With Lula Back, Can Brazil Turn the Tide on Amazon Destruction?
The month before Brazil’s October 30 presidential election was the most brutal of Jair Bolsonaro’s term as president. Landowners rushed to illegally clear forest while they could rely on the impunity that had been a characteristic of the Bolsonaro era. From my home in Altamira, I could see flames on the other 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 about the climate and nature conservation, the election of Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva and his speech after his narrow victory were the first breaths of fresh air in Brazil in more than four years.
That period — the extreme-right Bolsonaro’s term of office — had been characterized 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 way of business — not the environment, not human rights, seemingly not even the law.
What a contrast then, when Lula — as the veteran of the center-left Workers Party is known — used his first speech after the results were confirmed to announce that Brazil will protect the Amazon and other biomes, and resume its leading role in the fight against the climate crisis.
In 2021, Brazil had its highest emissions in 19 years, largely due to fires that have turned the Amazon from a carbon sink to a carbon source.
“Brazil and the planet need a living Amazon. A standing tree is worth more than tons of wood illegally harvested by those who think only of easy profit,” he said. “A river of clear water is worth more than gold extracted at the expense of mercury that kills fauna and risks human life.”
Lula has an ambitious plan to save the Amazon rainforest, but he will 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,” an important advance on the “zero illegal deforestation” goal of his previous two administrations (2002-2006 and 2006-2010), which managed to reduce Amazon clearance by 80 percent.
He indicated his government will beef up monitoring and protection agencies that were depleted under Bolsonaro and will use the force of the state to eject the tens of thousands of illegal miners, loggers, fishermen, and land grabbers who have entered protected reserves and the Indigenous territories of the Yanomami, Munduruku, Kayapo, and other peoples. “We are not interested in a war for the environment,” he said, “but we are ready to defend it from any threat.”
During the campaign, Lula said he would create an Indigenous ministry, which could give the country’s first peoples more power than at any time since the first European colonizers arrived 500 years ago. This should also bolster climate and biodiversity, as research has shown that granting land rights to traditional populations is the most cost-effective way to maintain standing forests.
Along 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 point of no return. This horrifying prospect was raised by Brazil’s leading climate scientist, Carlos Nobre, senior researcher at the University of São Paulo’s Institute for Advanced Studies, who has warned that the Amazon will 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 year, 17 percent of the Amazon had been cleared and another 17 percent degraded, according to 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 due to forest fires that have turned the Amazon from a carbon sink 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 people here refused to accept the result. Over the following days, truck drivers blocked all the roads in and out of town, and then hundreds of protesters draped in Brazilian flags camped outside the local military base making unsubstantiated claims of election fraud and calling on the army to stage a Bolsonarist coup. To draw more people to the protest, a local rancher slaughtered a couple of cows for a churrasco and offered free beer.
Reining in the violent forces unleashed by Bolsonaro will require patience, smart policies, money, and international support.
There were similar demonstrations across this deeply divided country. In Rio de Janeiro, thousands of people gathered outside the army headquarters. In Santa Caterina, hundreds raised their right arms in a prolonged fascist salute. Bolsonaro’s sullen reaction to the first loss of his political career and the only 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 two months until Bolsonaro leaves office will be as tense as the final weeks of Trump, though former allies, the military, and the business community have so far indicated they will not support a coup.
Even if there is a seamless handover, that may just be the start of Lula’s challenges. Reining in the violent forces that were unleashed by Bolsonaro will require patience, cooperation, smart policies, money, and international support. If anyone has the experience to do this, it is Lula. When he left office in 2010, the economy was booming, Amazon deforestation was down by more than 65 percent, and his approval rating was a staggering 83 percent.
But it will be harder this time. Lula carries more baggage. His Workers Party government oversaw two huge corruption schemes that were used to pay off politicians and smooth the passage of legislation through a fractious congress. Lula was imprisoned, but was then released, and the charges against him were annulled.
Lula’s environmental record is also mixed. In 2008, he backed business groups ahead of his effective environment minister Marina Silva, who was forced out of the cabinet. 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 Workers 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 new incoming senators and deputies are several of Bolsonaro’s most controversial allies, including Tereza Cristina, the former agriculture minister who approved a record number of agrotoxins, and Ricardo Salles, the former environment minister who gutted his own agency and publicly supported illegal loggers. Many of the state governorships are also now in Bolsonarist hands.
Overcoming this opposition and winning over some of the 49.1 percent of voters who preferred his rival will require a deft touch and a viable alternative to the rapacious pro-extraction policies that has intensified over the past four years. Lula hinted at this in his victory speech: “Let’s prove once again that it is possible to generate wealth without destroying the environment.”
Lula returns to office as the global economy is heading in the wrong direction. His first two administrations benefited from an upturn in 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 will be next week to the United Nations COP27 climate conference in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt, where he will be rightly feted as an internationalist and a climate activist. Look out for headlines of, in one form or another, “Brazil is back!” But this will be a needier Brazil. Lula will not achieve his impressive ambitions for the Amazon without international support. And that support has to be more than encouraging rhetoric. No matter whether it is dressed up as climate funds, carbon credits, ecosystem payments, green investments, or loss-and-damage compensation, Brazil will have to be rewarded for doing the right thing. And quickly.
Norway and Germany have already indicated they will 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. At last year’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 very little progress has been made in funding the provision. The British initiators of this declaration have warned they may cut the support they promised under a new round of austerity. During his election campaign, U.S. President Joe Biden had talked about a $20 billion global fund for saving tropical forests, but so far not even a fraction of that amount has been given.
China is arguably even more important because it is by far Brazil’s biggest customer for soy and iron ore, much of which are extracted from the Amazon and the Cerrado region. The government in Beijing will not provide funds, but it 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 huge challenges ahead, many veteran Amazon watchers are optimistic. Marina Silva, the former environment who has made something of a comeback by winning a seat in the lower house and realigning with Lula, believes that he is genuinely committed to putting Brazil and the Amazon on a different path because the climate problem is more urgent than it was when he last was president. “The problem of climate change, the loss of biodiversity, everything that’s happening in the world, is now imposed by science, reason, common sense, ethics, and even aesthetics,” she said. “And it requires everyone to be sustainable. It is no longer a question of development, but of sustainability.”