Paper published on Deforestation Frontier Development in the Amazon

We recently published a scientific study on Deforestation Frontier Development in the Brazilian Amazon. The study called “Recent transformations of land-use and land-cover dynamics across different deforestation frontiers in the Brazilian Amazon” maps current deforestation frontiers and shows how agricultural development and land-use change coincide with frontier development.

We show that new frontier development is characterized by expanding crop production dynamics and that all frontiers are characterized by improvements in cattle productivity. As for settlements we observe increasing deforestation rates and a persistence of cattle-ranching which requires a larger amount of areas compared to annual or perennial crops. In all frontier types large deforestation events increased again after a steady decrease up to 2012 (see Rosa et al., 2012) which could mean that large landholders are returning to business-as-usual under the current policy regime. The study is published as Open-Access and can be viewed on the Science Direct Homepage here.

Deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon after 2004, animated!

I found an easy reproducible code example to make animated GIFs in R which allowed me to produce these plots very quickly. They show how clear-cut deforestation developed developed over time since the all time high in 2004.

Overall Brazilians successfully reduced deforestation until 2012. Since 2012 the rates increased slightly. We can observe in this animated GIFs how the share in overall deforestation of different Amazon states changed.


States with traditionally high deforestation shares are Rondônia, Mato Grosso and Pará. They account  for the very large part of the total deforestation. Pará inherited the fist place from Mato Grosso with almost 60% share of total deforstation in 2009. However since 2010 also Mato Grossos share increased again. The state of Amazonas is a new emergent player where forest fall especially in the southern part (Boca do Acre). Amazonas state almost levels the share of Rondônia which was was in the 80s and 90s the state where large part of the deforestation took place. The five other states have overall low shares:


However if we compare how the states performed to reduce deforestation by their own standards the picture changes. In the following plot we compare the deforestation rates relative to the base year 2004 which had the highest rates of all times. We see that Pará, Rondônia and especially Mato Grosso where able to reduce overall deforestation even with the slight increase since 2012. The Amazonas state however is almost back to its level of 2004. This could indicate that the Amazonas state is a region to look out when it comes to future deforestation trends in the next couple of years.


The other five states also reduced deforestation to different degrees however we observe that Roraima, Maranhão and Amapá had even higher levels for some years after 2004 compared to their baseline. Acre and Tocantins reduced deforestation quickly but had sharp increases in 2016. These regional shifts show how diverse the region reacted to the environmental policies that where introduced in the last two decades two foster deforestation control.


Radio interview on recent deforestation increase in the Brazilian Amazon

Latest deforestation data from PRODES suggest that there was an increase in clear cut deforestation of 29% in 2016. An area of almost 8.000 square-kilometers, equivalent to 1.6 Mio. football fields was deforested in 2016 with sharp increases along the agricultural frontier. Is this a sign that the trend for reducing deforestation in Brazil is going to revert again?

In the In this short radio-interview with Christoph König from SWR2 Impuls I discuss some of the eventual drivers of this recent change and possible solutions  to address this problem in the future. You can download the german podcast here.


Annual relative variation of clear cut deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon. Source: PRODES


Field trip to the Brazilian Amazon

These photos will show some impressions from my field trip to the Brazilian Amazon region in 2015. All in all I stayed about three month in the region to make interviews with local farmers about their production systems and their attitudes towards protection of the natural rain forest. My interviews covered a large area of the Amazon in the states of Acre and Mato Grosso.

1-mapThe state of Mato Grosso and Acre in red

My studies are part of a research-project at the Centre for Development Research in Bonn that is funded by the Robert-Bosch-Fundation.  The project seeks to understand how environmental policies can contribute to lower deforestation and foster sustainable land-use in tropical rain-forest regions.

During the field research I interviewed persons about their land-use choices including the use of new technologies to increase productivity and the role of deforestation in current land-use practices. I hope to understand how social and economic forces drive these phenomena and how the effectiveness of current policy approaches is influenced by those circumstances.

All in all we were performing more than 100 interviews with farmers in different socio-economic settings. We spoke to very poor producers who rely on a relatively small piece of land as their sole income source and very rich producers who possess thousands of hectares of agricultural land and have very diversified income portfolios the span into other sectors of the economy as well.Interview participantsTraditionally cattle ranching is one of the most important drivers of  deforestation in the Amazon region. In Brazil cattle ranching was the preferred development model to open up and occupy vast areas of pristine rain forest along the main infrastructure projects in the North. Throughout decades large amounts of public money were spent to incentivize and subsidize the expansion of cattle-ranching in the region. 


Growth of export value of Brazilian Cattle. Source: Mongabay

Up to date, a huge part of the cattle production-systems in the Amazon are characterized by very low technological production-levels. Farmers miss important inputs such as fertilizers or herbicides to maintain the productivity of pastures. Also there is also a lack of additional fodder in the dry season and adequate veterinary assistance to increase nutrition levels and productivity of the animals.

4-cowAnimals might get very skinny in the dry season if not fed with additional fodder.

With few inputs, productivity declines rapidly in the pasture and producers rely on deforestation to gather new land suitable for production. Since the environmental impacts of deforestation where not a political concern for many decades and land was relatively abundant, the cheapest form to maintain or increase production was to open up new areas for pasture creation.

5 def 4Freshly  deforested area in Northern Mato Grosso.

Like this more forest areas got burned to the ground. Up to date around 20% of the Amazon rain-forest have been cleared in Brazil and an equal amount of area is thought to be selectively logged. Since the early 1990s Brazilian Government tried to increase the control of deforestation by implementing new environmental regulations and  building up governmental entities to control land-take and usage.

6 ibama police

Heavily armed military forces  have to back up field  enforcement actions of  environmental  agencies like IBAMA.

New policies where successful to reduce deforestation in the last ten years by increasing law enforcement and putting more pressure on the local governments to address the problem. Still it is questionable to which degree those approaches will be able to maintain or further lower deforestation rates in the future as more recent data suggests.

7 prodes

Clear cut deforested areas in square kilometres as observed by the Brazilian Forest Monitoring Program PRODES from 1988 to 2015. Source: INPE.

Inside the agricultural sector, environmental policies have created huge tensions because they are associated with negative impacts on production levels and the income of farmers. A lot of producers criticize environmental policies  for being incongruent with what was supported or even demanded by policies in the past.

One main challenge to reduce the pressure on the forest is therefore to overcome the old production paradigm and develop land-use options that demand less areas be it either by increasing productivity inside cattle-systems or diversifying the production of cattle ranchers as such. By this environmental and socio-economical goals could be achieved in line.

8 sustainable 1

Animal confinement is a form of  intensive cattle-ranching that is able to reduce the amount of necessary land considerably.

8 sustainable 2A farmer showing palm- fruits from his palm-trees that are part of a combined silvo-pastoral land-use system that is able to increase income and carbon storage on existing pasture areas.

One big challenge to change the current production systems is the lack of adequate infrastructure. Even though there is evidence, that expanding infrastructure is a precondition for opening up new areas, this does not automatically mean that the worse the infrastructure the better off the environment.

We continuously observed that bad infrastructure might be worse for the environment than good infrastructure. With less access to reliable infrastructure, farmers prefer to have a product that can be commercialized throughout the whole year (cattle) instead of a crop that is normally commercialized after harvest where the farm might not be accessible due to rains. This is especially true for regions with few storage capacities (e.g. grain silos).

9 infra 4Bad infrastructure reduces accessibility through the rainy season…

9 infra 5…and puts  burdens to daily live e.g. through the  inability to travel. On our journey from Mato Grosso to Acre we got surprised by a sudden rain that took us of the road for several hours.

Furthermore high transportation costs from bad infrastructure might also increase significantly the costs for production inputs thereby increasing the attractiveness of deforestation over land reform (e.g. more expensive fertilizers or agricultural lime for reducing soil acidity).

9 infra 7Bad access to farms might eliminate the chance for more intensive land-use. Animals however can walk over broken bridges and wade through riverbeds themselves. Some farmers make their cattle walk over 200 km to take them to the next market.

Being a more viable option under poor infrastructural conditions cattle ranching is also favourable under difficult biophysical conditions such as steep slopes where mechanized agriculture is not viable. During our field-trip, regions with a very undulated topography where often partially characterized by cattle ranching.

10 hillyA pasture of a relatively small farm in Northern Acre

Besides economic reasons, cattle ranching also brings a lot of other benefits to farmers that are commonly less addressed in the literature. Cattle creation is for example significantly less labour demanding and often easier to apply and manage than agriculture. Even though farmers could significantly increase their income changing production e.g. to coffee plantations, they prefer cattle over crops for the relative easiness in  implementation.

Another benefit is the herd itself functioning like a rural bank account. A growing herd is like a  growing capital stock  that is easy exchangeable for cash throughout the whole year. Cattle can therefore serve as a form of social security since it provides money for emergency spendings or investments, particularly in regions, where financial services are sparse. As long as the herd is visibly growing the farmer feels to be on the safe side.

Cattle also brings financial stability to producers since it is less vulnerable to inflation and other economic shocks than other investment forms. By that it is a very attractive investment for either retirement or additional income of people that do not engage traditionally  in agriculture. To our surprise a lot of elder people like retired school teachers or state workers engage in cattle ranching to invest and increase their pensions.

Our upcoming publications will address those issues since they are key to understand the logic of cattle production, its attractiveness and strong persistence in the region as well as its implications for promoting sustainable land-use options in the future. Below you can find some more photos from the trip.

5 def 3A huge fire from deforestations close to the city of Colniza in Northern Mato Grosso. Heavy smoke during the dry season often covers huge areas and affects people living in cities nearby.

9 infra 10Infrastructure development everywhere. Besides huge construction sites it is difficult to maintain the existing road network that is often poorly paved and utilized by very heavy trucks…

IMG_20151209_145425…carrying for example trunks from legal and illegal wood extraction.

IMG_20151209_132546Machines to mix animal fodder for intensive cattle ranching are gaining momentum in central Mato Grosso …

IMG_20151209_132947As well as the expansion of industrialized grain production that often leads to the displacement of cattle ranching to more remote areas.

IMG_20151209_150349Besides being one of the most important rural economic activities, cattle ranching is also a social phenomena with the cowboy culture rising (very nicely documented by Jeffrey Hoelle). This photo shows a gathering of the local cattle elite at an auction of breeding animals at the agricultural fair ExpoAcre .

From shame to fame? On Brazil’s experiment using public disclosure for conservation

Finally our paper “Naming and Shaming for Conservation: evidence from the Brazilian Amazon” has come out in PLOS ONE.

Brazil has probably been the first country in the world experimenting with the “naming and shaming” approach in the forestry sector and at a large (Amazon) scale. We started looking at the outcomes already back in 2013, with Sophie ’s preliminary results being presented at the International Workshop: Evaluating Forest Conservation Initiatives: New Tools and Policy Needs. Early in 2014, we discussed our findings with colleagues in Brazil who later published a working paper (Assunção and Rocha, 2014) using a similar empirical strategy.

Shortly after we had submitted our manuscript, Arima et al. (2014) came out with a paper using the blacklisting policy as a quasi-experimental setting to evaluate Brazil’s surge in field-based law enforcement activities in the Amazon.

How do our results compare to the other two studies? Assunção et al.’s counterfactual simulation suggests that blacklisting has conserved ca. 12,000 sqkm of forests, whereas Arima et al. provide a range from 2,300 to 12,000 sqkm. Like Arima et al., we pre-process our data set using matching techniques. Probably because we rely on a relatively large and diverse set of matching covariates, our results lie at the conservative (lower) end of the range provided by Arima et al..

However, inspired by Paul Ferraro’s and Merlin Hanauer’s (2014) exciting recent PNAS piece on causal mechanisms behind the welfare effects of protected areas, we wanted to learn more about how the blacklisting policy has worked.
We started with what we thought was most obvious: blacklisted districts should have seen more environmental enforcement action than others. But then, reviewers pushed us further to include public credit flows and the environmental cadaster (CAR) coverage as additional mechanisms. To our surprise, none of these mechanisms seems to have played a major role in explaining the additional conservation effect of the blacklist. For the time being, we conclude that “shaming” must have been an important driver behind the type of collective conservation action at the local level that we had heard a lot about from organizations on the ground.

Of course many caveats apply: For example, we’d need to know more about potential qualitative differences in field-based enforcement action – perhaps enforcement operations were as frequent, but more rigorous in blacklisted than in non-blacklisted districts… more research is needed.

More importantly, what can we learn from the Brazilian experience?

  1. The blacklist was published only after Brazil had started a major crackdown on illegal deforestation in the Amazon. Transferability of the Brazilian experience to other tropical forest margins thus probably hinges on law enforcement or other economic consequences being a real threat. Naming and shaming can then render this threat more imminent even if it is not actually accompanied by targeted action.
  2. If you look at our S1 Fig. in our paper, you’ll wonder how the official blacklisting criteria were used, if at all, to compose the list. The authorities were probably wise to keep the process relatively in-transparent. Deforestation monitoring in Brazil is very good, but not good enough to avoid lengthy debates with blacklisted districts about how clouds and classification errors could have messed up the latest blacklist. You also want to avoid that districts strategically deforest up to some “safe limit”.
  3. Whatever criteria are used for putting districts on and off the blacklist, deforestation should probably be weighed against other criteria, such as district size or economic performance.

As a fun example, consider organizing the blacklist like a football league:

The upper league would consist of districts that perform well, i.e. low levels of deforestation per unit of agricultural GDP (or total district area). The lower league (blacklist) would consist of the districts that consistently perform poorly in terms forest loss over agricultural GDP. There are currently 771 players, divided into two leagues, the upper league would have 721 members and the lower league would have 50 members. Each period (e.g., 2-3 years given high annual remote sensing error margins) the 5 blacklisted districts that perform best among their league shift to the upper league. Simultaneously the worst-performing 5 upper-league districts now move to the blacklist. The advantage over the current blacklisting system is threefold. 1) The two criteria at which districts are ranked within their leagues can be made public without making selection predictable. 2) The two combined criteria reflect the fact that larger / economically more powerful districts naturally tend to deforest more than smaller districts. 3) Such a system could create competition for first league membership among Amazon districts and perhaps lead to overall conservation effects beyond the current system. Don’t most of us prefer fame over shame?