The outcome of the presidential elections in Brazil is crucial for the future of the world’s forests. Last Sunday, Lula da Silva narrowly defeated current President Jair Bolsonaro. Deforestation rates had skyrocketed under Bolsonaro.
Through Kathryn Baragwanath
The right-wing leader was elected in 2018 on an explicitly anti-environmental platform. He had pledged to reduce environmental oversight, end indigenous land demarcation and allow extraction of resources from protected areas in the Amazon.
In his victory speech, Lula signaled a strong commitment to preserving the Amazon, protecting the rights of tribal peoples and achieving the goal of zero deforestation.
In Bolsonaro’s first three years in office, 33,200 square kilometers of forest were cleared. That’s a little more than the surface of Belgium.
Some researchers say the Amazon could be near its tipping point if current deforestation rates continue. As a result, the tropical forest would lose its resilience to climate and land use changes.
This would have profound implications for global biodiversity, carbon storage and climate change.
Lula’s victory speech marks a clear departure from Bolsonaro’s rhetoric. It’s a welcome change in preparation for the United Nations climate change conference, COP27, which begins in Egypt on Sunday. However, Lula continues to face difficult challenges in order to fulfill his promise to protect the jungle.
Deforestation has increased over the past decade
With an area of 5.5 million square kilometers, the Amazon represents half of the remaining tropical forest in the world. It is home to enormous biodiversity, has a major influence on the global climate and water cycles and acts as a carbon sink.
Preserving the Amazon is critical to meeting the Paris Agreement goal of limiting global warming to 1.5℃ above pre-industrial levels.
About 60% of the Amazon rainforest is in Brazil. This means that political changes in the nation have a huge impact on this biome and therefore on the global climate.
Lula’s choice opens up the possibility of ending the destruction of the jungle. During his first two terms (2003-2010), Lula was responsible for significantly reducing deforestation.
Important environmental legislation was passed during Lula’s first term. Remote sensing has been used for real-time monitoring of the Amazon. Protected areas and indigenous territories have expanded significantly.
Other notable actions included a strategic focus on controlling and enforcing the law in areas with high rates of deforestation, restoring and regulating a system of environmental sanctions, and making financial aid compliance conditional.
Deforestation was reduced by more than 80% between 2004 and 2012. However, the Forest Act of 2012 relaxed some of the protections for private land and granted an amnesty for past deforestation. Prices started to rise again.
Bolsonaro’s election accelerated this upward trend. He cut funding for the Environment Agency and tried to allow mining on tribal lands and protected areas. Just last year, an area of rainforest the size of Montenegro was cleared. It was the worst loss in nearly two decades.
What these elections mean
Lula’s strong promises to protect the Amazon are unprecedented in Brazilian politics. His victory speech is a hope for the jungle’s future. International pressure to conserve the Amazon, as well as an active and organized indigenous movement and civil society are on their side.
- However, Lula still has an uphill battle to stop deforestation. The challenges include:
- A weakened environmental agency: Officials appointed by Bolsonaro refused to use allocated funds, and in 2020 the agency hit an all-time low of 591 agents (compared to 989 in 2016), after a 29% cut in 2019 ;
- An increase in land-based violence: This includes land invasions and violence against environmental activists and tribal peoples;
- Organized crime groups with interests in deforestation of the Amazon;
- A Conservative-dominated Congress: Lula needs her approval to pass environmental legislation;
- A large agricultural group of lawmakers: Representatives from different parties form the largest organized coalition in Congress, pushing for changes to environmental licensing laws, land ordinances and Native land demarcation rules;
A pause in much-needed international support: the most notable is the Amazon Fund, set up by Norway and Germany in 2008. Donors suspended that funding in 2019 after Bolsonaro abolished the fund’s technical committee in the face of record deforestation rates and massive wildfires. Norway (which has donated more than $1.2 billion) has already signaled it wants to resume climate cooperation once Lula takes office.
In addition, Lula wins a narrow election victory and takes over the leadership of a divided country. It must design innovative policies that combine environmental concerns with sustainable development and economic opportunity. Only in this way can a polarized nation be won over.
The next four years will be crucial for Brazil and the world. Brazil has already reduced deforestation once. The new government will have to learn from its past successes while also learning from recent policy failures.
The situation is a challenge for the new president. But it also represents a great opportunity to rebuild Brazil’s position in the world and requalify its agricultural exports as sustainable and fair.
Research Fellow, Australian Catholic University.