Ending legal deforestation in Brazil’s agricultural frontier

Photo by Paulo Brando.

Team Collaborators

We are conserving existing forests on private lands in Brazil’s agricultural frontier by paying farmers to forgo their legal right to cut them down.

Today, the demand for carbon offset mechanisms—a way for private citizens or corporations to pay to counter their greenhouse gas emissions—is growing exponentially. For political and bureaucratic reasons, nearly all of those programs, including REDD+, focus on planting trees, which will take decades to grow and have no guarantee of surviving over the long run. Instead, protecting existing natural forests provides far greater and more immediate environmental returns—preserving the immense amounts of carbon already stored in their trunks as well as all of the social and ecological benefits of complex functioning ecosystems.

Research area
Aerial view in the Amazon: standing trees remain in long, thin tendrils on the landscape, splitting up farmland.

An aerial view of trees left standing in the Brazilian Amazon. Photo by Paulo Brando.

Our Work

CONSERV is a partnership between Woodwell Climate and The Instituto de Pesquisa Ambiental da Amazônia (IPAM) [Amazon Environmental Research Institute]. Our plan is simple: pay farmers to forgo their legal right to cut down trees on their land in Mato Grosso province, Brazil. In Mato Grosso alone, there are more than 7 million hectares (17.3 million acres) of primary tropical forest on private lands that could be deforested legally, demonstrating the critical need to take our test program to scale to lock these at-risk lands into conservation contracts and create an asset for farmers to protect, rather than a barrier to their economic growth. 

With the support of more than US$9 million in funding from sovereign wealth funds, we have engaged farmers and tested this idea over the last 5 years in the state of Mato Grosso, Brazil. We have surveyed farmers’ willingness to take part and leveraged this knowledge to identify, contract, and pay landowners to set aside their remaining forests for conservation. In this initial phase we have contracted with 22 farms in 3 municipalities and are actively protecting 23,000 hectares of forest. We monitor all farms twice annually for compliance. This forest conservation approach has several advantages:

  1. It is low cost. Landowners are willing to accept payments equivalent to the relatively low opportunity costs (~$70-100/ha) of their land.
  2. It is low risk. Accepting payment to keep forests is a financially low-risk activity to the farmer compared to legally deforesting and farming the land.
  3. It is simple. A contract is made between private parties to lease the farmer’s land. There is no government intervention, no bureaucratic processes or third-party funding mechanisms.
  4. It is additional. We target private lands that can legally be converted to agriculture and are increasingly at risk of exploitation.

What we have found is encouraging. We have surveyed many farmers and have shown that even those not taking part in the program are receptive and eager to convert their standing forests into a reliable revenue stream. With sufficient funding from a stable global carbon market, we are confident that this program could be expanded to much of the 7 million ha in the state of Mato Grosso, and beyond to other geographies.



CONSERV offers a concrete, scalable mechanism to promote tropical forest conservation on working landscapes. If successful, it would bypass the political and bureaucratic barriers that have long paralyzed international negotiations to establish markets for forest carbon. By showing what is possible when best practices are employed in one of the world’s most active deforestation frontiers, CONSERV provides a model for larger-scale forest carbon trading in Brazil and could catalyze similar projects throughout the tropics.


Visit the project’s website to learn more about CONSERV (Portuguese).