Economic Development and Conservation: Are they compatible?

In August 2019, Brazil’s President Jair Bolsonaro dismissed the protection of Amazon rainforest as an impediment to economic development in the wake of the fires raging across his country. He reiterated this point at the recently held 74th Session of the UN General Assembly, citing that “there is no political freedom without economic freedom”.

This sentiment, often phrased as “the developed world got rich from their resources. Why can’t we?”, assumes that protecting forests imposes a heavy cost on citizens especially farmers and rural livelihoods, food security and even the national economy. It’s spoken so much that, like President Bolsonaro, many citizens of developing countries have come to consider economic development and conservation as mutually exclusive.

Mile-long trains brimming with iron ore clatter past the indigenous communities of Posto Awá and Tiracambu en route from the world’s largest open-pit iron ore mine to the Atlantic port of São Luís, where the ore is loaded onto ships, many bound for China. When the railroad was built in the 1970s and ’80s, it cut through traditional Awá lands. Photo by Charlie Hamilton James, Nat Geo Image Collection

But a look into Brazil’s recent past tells a different story. Following an age of uncontrolled deforestation, where forest loss peaked to 27,772 sq. km in 2004, an aggressive campaign to reduce deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon started, with the surprising benefit of innovation in yield outputs in the agriculture and cattle ranching sectors. It worked so well that Brazil was able to reduce forest loss by two-thirds between 2004-2012, keeping approximately 6 gigaton of carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere, while achieving an annual growth rate of 4.8% between 2004 and 2008 (from 2.2% in 1995 to 2003) and jumping to 7.5% by 2010. Concurrently, the acceleration in growth helped unemployment rates to decline, with a formal unemployment low of 5.7% by the end of 2010 according to IBGE, the national statistical agency.

So how did they do it? Firstly, working with the private sector played a significant role in reducing forest loss. Brazil is a major global producer and exporter of commodities such as soybean and beef. Big animal feed traders such as ADM, Louis Dreyfus, Cargill and Bunge banned soy produced through newly deforested areas along their supply chain from July 2006 onwards. The Soy Moratorium, as it was known, was the first major agreement of zero deforestation (i.e. no forest area was cleared or converted) in the Amazon biome. Within three years purchases of soy grown on new deforested lands across the Brazilian Amazon was virtually eliminated.

Cattle ranching in Castelo de Sonhos, Pará State, Brazil. Photo by Nilo D’Avila

Following suit were JBS-Friboi, Bertin, Minerva and Marfrig, the largest cattle producers and traders in Brazil, who also implemented policies geared towards reducing the purchase of cattle and by-products such as leather from newly deforested areas. With more than 200 million cattle bringing in US$123 billion into Brazil’s economy annually, the Beef Moratorium tried to eliminate cattle-driven deforestation along their supply chain. Working with the private sector proved to be about five times as successful as the action by the Brazilian government.

Deforestation in the legal Amazon (Mha/year)
Source: Brazilian National Institute for Space Research (INPE) and International Monetary Fund (IMF) data

Secondly, pastures previously declared as low-productivity or degraded were used to increase production of soy and cattle without having to further clear forests in the Amazon. Using this method, farmers were able to use some 10.2 million hectares of degraded lands to produce higher crop yield while generating lower carbon emission. The most striking improvements were seen in cattle-ranching sector, with an increase of 14–36% in the stocking rate (animals per hectare of pasture) due to the Municípios Prioritários system.

So what is Municípios Prioritários? In 2007, 45% of the deforestation caused in the Amazon biome resulted from just thirty-six (36) municipalities – an astonishing figure considering Brazil has 547 municipalities that transected this biome. These municipalities were blacklisted, with 14 more added to the list in 2009 and 2011. By 2008, the Municípios Prioritários policy was launched as part of Brazil’s action plan to curb deforestation.

Due to the blacklisting, these Priority Municipalities were register as having high deforestation rates, with targeted packages of interventions, including increased field inspections and fines for deforestation by IBAMA, Brazil’s Institute for the Environment and Natural Resources. This led to changes in the approval of subsidized credit contracts to farmers, the refusal of meatpacking plants to buy cattle from embargoed farms and development of local plans for sustainable production. As a result of the Municípios Prioritários policy, only about 21,000 sq. km was deforested between 2008 and 2011, 35% less than what would have occurred in the absence of the policy (see paper by Assunção and Rocha 2014).

Deforestation in Brazil

Just as Brazil was teaching the world how economic development and conservation can led to a more sustainable future, a small set of agribusinesses in Brazil used their political influence to undermine the progress. In 2012, Brazil begun the process of weakening its Forest Code, signaling an acceptance of deforestation-fueled products along various supply chains. This weakened protection for the Amazon as well as the Cerrado, which saw a shift and increase in deforestation for cattle-ranching and cropland.

The tragedy of this intentional shift that allowed increasing deforestation was entirely unnecessary. Brazil had approximately 15-20 million hectares of previously degraded land that could have been available for agriculture and pastures, without the need to clear more forests. Currently, pastures occupy approximately 166 million hectares, two times bigger than the area of croplands (77 million hectares). Here, pastures currently accommodate only 1.32 head of cattle per hectare on average, which can easily be extended to 2 heads per hectare. This would release 56 million hectares for cropland expansion. In fact, pasture intensification was a fundamental part of Brazil’s submission to the Paris Agreement.

But the right incentives needs to exist for this to occur. The current move to weaken environmental laws and agencies across Brazil may ultimately prevent the private sector related to cropland and cattle-ranching from modernizing and adopting more efficient farming practices. Here, the enforcement of the Forest Code and working with the private sector to achieve zero-deforestation along their supply chain can once again make Brazil an economic and conservation powerhouse.

About the Author: Dr Michelle Kalamandeen is a Remote Sensing and Systematic Conservation Planning Scientist currently doing a postdoc at the University of Cambridge, UK and Laurentian University, Canada. She was part of the Guyanese delegation at the UNFCCC COP21 in Paris and have established several protected areas in Guyana.

Published by Dr Michelle Kalamandeen

Dr Michelle Kalamandeen is a Remote Sensing and Systematic Conservation Scientist from Guyana, South America. She aims to get a more accurate picture of what the forest and aquatic landscapes looks like today and in the future, how they will respond to different environmental and land use changes and how this will impact on climate, biodiversity and the people living there. Michelle has extensive NGO leadership experience for over 12+ years including serving as an executive board member of the Guyana Human Rights Association. She is currently one of 170 experts from the Amazon working on the Science Panel for the Amazon ( and is part of the core Editorial Board of the new section in MDPI Remote Sensing called 'Discoveries in Remote Sensing' (

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