Lula faces stiff challenge to fulfill vow to reverse Amazon deforestation in Brazil

Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva’s narrow victory over President Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil’s October elections was hailed as the potential salvation of the Amazon, after four years of unbridled destruction which have brought the rainforest close to a tipping point, threatening the very survival of the Indigenous populations whose lives depend upon it.

Lula has vowed to reverse the environmental destruction wreaked under his far-right predecessor and work towards zero deforestation by tackling crime in the Amazon and guaranteeing the protection of Indigenous rights. But the president-elect, who takes office on 1 January 2023, faces an uphill battle to meet these big promises he has made to the Brazilian people and the international community.

“Lula is going to face the challenge of how to be ambitious on climate issues, and at the same time be effective, meet the pledges that are being made,” said Natalie Unterstell, president of climate policy thinktank Instituto Talanoa. “Brazil’s climate leadership will have to be rebuilt on the basis of results, not just of talk.”

The incoming government’s priorities will be to rebuild and strengthen the state’s environmental institutions, which have been gutted under Bolsonaro, and acknowledge the vital conservation role played by Indigenous Brazilians, whose rights have come under unprecedented assault. There is talk of creating a ministry of Indigenous peoples.

Lula’s government will also have to contend with increasingly violent and diversified crime in the Amazon, with loggers, land grabbers, illegal miners and other criminals emboldened by Bolsonaro’s laissez-faire attitude.

“Deforestation is just the tip of the iceberg, there are many illicit economies and many actors with a level of organisation, sophistication and violence that is much higher than when Lula’s previous administrations saw big successes in reducing deforestation,” said Ilona Szabó of the Instituto Igarapé, a thinktank focused on public and climate security.

The environmental working group in Lula’s transition team – which includes Marina Silva, the environment minister who oversaw a sharp drop in deforestation during Lula’s first term and is tipped to perhaps reprise her old role – has indicated that environmental law enforcement will be a priority and has spoken of tackling deforestation in Brazil’s other biomes.

“Apathy, impunity are over,” Aloizio Mercadante, a coordinator on the transition team, said in a recent press conference.

Amazon deforestation totalled 11,568 sq km in the year from August 2021 through to July 2022, the national space agency INPE’s recent annual deforestation report showed – an 11% decrease on the previous year but still the second highest figure since 2008. Across the four years spanning Bolsonaro’s time in office, an area more than twice the size of Wales (over 45,000 sq km) was cleared in the Amazon.

Deforestation and land use change are the biggest contributors to Brazil’s greenhouse gas emissions, which grew 12.2% overall last year according to the Climate Observatory watchdog. The destruction of the country’s biomes accounted for 1.19bn tonnes of the total 2.16bn tonnes of CO2 equivalent the South American giant emitted in 2021.

Bringing down deforestation levels is therefore of primordial importance if Brazil is to reduce its overall emissions and meet internationally agreed targets.

All this will require funds – another major challenge for the incoming government as Brazil’s mandatory expenses and fiscal rules give it very little room to increase environmental budgets. The transition team is currently in discussions with congress to exclude certain expenses – including foreign donations destined to the environmental agenda – from a constitutionally mandated spending cap.

Although the task ahead is immense, Lula will benefit from a positive scenario internationally, said Márcio Astrini, the chief executive of the Climate Observatory.

The president-elect was given a hero’s welcome at the Cop27 climate summit in Sharm el-Sheikh in November, where he announced that “Brazil is back” in the fight against the climate crisis. Germany and Norway signalled that they would restart donations to the Amazon Fund, an important tool in combatting deforestation that has been paralysed under the Bolsonaro government, after the supreme court ordered the fund’s reactivation shortly after the election.

Lula’s victory is also understood to have spurred talks with Indonesia and the Democratic Republic of Congo – the two other big tropical rainforest nations – over coordinating conservation efforts.

Both Unterstell and Szabó said that continued international support will depend on the incoming Lula government delivering results promptly and being transparent about its policies and the obstacles it meets along the way.

“Lula is not going to work miracles in the Amazon,” Astrini conceded, adding that there was unlikely to be a significant decrease in deforestation within Lula’s first year – partly because the next annual dataset will include the last five months of Bolsonaro’s government, during which forest clearing looks set to hit new records.

But, Astrini said, after Bolsonaro’s “environmental hell”, Lula represents the “concrete hope” that the Amazon can be protected and that Brazil will return to the international fight against the climate crisis.

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