If Brazilians go to the polls on Sunday, the future of the Amazon is at stake, experts have warned.
The two frontrunners in the presidential election are political heavyweights with opposing visions of how to lift millions of people out of hunger, reverse the country’s declining wealth and manage its vast biodiversity.
Right-wing President Jair Bolsonaro has presided over four years marked by record rates of deforestation and watered-down environmental protection. While his main rival, former leftist President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, has pledged to crack down on illegal deforestation in the Amazon after overseeing a decline in deforestation during his eight-year tenure in the 2010s.
“It’s really a critical moment,” said Mercedes Bustamante, a professor at the University of Brasilia, Brazil and a member of the Climate Crisis Advisory Group. “It’s the Amazon, it’s all the other Brazilian biomes that are seeing the same increase in deforestation rates,” she said.
Deforestation of the Amazon has boomed under Brazil’s right-wing president, who took office in 2019, after promising further development of the rainforest and dismissing global concerns about its destruction. In late 2021, deforestation there hit a 15-year high after rising 22 percent in one year. Then, in July, the tree loss rate for the first six months of the year hit a new all-time record after an area five times the size of New York City was destroyed.
According to a recent analysis for environmental publication Carbon Brief, a loss for Mr Bolsonaro could see deforestation fall by almost 90 percent over the next decade.
But the fate of the Amazon is not unique to Brazil.
“Without the Amazon, we are losing the fight against climate change,” said Bel Lyon, senior program adviser for Latin America at WWF. “The Amazon plays a crucial role in storing carbon and regulating the world’s climate as it releases water into the atmosphere.”
It is the largest rainforest in the world, one of the richest places on earth in terms of biodiversity and a major carbon sink. Trees are critical to slowing climate change as they absorb carbon dioxide, one of the greenhouse gases that lead to rapid global warming.
Last year, a study found that parts of the Amazon had become a net emitter of carbon, not a sink of carbon, due to deforestation and the intensification of the dry season, which led to an increase in fires. It also cited other studies that found that global warming was causing an increase in tree mortality and a reduction in photosynthesis across the Amazon.
Jair Bolsonaro at a military parade marking the 200th anniversary of Brazil’s independence on September 7.
(AFP via Getty Images)
“It is dangerously nearing a crucial tipping point where large areas could transform from a resilient, wet rainforest to an arid, fire-ravaged and irreversibly damaged state,” Ms Lyon said. “Not only will we be a tragedy for people and wildlife in the Amazon, we will also be unable to limit global warming to 1.5°C, with consequences for the entire planet.”
Alexandre Kōberle, an Advanced Research Fellow at the Grantham Institute at Imperial College London, said that this turning point could come in the next decade.
“The evidence is that once you hit 20 percent deforestation, that would become a positive feedback loop and almost irreversible, and we’re almost there,” he said.
So the stakes are high.
“It’s hugely important,” Mr. Kōberle said of the election. “We need a shift in how the country approaches the Amazon.”
Experts told The Independent that if Bolsonaro wins, the postponement is unlikely.
“If Bolsonaro wins, we’re going to get quite a bit more of it, a consolidation of this anti-environmental rhetoric and action, probably more deforestation, more land grabs,” he said. If Mr Lula wins, commentators said things could change but warned it won’t be easy.
Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva
First, the composition of Congress and who is elected governors during the election will determine how much change Mr. Lula could make.
He then has to contend with sections of the powerful agricultural lobby, which use land to grow beef and soybeans and refuse to change their practices, and weak law enforcement agencies in the region.
There are also international stakeholders to work with — like Europe — a major importer of agricultural goods from Brazil, Mr Kōberle said.
But Mr. Lula could increase funding for environmental law enforcement agencies, whose budgets have been slashed under Mr. Bolsonaro and whose powers have reigned supreme, and he could reengage with the international community on climate issues, Mr. Kōberle said.
“Decisions by the Brazilian government after this election will have ramifications for the whole world, but it is also important that other countries, including the UK, ensure that all products linked to deforestation are removed from product supply chains,” he said Mrs Lyons.
The Independent has reached out to the Brazilian government for comment.