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Wednesday, August 28, 2019

How Property Rights Can Help Preserve the Amazon Rainforest

When something is owned by everyone, it is owned by no one.

Image credit: Pixabay | Pixabay license (

There is currently a furor on social media and the news over what is occurring in the Amazon rainforest, the second-largest biome in the world. Not only are a store of exotic animals and fauna threatened, the carbon input and oxygen output of the forest have an immense effect on the environment, which decreases the rate of global warming.

According to the National Institute for Space Research (INPE), a unit of the Brazilian Ministry of Science, fires are up 80 percent this year compared to the same time period last year.

Who’s to Blame?

There is a blame game going on over the true cause of the fires. Some environmentalists and activists are blaming Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro, whose administration is accused of not doing enough to combat deforestation. Bolsonaro, for his part, has suggested that non-governmental organizations and nonprofits are to blame, deliberately setting fire to the rainforest because they have lost money and want to embarrass his administration.

But the INPE claims the true cause of the unusual numbers of fires this year is ranchers and farmers using fires to clear land that they use for themselves. The INPE claimed up to 99 percent of the fires can be attributed to these people. However, this might suggest that only one thing may be to blame: the tragedy of the commons.

A Grand Tragedy

When something is owned by everyone, such as a public highway or pond, in practice it is owned by no one. No one has an incentive to maintain or take care of the good because they receive no benefit from doing so. The answer could be property rights.But when there are property rights over something, such as the piece of land you live on, you have an incentive to take care of it because you directly benefit from it.

Economists have observed this phenomenon hundreds, if not thousands of times. Ted Turner and buffalo ranchers brought the buffalo population back from the brink of extinction because of property rights. Fishermen almost fished the population of British Columbia halibut into extinction, and property rights brought their population back. In many regions of Africa, trophy hunting helps to keep populations of certain animals from dipping to extinction levels and helps to fund conservation.

Something similar could be achieved in the Amazon rainforest. The rainforest covers part of nine countries, but roughly 60 percent of it is in Brazil. Brazil makes a claim to ownership of the Amazon. But Brazil and the other countries don’t have the resources or proper incentive structures to take care of the Amazon. The answer could be property rights.

The Benefits of Privatization

And Brazil recognizes this. In 2009, Brazil launched the Legal Land Programme, which gave small plots of the rainforest to thousands of individual farmers and ranchers. According to experts, this had a substantial impact on the rate of deforestation in the Amazon, with two percent more forest being left intact than would have been otherwise. This may not sound like a lot, but when considering the scale of the Amazon, it’s a big difference.

More than 20 percent of the world’s rainforests have been cut down due to illegal slash and burn practices, Reuters reported in 2010. Privatizing the land incentivizes timber companies and farmers to responsibly use their land, only cutting down trees to the point where they can grow back.

Some may find it detestable, but as Thomas Sowell once said, “There are no solutions, only trade-offs.”

This is why Brazil expanded its logging concessions from 370,000 acres in 2010 to 27 million acres. Privatization reduced illegal logging, added jobs, and generated tax revenue for Brazil.

“It’s not a perfect solution,” Fast Company reported at the time. “Legitimate corporations like Sinar Mas Group’s Asia Pulp & Paper (APP) are often accused of unsustainable logging practices. But it’s better than the alternative.”

Property Rights in Brazil

If Brazil and some of the other countries could expand or start these kinds of programs all across the Amazon, illegal burning and deforestation of the Amazon would be curbed, and the world would continue to enjoy the beauty and aid to the environment that places like the Amazon bring to the world.

Some may find it detestable that in order to save some animals, we have to kill some, or that in order to save some forests, we have to farm them. That’s a feeling worth sympathy, but as Thomas Sowell once said, “There are no solutions, only trade-offs.” And if it means saving animals or the Amazon from extinction and deforestation, then that’s a trade-off I’m willing to take.

  • Webb Beard is the Sr. Data and Marketing Operations Manager at the Foundation for Economic Education.