The Brazilian Amazon is at a critical juncture. Annual deforestation rates fell by 77% between 2004 and 2011, yet have stabilized since 2009 at 5,000–7,000 km2. This study assesses the contributions to the deforestation slowdown of areas dominated by small (under 100 hectares), medium, large (over 500 ha) and very large (over 2,500 ha) properties.

The analysis shows almost half (36,158 km2) of the deforestation between 2004 and 2011 occurred in areas dominated by larger properties, whereas only 12% (9,720 km2) occurred in areas dominated by smallholder properties. In addition, forests in areas dominated by smallholders tend to be less fragmented and less degraded.

However, although annual deforestation rates fell during this period by 68–85% for all actors, the contribution of the largest landholders to annual deforestation decreased over time (by 63% between 2005 and 2011), whereas that of smallholders went up by a similar proportion (69%) in the same period.

In addition, the deforestation share attributable to remote areas, where there is less government oversight, increased by 88% between 2009 and 2011. These observations are consistent across the Brazilian Amazon, regardless of geographic differences in actor dominance or socio-environmental context.

The findings suggest that deforestation policies to date, which have been particularly focused on command and control measures on larger properties in deforestation hotspots, may be increasingly limited in their effectiveness and fail to address all actors equally. Further reductions in deforestation are likely to be increasingly costly and require actor-tailored approaches, including better monitoring to detect small-scale deforestation and a shift toward more incentive-based conservation policies.

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