Stanford reflects on Earth Day at 50: Eric Lambin

Eric Lambin, a professor of Earth system science, looks back on global cooperation to reduce Amazon deforestation.

Erin Lambin is a professor of Earth system science, the George and Setsuko Ishiyama Provostial Professor and a senior fellow at the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment. He studies how globalization affects global land use, and how private and public regulations of land use interact to promote more sustainable land-use practices.

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Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment

To celebrate the 50th anniversary of Earth Day, Professor Eric Lambin reflects on the success of efforts to reduce deforestation of the Amazon in Brazil.

What is an example of a major environmental success story related to land use over the past 50 years?

The effort to reduce deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon between 2007 and 2013 was a major success story. Over the course of the 1980s and 1990s, media coverage and campaigns by nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) made the Amazon rainforest one of the most iconic ecosystems on Earth. A spike in deforestation in 2003-2004 sparked a global outcry. But, by 2012, government initiatives reinforced by private-sector commitments, which were made under NGO pressure, had reduced the rate of deforestation by more than 80 percent from its peak in 2003-2004.


What led to the change?

Then-President Inacio Lula of Brazil launched an aggressive effort to control deforestation. His government set aside large swaths of land in protected areas and indigenous reserves. It deployed federal law enforcement troops, guided by satellite monitoring, to apprehend and prosecute people clearing land. It imposed severe financial sanctions on municipalities that failed to control deforestation, denying access to credit to all farmers in those municipalities. At the same time, NGO activists launched naming-and-shaming campaigns that targeted the major soy traders active in the Amazon and also branded companies (McDonald’s in particular) that purchased poultry products produced using animal feed that included soy from Brazil. The major soy traders sat down with NGOs and developed the Soy Moratorium, a commitment not to buy soy from properties in the Brazilian Amazon with forest clearing after the date of signature (July 2006). Initially, the Soy Moratorium was renewed year-by-year, and then renewed indefinitely. By 2014, only one percent of soy expansion in the Amazon came from forest clearing.


Why do you consider this of great significance/importance?

It illustrates that the adoption of more sustainable practices at the scale of an entire jurisdiction almost always involves the collaborative efforts of public, private and civil society actors. Aligning incentives and motivations of the relevant actors is critical to success. Key players – private companies, civil society, governments, and community actors – have different missions and goals. But when they collaborate and form a coalition on a specific issue of concern, they are able to create solutions to complex environmental problems that fit with each party’s incentives and constraints.


What lesson can we learn from this success story?

The recent rise of deforestation just after Jair Bolsonaro’s election as president of Brazil shows the fragility of policies to reduce deforestation once they lose support from the government. Policymakers need to find ways to lock in progress and decrease its vulnerability to national-level political changes. The systematic dismantling of the great environmental achievements of President Obama by his successor in the White House teaches us the same lesson. Leadership and sustained commitment by the key stakeholders are necessary in a changing environment.