Saving What Remains


July 22, 2012

Tropical nations are increasingly demonstrating leadership in safeguarding rainforests for future generations.

The push to compensate tropical countries for the carbon stored in their forests was borne out of an effort by the Coalition of Rainforest Nations during climate talks in Montreal in 2005. That eventually led to development of the REDD+ program.

Outside of REDD+, Brazil and Costa Rica are widely seen as leaders in rainforest conservation. After losing most of its forests to cattle ranchers and industrial agricultural, Costa Rica in the 1990s stepped up efforts to save its forests, bolstering its national park system and introducing a payments for ecosystem services program. Costa Rica has since transitioned from a country that loses forests to one that gains forest cover.

But even more impressive has been Brazil's push since 2004 to reduce deforestation in the Amazon. Supported by an advanced satellite-based deforestation monitoring system, Brazil in the late 2000s began to crack down on illegal deforesters while enacting policies to encourage less damaging agriculture and logging in the world's largest rainforest. The efforts appear to have paid off, with the rate of annual deforestation plunging nearly 80 percent between 2004 and 2012. Although other factors are believed to have contributed to the decline, direct government action is estimated to account for at least half the drop.

Deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon 1988-2019. Photo by Rhett A. Butler

Deforestation also appears to be on a downward trend in the world's other big tropical deforester: Indonesia. In 2009 Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono commitment to reduce deforestation and peatlands degradation significantly by 2020 with or without international assistance. Norway followed up with a pledge to contribute up to a billion dollars toward cutting deforestation. A year later, Yudhoyono established a two-year moratorium on new concessions across 14.5 million hectares of peatlands and primary forest.

More broadly, there are several strategies for tropical nations to improve forest stewardship. Eliminating subsidies for activities that promote forest clearing and largely benefit wealthy interests would probably have the widest-ranging effect on curbing deforestation in the tropics. For example, ending subsidies for sawmills, road construction, large-scale colonization schemes, and expansive industrial agriculture projects would dramatically slow deforestation. Such large subsidies create a false image of profitability to industries that benefit from exploitation and undervalue the worth of timber supplies and intact ecosystems. Rarely do these firms have to pay the full costs, whether they be environmental, social, or financial. However these industries are entrenched and in many countries are a powerful political force. For example, Indonesian President Yudhoyono's efforts to establish a strong moratorium were effectively undermined by interests in the palm oil, timber, and paper and paper industries. Meanwhile the ruralistas in Brazil — a political bloc consisting of large-scale forest developers — in 2012 pushed through a revision of the country's Forest Code. Environmentalists fear those changes could reverse Brazil's recent progress in reducing deforestation.

Tropical country governments could significantly reduce deforestation by changing land-title procedures so deforestation is not favored over the maintenance of productive forest. Instead of giving tax breaks and subsidies to large-scale forest clearers, governments can levy a deforestation tax that would increase government revenues while reducing environmental degradation. Already several countries have such deforestation charges in place.


Corruption and illegal operations are quite costly for governments. The World Bank estimates that illegal logging alone costs developing countries some $15 billion a year in lost tax revenues.

Rooting out corruption and implementing the rule of law are key to conservation efforts as well as the general business environment in developing countries. Corrupt officials in forestry departments and other branches of law enforcement can easily undermine conservation efforts by granting parkland to unscrupulous developers and overlooking violations of environmental laws and safeguards.

Transparency in economic transactions and processes is key to reducing corruption in developing economies. Small steps such as publishing bids for contracts, clarifying ownership and the transfer of ownership, posting laws to allow citizens to better understand the economic and legal processes, and creating a forum for airing complaints can do a lot for building a fairer and less corrupt society.

Nine out of the world's ten most corrupt countries in 2005 were tropical developing countries. The list from Transparency International: (most corrupt) Bangladesh, Chad, Haiti, Myanmar, Turkmenistan, C�te d'Ivoire, Equatorial Guinea, Nigeria, Angola, and Democratic Republic of the Congo (tenth most corrupt).


Currently, few fines are collected and those that are collected sometimes never make it to the treasury. Salaries are so low in some countries that bribes are widely accepted by forestry officials. Beyond boosting salaries, governments can increase the effectiveness of forestry patrols by offering performance incentives to officials and returning proceeds from fines and seized goods to the forestry departments.

There are serious conflicts of interest within government departments in many developing countries. Environmental officials often lack coordination with officials from other departments like mines, forestry, and agriculture. Integrated policy approaches can help overcome the inefficiencies and failures of overlapping jurisdictions.

Developed countries are tired of the rhetoric from wealthy industrialized countries urging them to preserve forests but not offering up the cash to turn words into action. They argue that if these forests provide important global benefits then the entire world should contribute to their preservation. Besides, they say, wealthy countries have already destroyed most of their own forests.

Path through a bamboo thicket in Maui. Photo by Rhett A. Butler

Review questions:

  • How do subsidies drive deforestation?
  • Why is corruption bad for conservation?

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