Opinion | Here's a realistic path to protecting the Amazon rainforest

A working paper by Ben Olken, co-chair of social protection sector at the Abdul Latif Jameel Poverty Action Lab (J-PAL), Robin Burgess and Francisco Costa examines the impact of Brasil's political swings on Amazonian deforestation.

In addition to reinstating previous deforestation regulations, policymakers have an increasing set of solutions to consider implementing in Brasil, based on conservation programmes and policies effectively implemented in other geographies.

For example, a randomised evaluation led by Seema Jayachandran, a J-PAL affiliate, and other researchers in Uganda, found that payments for ecosystem services (PES) curbed deforestation in participating villages while providing societal benefits that exceeded costs of implementing the programme.


Today, roughly 17 percent of the Amazon is gone and more than 75 percent of what remains has been weakened. As trees disappear, the Amazon’s ability to return moisture to the atmosphere declines, leading to less rainfall, higher temperatures and a dry forest. Unless levels of deforestation drop dramatically, this feedback loop could transform over half of the Amazon into savanna within decades.

That loss would be felt far beyond the rainforest’s borders. The Amazon’s “flying rivers” — clouds of water vapor that are transported across South America — drive precipitation in the region and are vital for food systems. Moreover, the 150 billion metric tons of carbon stored in the Amazon’s trees and soil would be, if fully released back into the atmosphere as the forest dies, “more than 10 years’ worth of global fossil fuel emissions.”

The rainforest encompasses about 40 percent of South America’s land mass. Though reported deforestation rates have fallen since the right-wing Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro left office, protecting such a vast area against people with strong incentives to degrade it is hard. But not impossible.

The Washington Post