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Rural Settlements and Deforestation in the Amazon

Published: December, 2016

Romero Rocha is also an author of this report

Since the 1970s, the Federal Government of Brazil has sought to colonize remote and sparsely populated regions while at the same time giving landless farmers access to land. This program, which is part of the agrarian reform efforts, provides farmers with a piece of land in rural settlements created by the government. It usually also includes financial and technical assistance for growing food and raising cattle. Rural settlements have expanded quickly in heavily-forest areas of the Amazon in the 2000s. In 2002, they covered only 4.8% of the Amazon, but by 2014 their coverage jumped to 8.3%, an increase of more than 70%.

During this same time, Brazil slowed deforestation significantly. Conservation efforts reduced deforestation from 2004 to 2014 mainly by curbing large-scale clearings through a satellite-monitoring and enforcement system known as DETER. Because DETER could detect large clearings relatively easily, these clearings received better protection; deforestation fell by as much as 80% overall. But smaller clearings, which DETER has a harder time detecting, rose during this period in some areas. Thus, small-scale clearings emerged as the new frontier in the fight against deforestation.

Given this new focus on smaller clearings, which rural farmers and ranchers often instigate, INPUT researchers at Climate Policy Initiative (CPI)/ PUC-Rio investigated a critical question: do rural settlements cause deforestation?

Using a methodology based on econometric modelling, CPI found that rural settlements are responsible for 30% of deforestation in the Amazon region in 2014. Moreover, CPI found that special settlements, which are designed to support environmentally-friendly practices, lead to an especially large impact; they account for 15%, or half, of the total deforestation caused by rural settlements in the Amazon.

These findings reinforce those identified in a separate 2016 study by the Amazon Environmental Research Institute (Instituto de Pesquisa Ambiental da Amazônia – IPAM). IPAM researchers, using a different methodology, also showed that rural settlements represented as much as 30% of the total Amazon forest area cleared in 2014.

CPI’s research gives policymakers and stakeholders additional evidence for understanding the significant relationship between rural settlements and deforestation. It also highlights the need for further investigation of the environmental role and impact of special settlements in the Amazon region.