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Climate ChangeWith Lula Back, Can Brazil Turn the Tide on Amazon Destruction?

With Lula Back, Can Brazil Turn the Tide on Amazon Destruction?

The month before Brazil’s October 30 presidential election was probably the most brutal of Jair Bolsonaro’s term as president. Landowners rushed to illegally clear forest while they might depend on the impunity that had been a characteristic of the Bolsonaro era. From my home in Altamira, I could see flames on the opposite side of the Xingu River from a blaze large enough to generate its own lightning. Most other days in September and October, my asthmatic lungs tightened and the horizon was shrouded in haze as a consequence of the rushed burn-off.

For anyone who cares in regards to the climate and nature conservation, the election of Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva and his speech after his narrow victory were the primary breaths of fresh air in Brazil in greater than 4 years.

That period — the extreme-right Bolsonaro’s term of office — had been characterised by forest fires, land clearance, invasions of Indigenous territory, the gutting of protection agencies, and rhetoric from government ministers that condoned illegal extraction and condemned NGOs that attempted to halt the destruction. Nothing was allowed to get in the best way of business — not the environment, not human rights, seemingly not even the law.

What a contrast then, when Lula — because the veteran of the center-left Employees Party is thought — used his first speech after the outcomes were confirmed to announce that Brazil will protect the Amazon and other biomes, and resume its leading role within the fight against the climate crisis.

In 2021, Brazil had its highest emissions in 19 years, largely because of fires which have turned the Amazon from a carbon sink to a carbon source.

“Brazil and the planet need a living Amazon. A standing tree is price greater than tons of wood illegally harvested by those that think only of easy profit,” he said. “A river of clear water is price greater than gold extracted on the expense of mercury that kills fauna and risks human life.”

Lula has an ambitious plan to save lots of the Amazon rainforest, but he’ll need international support to rein back the reckless extractive forces unleashed by Bolsonaro.

In his post-election speech, Lula promised to aim for “zero deforestation,” a vital advance on the “zero illegal deforestation” goal of his previous two administrations (2002-2006 and 2006-2010), which managed to scale back Amazon clearance by 80 percent.

He indicated his government will beef up monitoring and protection agencies that were depleted under Bolsonaro and can use the force of the state to eject the tens of hundreds of illegal miners, loggers, fishermen, and land grabbers who’ve entered protected reserves and the Indigenous territories of the Yanomami, Munduruku, Kayapo, and other peoples. “We will not be desirous about a war for the environment,” he said, “but we’re able to defend it from any threat.”

Through the campaign, Lula said he would create an Indigenous ministry, which could give the country’s first peoples more power than at any time because the first European colonizers arrived 500 years ago. This must also bolster climate and biodiversity, as research has shown that granting land rights to traditional populations is probably the most cost-effective method to maintain standing forests.

A forest fire burns near the writer’s home in Altimira, Brazil last month.
Jonathan Watts

Together with an earlier pledge to make the environment a top priority that cuts across ministerial boundaries, Lula’s statements raised hopes that the incoming administration will prevent Amazon degradation from slipping past the purpose of no return. This horrifying prospect was raised by Brazil’s leading climate scientist, Carlos Nobre, senior researcher on the University of São Paulo’s Institute for Advanced Studies, who has warned that the Amazon shall be unable to generate the humid microclimate on which it depends once deforestation reaches 20 percent to 25 percent.

That tipping point has loomed ever larger during Bolsonaro’s tenure, which has seen a 21 percent increase in deforestation rates. As of last 12 months, 17 percent of the Amazon had been cleared and one other 17 percent degraded, in accordance with a study by the Science Panel for the Amazon. This has undermined Brazil’s international climate commitments. In 2021, Brazil had its highest greenhouse gases emissions in 19 years, largely because of forest fires which have turned the Amazon from a carbon sink right into a carbon source.

My municipality of Altamira, which is on the front line of Brazil’s arc of deforestation, highlights the political difficulties that lie ahead for Lula’s pro-nature and pro-Indigenous Amazon policy. Altamira is a Bolsonarist stronghold, where farmers, miners, and land grabbers have benefited from the gutting of environmental protection and Indigenous agencies. After the slim 1.8 percentage point victory for Lula was announced, many individuals here refused to just accept the result. Over the next days, truck drivers blocked all of the roads out and in of town, after which a whole bunch of protesters draped in Brazilian flags camped outside the local military base making unsubstantiated claims of election fraud and calling on the military to stage a Bolsonarist coup. To attract more people to the protest, a neighborhood rancher slaughtered a few cows for a churrasco and offered free beer.

Reining within the violent forces unleashed by Bolsonaro would require patience, smart policies, money, and international support.

There have been similar demonstrations across this deeply divided country. In Rio de Janeiro, hundreds of individuals gathered outside the military headquarters. In Santa Caterina, a whole bunch raised their right arms in a protracted fascist salute. Bolsonaro’s sullen response to the primary lack of his political profession and the one reelection failure by a Brazilian presidential incumbent has done nothing to douse the flames, but his chief-of-staff has agreed to work on the transition of power. The 2 months until Bolsonaro leaves office shall be as tense as the ultimate weeks of Trump, though former allies, the military, and the business community have thus far indicated they’ll not support a coup.

Even when there’s a seamless handover, which will just be the beginning of Lula’s challenges. Reining within the violent forces that were unleashed by Bolsonaro would require patience, cooperation, smart policies, money, and international support. If anyone has the experience to do that, it’s Lula. When he left office in 2010, the economy was booming, Amazon deforestation was down by greater than 65 percent, and his approval rating was a staggering 83 percent.

But it’s going to be harder this time. Lula carries more baggage. His Employees Party government oversaw two huge corruption schemes that were used to repay politicians and smooth the passage of laws through a fractious congress. Lula was imprisoned, but was then released, and the fees against him were annulled.

A supporter of President Jair Bolsonaro salutes outside a military base in São Paulo.

A supporter of President Jair Bolsonaro salutes outside a military base in São Paulo.
Matias Delacroix / AP

Lula’s environmental record can be mixed. In 2008, he backed business groups ahead of his effective environment minister Marina Silva, who was forced out of the cupboard. His administration then approved the Amazon’s biggest hydroelectric dam, Belo Monte, which has devastated biodiverse ecosystems on the Great Bend of the Xingu River.

Today, Lula is in a weaker position politically than when he last held office. His Employees Party has lost ground to a flurry of conservative parties. Congress is dominated by the right-wing lobby that supported Bolsonaro and introduced bills to weaken protections of Indigenous territory, legalize land grabs, and dilute or scrap environmental licensing regulations. Among the many recent incoming senators and deputies are several of Bolsonaro’s most controversial allies, including Tereza Cristina, the previous agriculture minister who approved a record variety of agrotoxins, and Ricardo Salles, the previous environment minister who gutted his own agency and publicly supported illegal loggers. Most of the state governorships are also now in Bolsonarist hands.

Overcoming this opposition and winning over a number of the 49.1 percent of voters who preferred his rival would require a deft touch and a viable alternative to the rapacious pro-extraction policies that has intensified over the past 4 years. Lula hinted at this in his victory speech: “Let’s prove once more that it is feasible to generate wealth without destroying the environment.”

Lula returns to office as the worldwide economy is heading within the fallacious direction. His first two administrations benefited from an upturn within the commodity super-cycle and booming demand from China. HIs third will start with rising inflation and slowing exports to the Far East.

Norway and Germany support reopening the spigot of the $1 billion Amazon Fund, suspended in 2019 after a deforestation surge.

Little wonder then that Lula’s first overseas trip as president-elect shall be next week to the United Nations COP27 climate conference in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt, where he shall be rightly feted as an internationalist and a climate activist. Look out for headlines of, in a single form or one other, “Brazil is back!” But this shall be a needier Brazil. Lula won’t achieve his impressive ambitions for the Amazon without international support. And that support needs to be greater than encouraging rhetoric. Irrespective of whether it’s dressed up as climate funds, carbon credits, ecosystem payments, green investments, or loss-and-damage compensation, Brazil could have to be rewarded for doing the precise thing. And quickly.

Norway and Germany have already indicated they’ll support reopening the spigot of the $1 billion Amazon Fund, which was suspended in 2019 after a surge in deforestation. Other sources of funding must follow. Finally 12 months’s Glasgow climate conference, leaders announced a $15 billion package of financing commitments for restoring degraded land, supporting Indigenous communities, protecting ecosystems, and mitigating wildfire damage, alongside a forest and land-use declaration that pledged to halt and reverse deforestation by 2030. But little or no progress has been made in funding the availability. The British initiators of this declaration have warned they might cut the support they promised under a recent round of austerity. During his election campaign, U.S. President Joe Biden had talked a few $20 billion global fund for saving tropical forests, but thus far not even a fraction of that quantity has been given.

A fire in the Amazon rainforest in northern Brazil in August.

A hearth within the Amazon rainforest in northern Brazil in August.
Douglas Magno / AFP via Getty Images

China is arguably much more vital since it is by far Brazil’s biggest customer for soy and iron ore, much of that are extracted from the Amazon and the Cerrado region. The federal government in Beijing won’t provide funds, but it surely could play a positive role by committing to deforestation-free trade.

Lula’s incoming administration has reportedly begun talks with two other major rainforest nations, Indonesia and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, about forming a joint lobbying organization — which has been dubbed “OPEC for rainforests” — to coordinate their conservation efforts and make joint proposals on carbon markets and finance.

Despite the massive challenges ahead, many veteran Amazon watchers are optimistic. Marina Silva, the previous environment minister who has made something of a comeback by winning a seat within the lower house and realigning with Lula, believes that he’s genuinely committed to putting Brazil and the Amazon on a special path since the climate problem is more urgent than it was when he last was president. “The issue of climate change, the lack of biodiversity, all the pieces that’s happening on this planet, is now imposed by science, reason, common sense, ethics, and even aesthetics,” she said. “And it requires everyone to be sustainable. It is not any longer a matter of development, but of sustainability.”


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