Property rights and the Amazon fires

Webb Beard explains at the Foundation for Economic Education’s website how property rights could help protect Amazon rainforest.

According to the National Institute for Space Research (INPE), a unit of the Brazilian Ministry of Science, fires are up 80 percent this year compared to the same time period last year.

There is a blame game going on over the true cause of the fires. Some environmentalists and activists are blaming Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro, whose administration is accused of not doing enough to combat deforestation. Bolsonaro, for his part, has suggested that non-governmental organizations and nonprofits are to blame, deliberately setting fire to the rainforest because they have lost money and want to embarrass his administration.

But the INPE claims the true cause of the unusual numbers of fires this year is ranchers and farmers using fires to clear land that they use for themselves. The INPE claimed up to 99 percent of the fires can be attributed to these people. However, this might suggest that only one thing may be to blame: the tragedy of the commons.

When something is owned by everyone, such as a public highway or pond, in practice it is owned by no one. No one has an incentive to maintain or take care of the good because they receive no benefit from doing so. The answer could be property rights.

But when there are property rights over something, such as the piece of land you live on, you have an incentive to take care of it because you directly benefit from it.

Economists have observed this phenomenon hundreds, if not thousands of times.

Mitch Kokai / Senior Political Analyst

Mitch Kokai is senior political analyst for the John Locke Foundation. He joined JLF in December 2005 as director of communications. That followed more than four years as chie...

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