How better monitoring and law enforcement saved 59,500 sq. km of the Amazon – an area the size of a small country

The Amazon is the world’s largest rainforest, but protecting it from illegal deforestation is a challenge nearly as immense as the forest itself. In a previous study, CPI has discussed explanations for a slowdown in the rate of forest clearings observed in the 2000s. In a new study, DETERring Deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon, we take a step further and answer the question: Which specific policy efforts contributed most to the reduction in Amazon deforestation?

Our analysis reveals that the implementation of the Real Time System for Detection of Deforestation (DETER), a satellite-based system that enables frequent and quick identification of deforestation hot spots, greatly enhanced monitoring and targeting capacity, making it easier for law enforcers to act upon areas with illegal deforestation activity. This improvement in monitoring and law enforcement was the main driver of the 2000s deforestation slowdown.

Prior to the activation of DETER, Amazon monitoring depended on voluntary reports of threatened areas, making it difficult for law enforcement personnel to locate and access deforestation hot spots in a timely manner. With the adoption of the new remote sensing system, however, Brazilian law enforcement personnel were able to better identify, more closely monitor, and more quickly act upon areas with illegal deforestation activity.

Through empirical analysis, we estimate that DETER-based environmental monitoring and law enforcement policies prevented the clearing of over 59,500 km2 of Amazon forest area from 2007 through 2011. Deforestation observed during this period totaled 41,500 km2 – 59% less than in the absence of the policy change.

We also estimate that, in a hypothetical scenario in which monitoring and law enforcement was entirely absent from the Amazon, an additional 122,700 km2 of Amazon forest would have been cleared from 2007 through 2011. To put that figure in context, that’s an area larger than the total land mass of the country of Nicaragua.

These results show that the total amount of avoided deforestation attributed to monitoring and law-enforcement policies in a five-year period is almost as large as the impact of a whole set of conservation policies introduced in the second half of the 2000s (see Assunção et al. [2012]). Although in this study we estimate avoided deforestation in a slightly different five-year window from the one used in the previous CPI/PUC-Rio study, the sheer magnitude of the forest area that was preserved indicates that the relative impact of DETER-based monitoring and law enforcement was far greater than that of other conservation policies implemented under the PPCDAm framework.

We also find that the policy change had no impact on agricultural production, an important finding considering the ongoing debate about how conservation policies and economic growth interact. In fact, in a simple calculation of the costs and benefits of these policies, we see that any price of carbon set above 0.76 USD/tCO2 would more than compensate the cost of environmental monitoring and law enforcement in the Amazon. Compared to the price of 5.00 USD/tCO2 commonly used in current applications, these figures suggest that the presence of an active monitoring and law enforcement authority in the Amazon has the potential to yield significant net monetary gains.

Our results have two key policy implications. First, these findings highlight the quantitative relevance of these policies’ deterrent effect. This does not in any way imply that other policies should not be used to combat deforestation. Rather, it suggests that such policies are complementary to monitoring and law enforcement efforts, effectively deterring forest clearings at the margin, while monitoring and law enforcement contain the bulk of deforestation.

Second, our results suggest that better monitoring technology could further increase the effectiveness of Amazon law enforcement activities. Overcoming DETER’s incapacity to see through clouds and obtaining land cover imagery in higher resolutions are two examples of technological advances that could enhance law enforcement targeting capability and add significant value to Brazil’s conservation efforts.

Given the immense importance of forests for their biodiversity, carbon stock, and economic value, and the immense challenge of protecting them, we hope to see more efforts like these not just in Brazil, but around the world.

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