising Brazil when they are one of the largest, if not the largest, countries responsible for the most deforestation. That would be like praising an oil company for only spilling a few million gallons of oil. When one looks at how much forest Brazil has destroyed from 2000-2012, a whopping 568,320,000 acres (U of Maryland and New Rep article), why should we give them any praise at all? They amount of CO2 all that deforestation caused far exceeds all the cars on the US. Time magazine said it would take over 400 years just to get the forests back to where they were in CO2 reduction, therefore just slowing down the deforestation does little compared to what they should do. This article states that 10% of all CO2 emissions are caused by deforestation but that is only accounting for the CO2 from burning and cutting of the trees and not the compounding effect of those trees no longer scrubbing the carbon dioxide from the air. If people take out a lung what is the effect on their ability to breath?

Like another person commented, people are getting killed every week in Brazil trying to stop the deforestation (Discover Magazine) . Let's call it like it is, a step in the right direction; but when they are on the bottom step with thousands of steps to go, there is nothing amazing about it.

frank laplaca
frank laplaca

If the United States of America would develop a inexpensive  method of energy and not be money hungry, the rest of the world will follow. Thus there would not be any polution and green house effects on the planet earth!

Robert Dean
Robert Dean

this is truly amazing! i, for one, thought the deforestation would destroy the entire rain forest. i thought this. good job for all involved!

Daniel Diaz
Daniel Diaz

It will be very useful for all countries in the world to know how nations leading statistics of efficiency in the use of farm land obtain such results. Let's share all this knowledge even with countries with weak economies to help them to survive without harming our planet. Internet is taking part. Let's continue. Let's do it better. Let's work to do away with war and encourage solidarity.

Mei Carmelle Pelaez
Mei Carmelle Pelaez

How I Pray other countries achieved such improvements or better yet plan to do the same thing. All for the goal of preserving the greens in our planet. 

Pritam Thakur
Pritam Thakur

The base cause of the problem is the World Wide Human Plague.

noel Oates
noel Oates

In the 80s I managed a group of satellites for NASA, from a location in Antarctica. One of the satellites, NIMBUS 7, daily photographed and counted the number of fires in the Amazon and this data was very alarming. The pictures were very depressing. Over the next 15 years it only worsened. But these reports give some hope that humans can make the turn toward sustainability. Bravo to Brazil...How they and other countries manage their rain forest regions is so critical to our planet.  

I wish for Brazil to win the World Cup too!

Maas WEERABANGSA
Maas WEERABANGSA

Bravo for Brazil ! It is for other more developed countries to take example from Brazil. If Brazil has done it, others too, could pitch in likewise and help mother earth. 

Donald Miller
Donald Miller

It is inspiring to witness a federal government, led by a woman no less, doing its part to solve a global problem. I am particularly proud of the way the Brazilian government as held firm when challenged by the corporate monopolies; 'Big Food' in the case of Brazil.

Tom Beveridge
Tom Beveridge

Spin ,Bull**** & wishful thinking.We can see how the powers in Brazil treat the poor & oppressed when it comes to the chance of making money & 'prestige' from a soccer Circus.A few thousand square miles of trees or lives of native tribesmen will soon be sacrificed for rich landowners to cover with GM soy.Most of the deforestation occurs illegally anyway and so is ignored & unpoliced.Spend a few minutes on Google earth & see how the lungs of the world is turning into another Argentina.

Larry Cox
Larry Cox

I learned about Brazil through its music.

Now I am also a student of the global political-economic system.

And I wonder how much foreign investment was involved in the deforestation of Brazil. If Brazil is regaining control of the situation, control over foreign investors may be part of the reason.

Tarcisio Santos de Salles
Tarcisio Santos de Salles

If National Geographic Society testifies brazilian progress in environmental practices, it's real! It's true! "Always forward and never to go back" (Blessed Junipero Serra, "The Apostle of California", United States History Hero)

jerry davus
jerry davus

And I'm reading yesterday about all the environmentalists who are still getting killed and driven out of Brazil trying to prevent rainforest destruction.  I don't believe you.

Gautam Dave
Gautam Dave

We should follow these here in India....

Gautam Dave
Gautam Dave

We should follow these here in India....

Bart Vanderborght
Bart Vanderborght

As a Biologist, I’ve always been interested in the Amazon situation. Since 26 years I regularly flew via commercial airlines over the amazon to get to Manaus or Belem.

It is shocking to see with which velocity the rainforest is been destroyed in name of “ecological fuels” (ethanol = sugarcane plantations), soy and meat production. In fact there is nearly no extended area of rainforest cover anymore from Manaus to the South. What rested of an immense green cover over which you flew for a 3h, only a mosaic pattern remained, with around 1/3 of some kind of depredated forest-blocks, surviving.  Every new road or river is the entrance for more and further destruction, a process that even easily can be followed via Google Earth…

The new forest code of 2012 a shameful rupture of the original code, orchestrated by the powerful farmer community, opening several doors to fuel the deforestations.

In Brazil you still get funds to re-forest previous destroyed rainforest, planting eucalyptus and other mono-cultural exotic tree plantations for cellulose production….

The reduction in speed of deforestation during the last quarter is simply due to the heavy rainfalls during the last months, resulting in the submersing of a large part of the amazon drainage-basin, making if much more inaccessible …

Unfortunately this National Geographic article is a political supported article, to setup a smoke screen, to hide the truth and decontrol of the rain-forest devastation, at the moment the world is looking to Brazil due to the World Cup….

A pity….

Jocelyn Chouinard
Jocelyn Chouinard

10 points for Brazil, but it really has to take a few more steps forward (or should I say backwards) in order to really make progress to nurse our abused planet back to health and possibly stave off planetary destruction as we rest on the brink of extinction from drastic   climate change. The first best step is to drop GM soybean production like the too hot to handle ecological destroyer that it is. The one single benefit to any GMO production is profits for the unprecedentedly evil Monsanto giant. Their crops are costly because the seeds much be purchased every year, their 'guaranteed' crops fail (look at India 2 years ago), they require exponentially increasing amounts of pesticides and herbicides ever year instead of the marketed empty promises weed and pest free. These poisons kill the earth, so farmers required more and more chemically toxic fertilizers to grow the GM soybeans. The cost of horrendous and mounting annually and the land becomes completely unsustainable for growing anything but super weeds and super insects within a few years.  Our precious rain forests cut down for THIS??? 


Next are the gado (beef cows)! Just look up the stats with any environmental group and animal toruture/abuse intervention agency. More precious and irreplaceable rain forests GONE so that MacDonalds can produce its toxic and artificial burgers that are quickly killing anyone foolish enough to eat this destructive garbage posing as food. In North America, the factory farming for the cattle and even dairy is horrific for the animals and the environment alike. giant pools of toxic waste that is funnelling off into trucks at night and dumped into our fresh water sources; more methane gas released than all the fossils fuels of the planet combined and decease, antibiotic and deadly hormone infested "meat" that carries unstoppable super diseases when eaten by the consumer….. lots of FOOD for thought here. So, while some baby steps are being taken, we really need to become more actively selective with our purchasing power and refuse to invest our hard earned dollars into personally and environmentally beneficial alternatives!! Don't buy supermarket meat and above all don't spend even 1$ or Real on any fast food!!

karyn Rogers
karyn Rogers

I was so relieved to read this article until I saw the posting by Professor /Dr. Jones from the Geology Department at UERJ in Rio de Janeiro!  Dr. Jones, I would be interested to know what you might propose as solutions to what is happening with deforestation as you take into consideration the needs of the people.

 I have also been sad as a result of a documentary that I saw about some of the indigenous tribes who are fretting because of the potential construction of hydroelectric damns which would wipe out their way of life.....


I appreciate your posting as it brings to life the reality of what is happening. We don't just want happy stories but I am in hope that we can all help to bring about solutions to the problems. 

I have always wanted to come to Brazil simply to witness the rainforest and to see the Amazon! I cannot afford such a trip but I can certainly dream about it!

Cleveland Jones
Cleveland Jones

How nice of you to help celebrate that now only a few THOUSAND SQUARE MILES of forest are being destroyed every year in the Amazon...

Now the government can also celebrate your misleading reporting...

Prof. Dr. Cleveland M. Jones
Researcher – INOG (Instituto Nacional de Óleo e Gás/CNPq)
FGEL – Geology Department/UERJ – State University of Rio de Janeiro
Rio de Janeiro, RJ 20550-013, BRAZIL

Gangadharan Pulingat
Gangadharan Pulingat

The success story of slowing deforestation in Brazil is really  happy to read.  It gives an opportunity to other countries where  deforestation is a problem that makes climate change and adverse living conditions against a sustainable future for the entire living organisms.  Climate change is a real problem and the consequences and burden of it is heavy more than people's imagination and is to dealt with so much seriousness as in the country Brazil now reported. 

Diane Tomsick
Diane Tomsick

I'm curious if the soy is GMO.  

Brazil has a multitude of serious problems with the lack of energy source and water as a couple.  No sense in clearing land when these 2 vital elements to farming are lacking.


Rob VonEssen
Rob VonEssen

@Alessandra Schneider Thank you Alessandra. It's hard when we know the truth is not getting out there or when we see so much getting over looked. I hope and pray they start making strides in those other areas you shared.

Beth Esquivel
Beth Esquivel

@Rob VonEssen I remember her story, I watched a documentary on her life and her struggles. Sadly it takes a sacrifice to get something started.

Nevena Ivankovic
Nevena Ivankovic

@Rob VonEssen That's very true. However I think the point of this article is not as much to praise Brazil but to show that it can be done (slowing down deforestation without slowing down the economy). I find that it is constantly a battle between the environment or the economy and this article shows that you can help both, even if it is just a small step in the right direction.

Rob VonEssen
Rob VonEssen

@Jocelyn Chouinard I agree with your point about the soybeans and the fact is we face a larger issue with the corn crops here in the US and the mandates on Ethanol which is a huge mistake. The push for Ethanol in the US and the growing of corn for fuel has caused riots in Mexico and food prices around the world to rise. The worst part is corn robs the earth of nutrients and requires farmers to put down extra fertilizer to grow it year after year. Now we have a dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico where the Mississippi runs into it because of all those chemicals the farmers are putting down. 

As far as eating meat, the factory farms are sad and disgraceful but farming can be done where the cattle are treated humanly and the produce is delicious. If done right the cattle waste is used to fertilize the fields naturally, and the methane can be captured and used to generate energy. Unfortunately the "family farm" is slowly dieing off.    

Regina Rocha
Regina Rocha

@Diane Tomsick

You should do your homework before writing. There is not an agricultural water problem in the Amazon where humidity is in the 74% range. Besides that, and as a reminder: the Amazon area is one of the largest sweet water reserves of the Planet!!!

Mark De Carvalho
Mark De Carvalho

Diane, I'm very curious to know where you get your info?

Brazil is self sufficient not only in petrol but shames the USA in it's production of cheap ethanol were it is sold at every gas station along side gasoline. Brazil is also one of worlds largest producers of electrical energy thru hidro electric plants were they don't have to burn fossil fuels.

Pedro Arthur Braune Guedes
Pedro Arthur Braune Guedes

@Diane Tomsick shortage of water is not a problem in the Amazon. No for agricultural purposes at least. Urban and rural sanitation are problems, and the population lacks access to clean and proper water, but I don't think that's the case for agriculture

leslie sinclair
leslie sinclair

@Pedro Arthur Braune Guedes If Brazil can save its rainforests then there is hope for any country.

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