8 June 2023

Since 2012, more than 50 percent of deforestation in the Amazon has occurred in “protected” areas in private hands, a U.S. study has found. Amnesty that excluded managers from restoration obligation was crucial

by Matteo Cavallito


Over the past decade, more than half of the deforestation suffered by the Brazilian Amazon has occurred in private conservation areas. That is, within rural properties that should not have been deforested. This is supported by a study published in the journal Communications Earth & Environment.

The investigation, conducted by scientists at Michigan State University‘s Center for Systems Integration and Sustainability (MSU-CSIS), points the finger specifically at government choices and their impact on climate. “The amnesty granted to 80% of landowners of small properties in the Amazon prevented the restoration of 14.6 million hectares of agricultural land, with a carbon sequestration potential of 2.5 gigatonnes,” says a statement from the American university.

The study

Since 2012, Brazil has amended its native vegetation protection law to encourage more regrowth. At the time, the study notes, “many small private property owners would have found themselves with insufficient natural vegetation on their land to meet the new requirements for legal reserves.”

However, “Due to the political influence of the agribusiness sector during the Forest Code’s review, small property owners in this legal debt were granted an amnesty such that they were not obliged to recover natural vegetation from productive land.”

In the so-called Atlantic Forest (the eastern part of the region), the research continues, “1,451,321 private properties (59% of small properties) were amnestied, sparing these landowners from the obligation to recover 3 Mha of natural vegetation (with an average of 2 ± 20 ha per rural private property).” The Cerrado was the least affected biome with 241,271 properties condoned totaling one million hectares.”

Amnesty has cost 2.4 billion tons of CO2

In the Amazon, the potential stock of carbon that could have been retained in natural vegetation in the absence of landowner exemptions would have been 2.4 billion tons.

In the Atlantic Forest, the amount reaches 341 million tons while in the Cerrado – the savanna located in the center of the country and known for its rich biodiversity – is only 76 million.

“Despite the negative impacts on carbon stocks given the NFC amnesty,” the researchers continue, “we estimate that the decelerated deforestation trends between the periods 2003–2012 and 2012–2020 within private properties in the Amazon (less 3.2 Mha compared to previous period) and Cerrado (1.1 Mha) biomes, prevented the release of at least 601 Mt of carbon to the atmosphere.”

La sanatoria è costata 2,4 miliardi di tonnellate di CO2. a. Stock di carbonio (tC/ha), cioè lo stock totale di carbonio; b. i poligoni rappresentano piccole proprietà rurali in Amazzonia; c. i colori di ogni poligono (cioè la proprietà privata) rappresentano la quantità equivalente di carbonio che potrebbe essere immagazzinata nella copertura vegetale naturale in caso di ripristino. Fonte: da Silva, R.F.B., de Castro Victoria, D., Nossack, F.Á. et al. Slow-down of deforestation following a Brazilian forest policy was less effective on private lands than in all conservation areas. Commun Earth Environ 4, 111 (2023). https://doi.org/10.1038/s43247-023-00783-9 Open Access CC BY licence

The amnesty has cost 2.4 billion tons of CO2. a Carbon stocks (tC/ha—i.e., total carbon stock; b the polygons represent small rural properties in the Amazon; c the colors of each polygon (i.e., private property) represent the equivalent amount of carbon that would be potentially stored in natural vegetation cover if it was recovered. Source: da Silva, R.F.B., de Castro Victoria, D., Nossack, F.Á. et al. Slow-down of deforestation following a Brazilian forest policy was less effective on private lands than in all conservation areas. Commun Earth Environ 4, 111 (2023) Open Access CC BY licence

The health of the Amazon impacts the entire world

The authors note how Brazil is still under increasing pressure to produce more soybeans and beef on private lands for international and domestic markets. For this reason, there is a need to have a tool to know the conservation status of these lands and implement appropriate forest governance.

“It’s important to enlist owners of private properties—especially those in global biodiversity hotspots such as Brazil—to participate in practices that reduce the carbon emissions and mitigate climate change through carbon sequestration,” said Jianguo Liu, director of the Center for Systems Integration and Sustainability.

Moreover, he says “Our work to reveal the true nature of private rural lands in Brazil has great impact not just for that country, but for the entire world. Local drivers of climate change mitigation truly are a global issue.”