Working Paper

Indigenous Land Rights and Deforestation: Evidence from the Brazilian Amazon

Date Published

Apr 1, 2016


Ariel BenYishay, Silke Heuser, Daniel Runfola, Rachel Trichler



BenYishay, Ariel, Silke Heuser, Daniel Runfola and Rachel Trichler. 2016. Indigenous Land Rights and Deforestation: Evidence from the Brazilian Amazon. AidData Working Paper #22. Williamsburg, VA: AidData at William & Mary.

Update: A revised version of this paper has been published in the Journal of Environmental Economics and Management.


Concerns over the expropriation of and encroachment on indigenous communities’ lands have led to greater formalization of these communities’ rights in a number of developing countries. We study whether formalization of indigenous communities’ land rights affects the rate of deforestation in both the short and medium terms. Beginning in 1995, the Government of Brazil formalized the rights of several hundred indigenous communities whose lands cover more than 40 million hectares in the Amazon region and provided support for these rights’ enforcement. We study the program’s impacts using a long time-series of satellite-based forest cover data. Using both matched samples of treated and comparison communities and plausibly exogenous variation in the timing of formalization, we find no effect of these protections on satellite-based greenness measures. This is true even for communities that received support for surveillance and enforcement of these rights. Notably, we observe low counterfactual rates of deforestation on communities’ lands between 1982 and 2014, suggesting that indigenous land rights programs should not uniformly be justified on the basis of their forest protection, at least in the medium term.

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