in Brazil

Acre, Brazil: A story of deforestation, reduced deforestation, and now REDD

AcreIn 2010, the state of Acre in Brazil set up the world’s first jurisdictional REDD programme. Acre’s State System of Incentives for Environmental Services (SISA) was created through State Law 2.308.

This post takes a brief look at the history of deforestation in Acre and how the REDD programme in Acre came into being. Future posts will present a more critical analysis of what’s happening in Acre.

Acre: Rubber tappers and cattle ranchers

Acre covers an area of 157,490 square kilometres, which is about 20% larger than Greece. In 2013, the state was 86% covered in forest. Almost half of the state consists of protected areas. The population of the state is slightly less than 800,000. Between 2000 and 2010, the population grew at 31.6%, twice the average in Brazil. Today, 73% of the population of Acre lives in urban areas. Almost half of the population lives in Rio Branco, the capital.

Brazil’s military dictatorship started various “development” plans in the Amazon, under the name Operation Amazonia, including, in the early 1970s plans for huge cattle farms. Cattle ranchers grabbed large areas of land and cleared forest, mainly along roads.


By 1982, according to a 1991 paper by Environmental Defense Fund’s Steve Schwartzman, the fifteen largest landowners occupied over one-quarter of the land area of the state and 80% of the state was classified as latifundia. Land conflicts increased. Thousands of rubber tappers were evicted and moved to rubber estates in Bolivia or urban favelas.

Acre became famous internationally in December 1988 when Chico Mendes was murdered. Mendes was a rubber tapper and during the 1980s worked to defend the rights of rubber tappers against encroaching cattle ranchers. Mendes was not the first rubber tapper to be killed. Other people killed include Wilson Pinheiro, president of the rural workers union of Brasileia, in 1980, Jesus André Matias in 1982, Raimundo Raulino in 1983, and Ivair Higino in 1988.

Enter the World Bank

Between 1981 and 1983, the World Bank approved five loans totalling US$457 million for the Polonoroeste project, a US$1.6 billion road building and agricultural scheme in Mato Grosso and Rondonia. Polonoroeste included paving 1,500 kilometres of road, and one of the results was that Rondonia achieved the fastest rate of deforestation in the Amazon.

Polonoroeste was the first World Bank project to attract serious criticism from international NGOs. In his 1994 book, Mortgaging the Earth, Bruce Rich describes the Polonoroeste project as the “Highway of Death”.

In early 1985, the World Bank halted further disbursements for the project. This was the first time the Bank had ever done this. Predictably, the Bank resumed funding in August 1985, apparently convinced that Brazil’s new government had committed to rectifying the worst problems.

(Included in the government’s measures was a 1.8 million hectare reserve for the Urueu-Wau-Wau indigenous people, who were first contacted by FUNAI in 1981, as a result of the opening up of the area under the Polonoreste project. Their population had decreased dramatically after contact.)

In 1987, Barber Conable, the World Bank president described the Polonoroeste project as “an environmentally sound effort”. Polonoreste was, according to Conable:

“a sobering example of an environmentally sound effort which went wrong. The Bank misread the human, institutional and physical realities of the jungle and the frontier. In some cases, the dynamics of the frontier got out of control. Protective measures to shelter fragile land and tribal people were included; they were not, however, carefully timed or adequately monitored.”

A report by the Bank’s Operations Evaluation Department gives a more candid version of the project’s impacts:

“despite the government’s formal compliance with most of the recommendations made by the Bank at the time of the mid-term review [late 1984/early 1985], in general the situation in September-October 1989 was not very different from that encountered in late 1984. Polonoroeste appears to have been largely unable to implement and/or sustain many of its environmental protection measures or to avoid the continual invasion of reserve areas by loggers, prospectors, and spontaneous settlers.”

In January 1985, the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) approved a loan to pave the B-364 highway from Porto Velho in Rondonia to Rio Branco in Acre. This was a continuation of the road paved under the Polonoroeste project.

In 1987, EDF brought Chico Mendes to Washington DC, where he met environmental NGOs, members of Congress and IDB staff. He also travelled to Miami for the IDB’s annual meeting. Schwartzman notes that the Bank suspended its loan for Polonoroeste in 1988 – after Mendes’ visit to the USA.

Shortly after Mendes’ death, the Chico Mendes Extractive Reserve was set up, covering almost one million hectares. Today, extractive reserves in the Amazon cover a total of 20 million hectares.

Reduced deforestation, before REDD

In 1998, Acre’s then-governor, Jorge Viana, started a “government of the forest” initiative. Thirteen years later, EDF reported that only about 3.7% of Acre had been deforested, while in the same period 11.8% of neighbouring Rondonia was deforested. In the Amazon region overall, the average rate of deforestation was 4.75%.

Deforestation in Acre has fallen since 2003. Between 2003 and 2008, deforestation fell by 70%. This was partly a result of agricultural commodity prices, but as EDF notes,

“a set of integrated government monitoring, law enforcement, land-use planning and sustainable development policies and programs – including a state-wide deforestation reduction target – was critical to fostering economic growth while decreasing deforestation.”

These policies, which appear to have succeeded in reducing deforestation, were implemented before REDD existed.

Also before REDD, was an Economic and Ecological Zoning plan which Acre approved in 2006, supported by the German aid agency (Deutsche Gesellschaft für Technische Zusammenarbeit, GTZ). The EEZ regulates economic activities in already deforested areas, and set up measure for “sustainable forestry management” and non-timber forest products harvesting in forested areas.

In 2008, Acre took on a deforestation reduction target, calculated from the national goal of an 80% reduction below average rates from 1996-2006 by 2020.

The state of Acre’s initial plan for REDD was to focus on seven or eight priority areas of high deforestation risk. According to CIFOR, this plan was abandoned “after an extensive stakeholder consultation process during the development of SISA in 2009 and 2010”.

SISA was developed to focus on the entire state of Acre, so-called “jurisdictional-REDD”. The first programme under SISA is called Environmental Service Incentives for Carbon (ISA-Carbono), and is aimed at reducing emissions from deforestation and degradation.

Acre’s REDD bureaucracy

Along with SISA, comes a raft of governmental agencies (the descriptions are from CIFOR’s REDD+ on the ground report):

  • The State Environmental Secretariat (SEMA) – responsible for the elaboration of environmental policy and management instruments.
  • Acre’s Institute of Environment (IMAC) – enforces these policies through command-and-control initiatives.
  • The State Secretariat of Family Production and Rural Extension (SEAPROF) – responsible for rural technical assistance, along with implementation of the Certification of Smallholder Properties Program and initiatives to recuperate degraded lands.
  • The State Secretariat of Forest Development, Industry, Commerce and Sustainable Services (SEDENS) – responsible for sustainable forest management activities.
  • Acre’s Land Institute (ITERACRE) – responsible for land tenure regularization.
  • The Central Geoprocessing and Remote Sensing Unit (UGEGEO) – Acre’s remote sensing institution, the Central Geoprocessing and Remote Sensing Unit (UGEGEO), which monitors deforestation at a smaller scale than Brazil’s national monitoring institution (INPE) – 0.54 hectares compared to INPE’s 6 hectare resolution.
  • Institute of Climate Change and Regulation of Environmental Services (IMC) – regulates SISA and registers and monitors private REDD+ projects.
  • The Commission for Validation and Accompaniment (CEVA) – monitors SISA and approves regulations, norms and implementation approaches. CEVA consists of four civil society organisations and four governmental organisations.
  • The Company for the Development of Environmental Services (CDSA) – a public–private company, involved in the implementation of SISA and the procurement and administration of private funding, including through the sale of carbon credits.
  • The State Attorney General’s office (PGE) – an important part of SISA, providing legal guidance and participating as a member of CEVA. The SISA ombudsman is based at the PGE.


Full Disclosure: This post is part of a series of posts and interviews about REDD in Brazil, with funding from Heinrich-Böll-Stiftung e.V. Click here for all of REDD-Monitor’s funding sources.

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