When deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon started to fall a decade ago, many scientists and environmentalists attributed the drop to unrelated trends in global commodities markets, which briefly depressed agricultural production in 2005–06. The assumption was that a developing country such as Brazil could not possibly assert control over its domain, and that farmers and ranchers would soon return to their old habits. But they didn’t. Production recovered and then increased, while the rate of deforestation continued to fall. Brazil proved the sceptics wrong, and in doing so it changed the global conversation on forests, food and rural development.

As we explore in a News Feature on page 20, the drop in deforestation is down to a number of factors, including government policies and corporate efforts to clean up beef and soya-bean supply chains. Academics are still dissecting out cause and effect, trying to understand what worked where and how to help other countries to follow suit.

The first major factor is that in 2004 the Brazilian government decided to take the issue seriously. Harnessing its satellite-monitoring system, the government mounted sustained enforcement campaigns in areas where deforestation was rampant. It worked to root out corruption within the ranks of its environmental law enforcement agency by, for example, rotating teams among regions to prevent the kind of long-term relationships that enable bribery. It also designated new public land for permanent protection, engaged banks that provide agricultural loans, and increased pressure on local governments, which stepped up their own campaigns.

But the government did not act alone. Capitalizing on publicly available satellite data, environmental groups put a spotlight on the international corporations that trade in beef and soya beans. Most of the major players in both industries buckled under public pressure and signed agreements to halt purchases of the products from recently cleared land; new research suggests that these moratoria are changing the way landowners do business. Industrial-scale deforestation in the Amazon has been driven by global demand for protein, be it beef or soya beans, which often serve as a feedstock for chicken and pork. But globalization can also be a force for good when consumers and businesses raise their standards.

Brazil has created a portfolio of tools that other countries can study as they seek to minimize deforestation. But what comes next is less clear. No one has identified a simple recipe for sustainable rural development, and chopping down forests remains a profitable affair among criminal land speculators. Solving these problems will require extra effort as well as money, and this at a time when Brazil is struggling to stave off outright recession.

Brazil’s experience shows the potential for rapid progress.

Global policy-makers created a mechanism under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change to help with such efforts. Dubbed REDD, for reducing emissions from deforestation and forest degradation, this pay-for-performance system is based on the carbon that is locked up in trees. Developing countries that document reduced deforestation and thus carbon dioxide emissions — or an expansion of forests — are eligible for payments from wealthy countries. Norway has already committed US$1 billion to Brazil, which is dispersing the money for a range of government initiatives as well as research and policy experiments.

The challenge internationally is to ramp up funding for forest conservation and restoration, which is the easiest way to pull large amounts of carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere. Countries have already committed more than $7.5 billion to the cause, and many governments and companies have made forest pledges. At a UN summit last September, a host of countries joined businesses, environmental groups and indi­genous organizations in signing the New York Declaration on Forests, which calls for a halving of deforestation by 2020 and to end it by 2030. The document also calls for the restoration of 350 million hectares of forests and other landscapes globally by 2030. These are admirable goals, but further investments, particularly from the private sector, are needed if the world is to meet them.

Brazil is still writing its story in the Amazon, but its experience shows the potential for rapid progress. It also holds lessons for activists, businesses and governments: foremost among them is that it takes all three to tango. It’s a complicated dance, but one the world must learn.