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Alternative Policy Study: The Conservation and Sustainable Use of Forests in Latin America

This study was carried out by the Instituto Brasileiro do Meio Ambiente e dos Recursos Naturais Renováveis (IBAMA), Brazil, in collaboration with the University of Chile and the University of Costa Rica, as part of the preparation for UNEP's GEO-2000 report.


Deforestation in Latin America is driven by the expansion of the agricultural sector, demographic pressure, logging and inequitable land distribution. So far, forestry policies in the region have not been effective, mainly because they have failed to take into account the differing needs of different forest users.

Many promising policy options are available, including direct control of government-owned forests, and indirect control using fiscal incentives in the form of taxation, subsidies and forest credits, and other incentives such as the granting of private property rights, market reforms, the introduction of community forestry schemes, and improvements in extension, research and education.

Packages of these policies could reduce deforestation rates, forest fires, numbers of threatened animal and plant species, and regional carbon dioxide emissions; slow down agricultural expansion onto forest land; improve forest ecosystem health, the quality of urban and rural life, and regional and local economies; and provide appropriate technologies to forest dwellers as a tool for sustainable development.



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The natural environment provides three main types of services necessary to sustain life:

Forests fulfil these services through a multitude of functions and products. The products and services derived from forests are diverse and benefit people at the local, national and global level. Indigenous people and traditional communities rely on forest resources for most of their consumable goods, such as food and shelter. At the national level, forest resources such as wood are a source of foreign exchange, and forested lands are regarded as new areas for settlement and for expanding food production. Forests also protect watersheds and ensure perennial supplies of freshwater. In global terms, forests and forest soils serve as a vast storehouse for carbon and support most of the world's biodiversity (Daily 1997).

In Latin America natural forests cover 47 per cent of the total land area, spreading from the Mexican dry forests to the southern temperate forests of Chile and Argentina, including the Amazon Basin which accounts for a third of the world's tropical forest area. Because the Amazon Basin forests account for 85 per cent of Latin America's total forested area, this paper focuses primarily on these, especially those in Brazil, but it should be noted that the non-Brazilian Amazon forests and other non-Amazon forests deserve equal attention in terms of alternative policy options.

The question of what can be done to promote the conservation and sustainable use of Latin America's forests is addressed in this paper by exploring some alternative policy tools designed to strike a healthy balance between development and forest conservation in Latin America.

The concept of sustainable development used here encompasses three main dimensions: economic, ecological and socio-cultural. These dimensions must be addressed with equal emphasis to ensure sustainability. Goods and services derived from forests support economic development. If forest resources are conserved and managed sustainably, a continuous flow of goods and services can be ensured, creating significant potential for expanding economic benefits and allowing a more equitable distribution of these benefits.

Baseline Scenario

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According to a recent study by the International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT 1998) the expansion of the agricultural frontier, mining and roads are the main causes of deforestation and forest degradation in Latin America, being responsible for 84 per cent of the total area, followed by logging with 12.5 per cent, and infrastructure (hydroelectric dams, road construction and expansion of urban areas) with 3.5 per cent. In many areas unemployment and inequitable land distribution force landless peasants to invade the forest for lack of other economic means. Thus, poverty and demographic pressure are the main causes of forest clearance and the degradation of the natural environment (WRI, UNEP, UNDP and WB 1998).

Between 1980 and 1990, the yearly loss of tropical forests in Latin America was 5.5 million hectares, with an average deforestation rate of 0.75 per cent (FAO 1995). From the total deforestation, 25 per cent occurred in tropical rain forests, 43 per cent in subtropical forests (including savanna woodlands and tropical dry forests), 22 per cent in mountain forests, and 9 per cent in forests in arid zones. In the Mesoamerican region, the dry forests have been drastically reduced to only 4 per cent of their original area. In the case of southern temperate rain forests deforestation rates averaged 0.53 per cent per year in the 1980-1990 period (CIAT 1998).

Throughout the region forest conservation policies have concentrated almost exclusively on tropical rain forests, ignoring highly degraded areas where the value, potential and possible extinction of species urgently needs evaluating.

The largest aggregate of tropical forests, not only in America but on the whole planet, is in the Amazon region; it also has the largest percentage of preserved or untouched areas. Of the approximately 8 million square kilometres of the Amazon forest and its correlated formations, approximately 90 per cent are in a good state of preservation. Nevertheless, they are subject to increasing risk and an accelerated pace of devastation in Brazil, Venezuela, Ecuador and Bolivia; deforestation is also intensifying in Guyana and Surinam (see map below of Forests at Risk in Latin America).

Forests at Risk in Latin America, With Assessment of Level of Threat

Forests at Risk in Latin America
Source: CIAT 1998

The region has an imbalance in terms of reforestation. Only 373 000 hectares were planted per year in the 1981-1990 period (WRI, UNEP, UNDP and WB 1996). In other words, for every hectare planted 25 are deforested. In 1995, the total area of forest plantations was only 8 million hectares (WRI, UNEP, UNDP and WB 1998).

The state of Latin America's forests is not simply a matter of their extent. Increasing attention is focused upon the health, genetic diversity and age profile of forests, collectively known as forest quality. Measures of total forest area do not reveal the degraded nature of much regrowth forest. Logging often degrades forest quality, inducing soil and nutrient loss, reducing the forest's value as habitat, and increasing its vulnerability to fires. Pressures on many of the remaining large, relatively natural ecosystems known as frontier forests (Bryant, Nielsen, and Tangley 1997) continue to increase. As logging activities shift from largely deforested areas formerly inaccessible regions are opened; the roads which are created lead to the establishment of new settlements.

In the next few decades the convergence of population growth, the rising demand for lumber and fuelwood and the conversion of forests to agriculture will put large areas of Latin America's forests under threat. The result will likely be a considerable loss in forest area and quality, with the remaining forest fragmented into small isolated tracts.

Threats to frontier forests in the Latin American region


Percentage of threatened frontier forests at risk from:

Percentage of frontier forests under moderate or high threat



Agricultural clearing

Vegetation removal


Central America







South America







Source: Bryant, Nielsen, and Tangley 1997

Constructing an Alternative Scenario

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Comprehensive forest policy frameworks at the national level are fundamental to achieving the goal of sustainable resource use in Latin America. Sustainable development can play a key role in reducing pressure on forests and replacing the processes leading to forest degradation and deforestation. National forest programmes demand a broad intersectoral approach at all stages - formulation, implementation, and monitoring - and should be implemented within the context of each country's socio-economic, cultural, political and environmental situation.

Latin American countries can adopt many different policy tools to conserve and develop their forests. For many different reasons, such as the type of forestry practices and/or the type of government, there may be no generally accepted form of policy tool that can be applied throughout the region.

The policy tools considered here involve either direct or indirect government control. Under 'direct control' are the policies affecting government-owned forest areas - for example, production on government land - or that control how private landowners operate - for example input and output regulation. Under 'indirect control' are the policies that use economic tools to induce sustainable forest use - for example, economic incentives like taxes, subsidies and contracts, and institutional incentives like private property rights, market reforms, community-based forestry, education and extension, and research and development.

Alternative Policy Options

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How can one apply these principles in practice? There are a number of programmes and actions which will promote the conservation and sustainable use of Latin America's forests:

Estimated Impacts due of Alternative Policies

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The construction of an alternative scenario for the development of Latin America's forest areas is complex yet feasible. It requires political decision-making which, although it has occurred at different levels in the countries of the region, needs to be improved according to the principles outlined above. It needs competent and effective international coordination and a deeper look at the enormous and complex wealth that the Latin American countries possess and should not allow to go to waste. It is of vital importance to the region that this scenario become reality.


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Baumol, W.J. and Oates, W.E. (1988). The Theory of Environmental Policy. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, United Kingdom

Bryant, D., Nielsen, D. and Tangley, L. (1997). The Last Frontier Forests: Ecosystems and Economies on the Edge. World Resources Institute, Washington DC, United States

CIAT/PNUMA (1998). Atlas de indicadores ambientales y de sustentabilidad para América Latina y el Caribe. Org: Winograd, M.; Farrow, A.; Eade, J. Cali, Colombia

Daily, G.C. (ed.) (1997). Nature's Services: Societal Dependence on Natural Ecosystems. Island Press, Washington DC, United States

DPCSD/IPF (1997). The Fourth Session of The Intergovernmental Panel on Forests. (Final Report).

FAO (1995). Forestry Statistics Today for Tomorrow. FAO, Rome.

IBAMA (1998). Operação Mogno. Relatório Nr. 270/98/Departamento de Fiscalização/IBAMA. Brasília. Unpublished.

WRI, UNEP, UNDP and WB (1996). World Resources 1996-97: A Guide to the Global Environment (and the World Resources Database diskette). Oxford University Press, New York, United States, and Oxford, United Kingdom.

WRI, UNEP, UNDP and WB (1998). World Resources 1998-99: A Guide to the Global Environment (and the World Resources Database diskette). Oxford University Press, New York, United States, and Oxford, United Kingdom.

 GEO-2000 Technical & regional reports 
GEO-2000 complete report 
GEO-2000 home page