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Rainforests provide a public good. The world should pay to conserve them

At last, good news from the Brazilian Amazon. In the first eight months of 2023, the pace of deforestation has fallen by nearly 50% compared with last year. This reflects a change of government. Jair Bolsonaro, Brazil’s president from 2019 to 2022, was an outspoken chum of the loggers and ranchers who are slicing down and burning the rainforest. Not only did he make no effort to stop them; he went out of his way to hobble the agencies charged with policing environmental crimes.

His ejection by voters last year gave the Amazon a much-needed respite. His successor, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, actually cares about conservation. As we report this week, gun-toting federal agents are once again making a serious effort to shut down illegal mining operations and blow up their equipment.

But muscle, on its own, is not enough. To establish something resembling the rule of law in the Amazon, Lula is trying to clarify who owns it. This is long overdue. Currently, at least 22 separate Brazilian agencies register land claims there. They barely talk to each other, so vast swathes of the forest are subject to overlapping claims. And a whopping 29% of the Brazilian Amazon is “undesignated”, meaning it is public land but no one has decided whether it should be a nature reserve, an indigenous reserve, or something else.

Deforestation tends to be worst in areas where property rights are hazy. A lack of clarity about who owns a plot of forest makes it harder to assign blame for torching it. And a tradition of local officials tolerating land-grabbing encourages more of it. Ranchers seek to establish facts on the ground by chopping down trees, burning the undergrowth and putting cows on the newly created pasture. Many hope that even if their actions are illegal, they will eventually be recognised as the owners of the land, because this has often happened in the past.

Lula is trying to change these incentives. He is pushing to designate undesignated land as protected, and to integrate all the property registers into one coherent system. It is a huge task, involving clever use of satellite data and digital technology. It is also politically fraught, since many state and local politicians are cosy with the farming and wildcat mining lobbies and will jealously guard their influence over how land is apportioned. But it is an essential step towards imposing order on one of Earth’s most important biomes. The Amazon is a huge carbon store, a treasure vault of biodiversity and an essential regulator of the rainfall that feeds South America. Losing it would be a global catastrophe–and scientists fear it may be near a “tipping point”, when so much forest has disappeared that the water cycle that sustains it breaks down.

Which is why the rest of the world should help pay to preserve it. At the COP on December 1st, Lula asked for money to give local people in developing countries economic alternatives to cutting down rainforests. His environment minister outlined an ambitious plan: a $250bn fund that would pay a fixed sum per hectare of forest to countries that prevent their forests from shrinking more than a very small amount each year. The funding for this, Brazil hopes, would come from sovereign wealth funds. Several African leaders are making similar appeals, some involving debt relief in return for nature conservation.

Lula is unlikely to raise $250bn—it is far more than has been offered before. And not all the governments asking for cash are likely to spend it wisely. But there is a decent chance that Brazil could make good use of external financing, which it sorely needs. No amount of enforcement will stop people from chopping down trees if they see no other way of making a living—illegal miners whose equipment is blown up by the environmental police may simply go to work on beef farms carved out of the rainforest. Also, if Lula’s efforts to save the trees are all stick and no carrot, he is more likely to lose the next election to a more Bolsonaro-like rival. So rich countries should chip in. And Brazil, for its part, should be more open to foreign advice, expertise and help on the ground than it has been in the past. It is not too late to save the Amazon, but the clock hands are whirring like the teeth of a chainsaw.


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