Through different policies and measures reducing emissions from deforestation and degradation and enhancing conservation (REDD+) has grown into a way to induce behavior change of forest managers and landowners in tropical countries. We argue that debates around REDD+ in Brazil have typically highlighted rewards and punishments, obscuring other core interventions and strategies that are also critically important to reach the goal of reducing deforestation, supporting livelihoods, and promoting conservation (i.e., technology transfer and capacity building). We adopt Foucault’s concepts of governmentality and technologies of governance to provide a reading of the REDD+ discourse in Brazil and to offer an historical genealogy of the rewards and punishments approach. By analyzing practical elements from REDD+ implementation in the Brazilian Amazon, our research provides insights on the different dimensions in which smallholders react to rewards and punishments. In doing so, we add to the debate on governmentality, supplementing its focus on rationalities of governance with attention to the social practices in which such rationalities are embedded. Our research also suggests that the techniques of remuneration and coercion on which a rewards and punishments approach relies are only supporting limited behavioral changes on the ground, generating negative adaptations of deforestation practices, reducing positive feedbacks and, perhaps as importantly, producing only short‐term outcomes at the expense of positive longterm land use changes. Furthermore, the approach ignores local heterogeneities and the differences between the agents engaging in forest clearing in the Amazon. The practical elements of the REDD+ discourse in Brazil suggest the rewards and punishments approach profoundly limits our understanding of human behavior by reducing the complex and multi‐dimensional to a linear and rational simplicity. Such simplification leads to an underestimation of smallholders’ capacity to play a key role in climate mitigation and adaptation. We conclude by highlighting the importance of looking at local heterogeneities and capacities and the need to promote trust, altruism and responsibility towards others and future generations.
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