A new government in Brazil is working quickly to reverse environmental losses of the Bolsonaro years
October’s re-election of Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva as president of Brazil was received with great relief by environmentalists and scientists concerned with the increasing deforestation rates in the Amazon. The relief is worldwide: Amazon rainforests are global ecological assets, spanning 600 million acres across nine countries on the South American continent and absorbing 2 billion tons of CO2 each year.
Lula defeated Jair Bolsonaro, whose rhetoric and policies weakened environmental agencies responsible for law enforcement, paralysed the demarcation of indigenous lands and tried to discredit scientists and their research, including deforestation data from the Institute of Space Research in Brazil. Bolsonaro’s time in office (2019–22) not only saw the highest level of Amazon deforestation since 2009, but also hindered participation of civil society in relevant environmental councils, creating a context that increased the vulnerability of environmental activists, particularly those from indigenous communities.
By contrast, Lula’s first post-election speech emphasised environmental and climate agendas, including an intention to reinstate Brazil as an essential player in international negotiations. His first international visit after the election was to COP27 in Egypt to reinforce his commitment to situating control of deforestation central to his agenda. The composition of Lula’s government includes experienced politicians, such as Marina Silva at the Ministry of the Environment, who was responsible for deforestation control during Lula’s first term in the presidency (Lula previously served two terms, from 2003 to 2011). For the first time, Brazil also has a Ministry for Indigenous Peoples, led by Sonia Guajajara, an indigenous woman. Resuming the demarcation of indigenous territories is essential to their protection, recognition and valuable contribution to forest conservation.
Further action will be necessary on three fronts. First, the institutional reconstruction of related policy. Deforestation control and combating illegal activities associated with environmental degradation are urgently needed and require the rebuilding of environmental agencies and law enforcement initiatives. The extent of organised crime in deforestation means it will be critical to coordinate all the sectors responsible for law enforcement on the ground along with intelligence agencies and financial institutions. In his first week, Lula’s administration reinstated the National Program of Deforestation Control in the Amazon and the Amazon Fund, part of the UN-backed REDD+ framework for stopping the destruction of forest.
The second front involves working across politics and sectors. The new parliament’s composition signals an intention to reach out to sectors less committed to environmental protection in recent years. This is critical and must include opening dialogue with the agribusiness caucus, seeking moderate voices that understand the negative impacts for the sector in international trade if deforestation continues. Collaboration with Amazonian state governors will also be critical; active during COP27, these stakeholders are responsible for a significant share of preserved forest.
Finally, there is a need to strengthen collaboration across national governments in the Amazon basin, backed by global support. International cooperation can reinforce coordination between Amazonian countries facing similar challenges in reconciling local development and nature conservation. An assessment of private and public global climate finance flows by the Climate Policy Initiative indicated that these almost doubled between 2011 and 2020; access to these can promote a sustainable economy for the Amazon.
There is a need to strengthen collaboration across national governments in the Amazon basin, backed by global support
A global asset
The Amazon basin’s fate is central to the global crises of climate change and biodiversity decline; it is one of the most critical elements of the global climate system as a significant source of water and energy to the atmosphere. The undisturbed Amazonian rainforest acts as a net sink for carbon but is weakening, resulting in a spiral of degradation as well as increased risks of infectious and new zoonotic diseases. Extreme climactic events, land use, drought stress and tree mortality raise the central question of when and where forest clearing will lead to crossing tipping points.
Evidence shows that damage to the Amazon rainforests is happening at unprecedented rates. The urgent solutions needed must consider that 34 million people live in the region, a remarkably diverse population of indigenous peoples (encompassing over 350 ethnic groups and speaking about 300 languages), Afro-descendants and migrants from different regions and origins. We also need to be clear that deforestation does not reduce poverty. Data analysis across 794 municipalities of the Brazilian Amazon from 2002 to 2019 (undertaken by Darren Norris et al. and published in 2022) found that reducing forest cover did not promote socioeconomic progress.
Lula returns to a far more complex context than he faced in his previous two terms. However, there is also significant social capital accumulated in civil society organisations and institutions that have endured the Bolsonaro years, demonstrated by strong opposition to the disturbing events in Brazil in early January 2023, when pro-Bolsonaro rioters stormed government buildings in the capital, Brasilia. A new plan for the Amazon must incorporate the conservation of the ecosystem function and diversity and economic wellbeing based on non-predatory activities, equity, social justice and rights.
The first indications of cross-cutting and coordinated initiatives are a good signal in this direction.
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