Taking Names, Saving Trees - Pacific Standard

Taking Names, Saving Trees

Brazil's program of increased enforcement in communities with high deforestation rates appears to have worked.
Author:
Publish date:
An aerial shot shows the contrast between forest and agricultural landscapes near Rio Branco, Acre, Brazil. (Photo: CIFOR/Flickr)

An aerial shot shows the contrast between forest and agricultural landscapes near Rio Branco, Acre, Brazil. (Photo: CIFOR/Flickr)

Brazil has a long and notorious history of clearing its forests to make room for cattle ranches and farms. In 2004, the country launched an ambitious strategy for combatting deforestation. And it seems to be working: According to new research, Brazil's program of blacklisting communities with the worst deforestation rate has cut tree loss by 26 percent.

There were already pretty good indicators that Brazil's earlier effort, the first Plan to Combat Deforestation in the Amazon, was on to something. In the program's first year, officials reported that they'd cut deforestation roughly in half, from around 6,950 square miles of forest loss in 2004 to 3,475 in 2005. In 2008, however, the government stepped up enforcement, creating a unique blacklist that by 2012 grew to include 50 of the country's 771 rainforest districts. The list isn't just public shaming, though that is a component—it also comes with stiff fines, embargoes on beef from cattle raised in blacklisted districts, and loan restrictions, among other measures.

It takes about two years of being on the blacklist before deforestation rates really start dropping.

The question is, did those extra measures help? That's not as straightforward a questions as it may seem, in part because the Brazilian government hasn't been entirely clear about what qualified a district for inclusion on the blacklist—or rather, the districts on the list don't always line up with the government's stated criteria, University of Bonn scientists Elias Cisneros, Sophia Lian Zhou, and Jan Borner explain in PLoS One. But of greater concern is the fact that inclusion on the list isn't random, as it would be in an experiment.

To get around that problem, the team first matched the 50 districts on the list with others that were similar in terms of pre-2008 deforestation rates, size, population density, along with subtler measures, such as the number of tractors per farm. In doing so, they constructed a data set in which the main difference between blacklisted districts and others is precisely that: the fact that they're on the list. In principle, researchers could directly estimate the effect of the blacklist by computing the post-2008 deforestation rates in blacklisted districts alongside their respective matches. But just to be safe, the team controlled for a variety of ecological and economic indicators pre- and post-2008 in their analysis.

The result: Being on the blacklist chops down the deforestation rate by about 26 percent overall in the years following inclusion, an effect the researchers argue is largely the result of stepped-up enforcement in blacklisted districts. An additional analysis suggests, however, that the effect isn't immediate. Instead, it takes about two years of being on the blacklist before deforestation rates really start dropping.

"Given the scarce evidence on the effectiveness of transparency and accountability measures in conservation, our results should encourage experimentation with blacklisting as a complementary forest conservation measure," the authors write.

Quick Studies is an award-winning series that sheds light on new research and discoveries that change the way we look at the world.

Related