Constructing governance to stop Brazilian deforestation

Maje Müllenborn, Caroline Breinholt, Joss Lyons-White, Dr. Kristjan Jespersen


Deforestation: the byproduct of agricultural expansion

Deforestation to pave the way for agricultural expansion is a major global problem. This is particularly evident in Brazil, where deforestation has been making international headlines for decades. Deforestation threatens Brazilian ecosystems including the Amazon rainforest, which play a central role in global environmental processes. If progressively degraded, the Amazon may be pushed past tipping-points that induce runaway change, leading it to permanently shift to savannah. As such, deforestation endangers biodiversity, contributes to climate change, and could even affect continental rainfall patterns. Additionally, aggressive agricultural expansion often infringes on the rights of indigenous communities and can have detrimental effects on human health. This makes it critical to improve the governance around agricultural expansion to help reduce deforestation.

We have been investigating how governance could be configured to reduce deforestation more effectively, using the idea of combining policy instruments into what Rogge and Reichardt call “policy mixes”. This concept allows us to go beyond the realm of public policy analysis and conventional legal instruments, and acknowledge the effect of other factors that may influence governance, including global supply chains and production networks, financial and trade flows, and international organizations and agendas. The policy mix concept also encompasses interactions between instruments, as well as the processes through which instruments emerge, and can thus help understand how governance changes over time.

Brazilian soy as a driver of deforestation

Agriculture plays a central role in the Brazilian economy and development. A challenge for governance therefore revolves around balancing economic development and conservation of Brazilian ecosystems. Of the many commodities that Brazil produces, soybeans are the top export: around 73% of domestic soy production is destined for international markets (about 120 million metric tons). As such, soy is at the crux of the Brazilian deforestation problem, with high market demand, an important role in the Brazilian economy, and a huge domestic production network. In our study of Brazilian deforestation, we concentrated on soy-based deforestation and governance targeting Brazilian soy production.

We conducted a systematic literature review to investigate the relationship between the Brazilian soy policy mix and deforestation rates between 2000 and 2018 in the Amazon rainforest and Brazil’s Cerrado woody savannah ecosystem. From an initial search that identified 881 relevant articles, we conducted a more detailed analysis on 56 articles. We found that in the study period, many international institutions and organizations, states, civil society actors and others dedicated themselves to combating Brazilian deforestation through various mechanisms. Governance included everything from conventional “hard law” instruments, such as Brazil’s Forest Code, to newer “soft law” solutions, such as voluntary third-party certification schemes like the Roundtable for Responsible Soy. Hybrid governance forms, such as collaboration between municipalities and NGOs, also took place.

Successes and challenges in the Brazilian soy policy mix

The Brazilian soy policy mix was associated with considerable reductions in soy-driven deforestation in the mid-2000s. The Brazilian Space Agency (Portuguese acronym INPE) began monitoring deforestation in 1988, and their data reveal that deforestation rates have ranged from as much as 29,059 km2 in 1995 to as little as 4,571 km2 in 2012. In July 2019, INPE data indicated that 9,762 km2 had been deforested in the preceding 12 months and recent articles have indicated that this increase continued in 2020. So, despite large improvements up to 2012, fluctuations in the deforestation rate in the mid-2010s and a rebound in recent years suggest problems in the policy mix remain, and the underlying drivers of deforestation have not been sufficiently tackled.

Figure 1: Deforestation rates 2000-2019

Source: PRODES/INPE data accessed via TerraBrasilis (INPE, 2020)


From low adoption rates to weak enforcement, we identified numerous problems and only few successes in the Brazilian soy policy mix. These included:


  1. Conflicting objectives in the policy mix, e.g. between state and non-state actors and between international and domestic levels of governance, often between

  2. Zero gross deforestation objectives, aimed at preventing all deforestation; and

  3. Zero net deforestation objectives, aimed at preventing zero gross deforestation, i.e. allowing for reforestation of cleared land.

  4. Successful top-down delegation and hybrid governance setups, although a lack of smallholder engagement was widespread, as initiatives often targeted larger farmers (and agribusinesses) in a pursuit of the greatest additionality, i.e. catching the biggest deforestation “culprits”.

  5. High costs of compliance with governance instruments, without sufficient benefits. This generally increased the likelihood of non-compliance and, therefore, deforestation.

  6. Lack of capacity of the Brazilian government to enforce legislation due to weak monitoring and sanctioning.


The future of governance?

So, where do these insights lead us? How can governance be interpreted more efficiently to prevent Brazilian deforestation? Our study of the Brazilian soy policy mix suggests that a successful policy mix must value hybrid governance, involving policies deployed by the state, private and civil society actors – and preferably in collaboration – to achieve sustainable agricultural production. Additionally, our review indicates that the existence of a leading actor within a polycentric governance model, who can organize efforts, streamline objectives, and most importantly, delegate tasks to other levels of governance (e.g. state or municipal levels), might be key. However, finding the balance between centralization and decentralization may be difficult and successful governance instruments exist both in top-down and bottom-up setups.

Of the many governance instruments at play, the Municípios Prioritários (“priority municipalities”) program of 2008, which targeted municipalities with high deforestation rates through blacklisting, was arguably among the more successful. The program pressured municipalities to take ownership and actively work towards reducing deforestation. Essentially, it allowed “federal government [to] create the conditions for severe political and economic disruption at the local level”. As such, our review suggests that local engagement and delegation of responsibility are key when it comes to designing governance to prevent deforestation.

Studying policy mixes has implications for the way in which we support governance-making, for the design of policy instruments, and for the evaluation of performance within the deforestation discourse. State, private and civil-society stakeholder must all look beyond governments as the sole governing actors and instead consider how to balance efforts between the many actors involved. In particular, it is important to acknowledge the impact that private sector and civil society can have to address deforestation effectively.

© 2019 by Centre for Business and Development Studies

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