Vast areas in the Brazilian Amazon may lose its protection new study finds

Photo: Kate Evans CIFOR

Vast areas in the Brazilian Amazon may lose its protection new study finds

Contestation over the use of land and forest areas in the Amazon have a long history, is heavily influenced by global consumption demands and as often the devil is in the details and paragraphs. A new study published in Nature Sustainability shows that up to fifteen million hectares of land might lose its current protection due to a paragraph in the Brazilian Forest Act, the most important legal framework for nature conservation on privately owned land in Brazil.

The land that could potentially lose its protection equals more than half of the total forest areas in Sweden. Most of the land consists of tropical rainforest and conversion to agriculture use would have severe consequences for biodiversity as well as for global climate change due to substantial greenhouse gas emissions. 

The study, Potential increase of legal deforestation in Brazilian Amazon after Forest Act revision, published in Nature Sustainability today, is a collaboration between KTH and Chalmers in Sweden, and the University of São Paulo in Brazil. The collaboration has been ongoing for around 10 years, under the leadership of Göran Berndes from Chalmers, and Gerd Sparovek of the University of São Paulo. In the newly published study, further Swedish participants included Ulla Mörtberg, at the same department as Flavio Freitas, and Chalmers researchers Martin Persson and Oskar Englund, who, together with Göran Berndes, are based at the Division for Physical Resource Theory at the Department of Space, Earth and Environment at Chalmers.

Photo: Jan Olof Yxell

Researchers in the collaboration between Chalmers, KTH and the University of São Paulo from left; Gerd Sparovek, Flavio Freitas, Andrea Egeskog and Göran Berndes.

Simply put their new paper highlights that the current land tenure regularisation in the Brazilian Amazon may trigger a paragraph in the Forest Act that makes it possible for states to reduce the protection of native vegetation on privately owned land. Securing “land rights” of undesignated land is something positive for forests and livelihoods, but may in this case open up for legal deforestation on vast areas in the Brazilian Amazon.

To understand the background to the study findings, what implications this paragraph might have and how to mitigate its impacts in the face of the new political landscape in Brazil, Focali interviewed the lead author of the article, Flavio Freitas, at KTH. Flavio has for more than ten years collaborated with researchers at Chalmers and has during this time also worked for the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, performing studies in Africa and Asia.  As his co-authors of this study, Göran Berndes, Martin Persson and Oskar Englund, Flavio is a member of the Focali research network focusing on global forest, climate and livelihood issues.


Q: What are the key findings in your study recently published in Nature Sustainability?

Flavio: In Brazil, there is a legislative requireme

Graphics Hugo Gustafsson Gothenburg Centre for Sustainable Development, GMV

Graphics Hugo Gustafsson Gothenburg Centre for Sustainable Development, GMV

nt (called the Legal Reserve) that private landowners designate a certain part of their land for the protection of native vegetation. Private landowners in states that lie in the Amazon region need to set aside 80% of their land for nature protection. However, there is a paragraph (Art. 12/§5) in the Forest Act that allows states to reduce the protection requirements on private land if conservation units and indigenous reserves (CU&IRs) cover more than 65% of the state’s territory. In the Amazon, the protection requirement can then be reduced from 80% to 50%. Therefore, an additional 30% of the private territory in the Brazilian Amazon could become available for legal deforestation.

Looking at the current size of CU&IRs in the states that lie in the Amazon region, we found that the paragraph may be invoked in Amapá state where about 750 000 hectares could lose protection.


However, Brazil has about 80 million hectares (Mha) of undesignated land and it is likely that more CU&IRs will become created to ensure the right to land of indigenous people, and to preserve biodiversity. Due to expanding CU&IRs, the paragraph may become invoked in two other states, Amazonas and Roraima, and the total areas of which may lose legal protection would then range from 6 to 15 Mha.


Q: In the study, you present two distinct scenarios, one “conservative” scenario where the reduction in protection is estimated at 6 Mha, and a worst-case scenario where the legally protected area would decrease by more than 15 Mha. What determines the actual outcome?

Flavio: It is difficult to estimate how large areas that may lose protection since it is highly dependent on how the land titling process will unfold.  If you consider scenarios where most of the undesignated lands are assigned to CU&IRs, then the reduction in legal protection would be close to 6 Mha, since only existing rural properties would be granted a reduced protection requirement. But if large rural properties are established on currently undesignated land (as recently allowed by the Law no 13.465), these properties may also be granted a reduced protection requirement and then the protected area would decrease by more than 15 Mha.


Q: Have these risks with the implementation of Art. 12/§5 been known before?

Lead author Flavio Freitas KTH. Photo: Tiago Froes Carvalho

Lead author Flavio Freitas KTH. Photo: Tiago Froes Carvalho

Flavio: It is important to note that environmentalists have already questioned the constitutionality of Art. 12/§5 in the Brazilian Supreme Court. The Supreme Court came to a decision earlier this year, acknowledging the constitutionality of this provision, thus, giving legal ground for its implementation. Unfortunately, there was not enough information available regarding potential environmental impacts of this provision as this new study when it was assessed by the Brazilian Supreme Court.


Q: What implications can this situation have for climate, biodiversity and local land rights? 

Flavio: The implementation of this provision is worrisome, considering that the areas of concern are among the most biodiverse on earth. About half of the area is in regions of very or extremely high importance for biodiversity conservation. Further, the Amazon forest store large amounts of carbon and conversion to agricultural land could release 1 to 2 gigatonnes of carbon currently stored in the above-ground biomass. More carbon stored in the below-ground biomass and soil would be released as well.

The expectation that an additional 30% of privately owned land will become available for agricultural use may also encourage land speculation and illegal land grabbing in the region, which could intensify violent dispute for land ownership.


Q: What are your thoughts on the possibilities to mitigate the impact in light of the new political situation in Brazil after the recent elections?

Flavio: Revision of federal or state environmental legislation would be required to remove the risk that some states will reduce the protection requirement on private land. However, this will not likely happen in the coming years, due to the new political situation in Brazil. The next administration lead by Jair Bolsonaro is expected to push for further deforestation to make new land available for agriculture and mining in the Amazon. Investments in road infrastructure in the region may also take place, which would increase the pressure for implementation of Art. 12/§5.

One statement from the soon to be President, Jair Bolsonaro, was “If I become president, there will not be one centimeter more of indigenous land demarcated for indigenous people”  (translated from his statement in Portuguese “Se eu assumir como presidente da República, não haverá um centímetro a mais para demarcação”). If he follows this campaign promise, it is unlikely that the area of CU&IRs will cross the 65% threshold while he is in power and Article 12/§5 will then not be triggered. But then, 80 Mha of undesignated land will be left undesignated and available for illegal and often violent land grabbing. So we are caught between the devil and the deep blue sea – if CU&IRs expand nature protection on privately owned land may decrease, and if CU&IRs do not expand large areas of currently undesignated land in the Amazon may become deforested.


Q: Given this difficult dilemma, which option is the least destructive for forests and thereby biodiversity and ecosystem services?

Flavio: Expansion of CU&IRs would absolutely be desirable, since this is the most effective way to preserve biodiversity values and prevent greenhouse gas emissions. As discussed, nature protection on private lands may then be reduced. But keeping the forest standing may still be viable. Zero deforestation commitments from private companies would be crucial in this scenario.


Q: What other risks and opportunities ahead do you anticipate for nature preservation and livelihoods depending on the Amazon forests?

Flavio: The development of road infrastructure in the region should receive special attention. New roads can make agricultural expansion viable in new areas in the Amazon, where the forest may lose protection. Therefore, such development should be accompanied with strategic mitigation measures.

Investing in innovative pathways for developing the economy in the Amazon region is essential to preserve the Amazon rainforest and to improve in a sustainable way the livelihood of people living in the forest. There are plenty of high-value products that can be produced in large volumes while keeping the forest standing. However, external support will be needed for realizing the many opportunities that exist. Moreover, there is a lot of room to increase efficiency on current agricultural land to not have to expand into forests.

Finally, the irreplaceable values of ecosystem services such as hydrology for regional agriculture and the importance of biodiversity to national and international economies need to be factored. Payment schemes to compensate land owners that set aside land for nature preservation will likely be needed to balance the main drivers of deforestation such as profitable soy and beef production for regional and global markets.

In these efforts the international community need to show strong commitment to support Brazil to enable a sustainable development path for the Amazon that benefit both national development and maintain the Amazons values to the region and the world as a whole.


More news about this study:

The article that this interview is based on “Potential increase of legal deforestation in Brazilian Amazon after Forest Act revision” was published today in Nature Sustainability.

Read the pressrelease from Chalmers Univeristy of Technology about the study

The study behind the new article is conducted within the project “Bioenergy options in Brazil – environmental impacts of land use change”.  The project is implemented in close cooperation with the Agriculture College of the University of São Paulo (ESALQ/USP), with Prof. Gerd Sparovek, and Chalmers University of Technology, Energy and Environment Department (the Physical Resource Theory Division) with Prof. Göran Berndes.

Contact: For more information about this study contact the lead author:

Flavio Freitas

Flavio Freitas KTH Profile page


Video with co-author Martin Persson:

Video with Focali member and co-author Martin Persson Chalmers where he summarize the key findings of this new study. Co-produced by Focali and Gothenburg Centre for Sustainable Development, GMV. Editing and graphics by Hugo Gustafsson, Communication Officer GMV.

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