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Brazil faces two contrasting legacies for the Amazon in October’s elections

Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva rallies his supporters in Belo Horizonte.

Former president and poll front-runner Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva rallies his supporters in Belo Horizonte, the Minas Gerais state capital, in August. Image courtesy of Ricardo Stuckert.

  • Polls indicate that Brazil’s presidential election in October will go to a runoff between incumbent Jair Bolsonaro and former president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, in a duel likely to decide the fate of the Amazon Rainforest.
  • While Bolsonaro doubles down his climate change denialism and anti-Indigenous agenda, Lula vows to tackle deforestation and eject criminals from the Amazon.
  • Under Bolsonaro, the Brazilian Amazon has lost an area of forest larger than Belgium and recorded its highest deforestation rate in the last 15 years.
  • Lula’s policies helped reduce annual deforestation by 82%, to the lowest rate recorded since satellite monitoring began.

Brazil has lost a Belgium-sized swath of the Amazon Rainforest since Jair Bolsonaro took office as the country’s president at the start of 2019. Deforestation has soared under his administration, which critics accuse of slashing funding for environmental agencies and pushing an agenda of undisguised climate change denialism and anti-Indigenous policies. According to official data released in August, the rate of deforestation in Earth’s largest rainforest is on track to rival last year’s 15-year high.

Bolsonaro is running for reelection in October, where he’s expected to face off against former president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva in the second round. Polls show Lula in the lead. As far as the Amazon goes, then, the choice between the two men who have both held the highest office in Brazil boils down not just to different policies for the future, but two contrasting legacies on the Amazon.

In his eight years as president, from 2003 to 2010, Lula adopted policies that slowed the rate of tropical forest loss. Deforestation declined by 82%, from 27,772 to 4,571 square kilometers (10,723 to 1,765 square miles) between 2004 and 2012, when Lula’s successor and ally, Dilma Rousseff, was in power. The 2012 figure was the lowest rate recorded since satellite monitoring began in 1988. Under Bolsonaro, deforestation rates have increased by nearly 60%.

From August 2021 to July 2022, 10,781 km2 (4,163 mi2) of rainforest were cut down, an area the size of the U.S. state of Massachusetts. That’s the highest rate in the last 15 years, and puts 2022 on track to be the fourth consecutive year with deforestation of more than 10,000 km2 (3,900 mi2) — a streak not seen since 2008.

The current deforestation rate is pushing the Amazon to what scientists call a “point of no return,” beyond which the rainforest won’t be able to recover on its own and turn into a dry savanna, in the process emitting more planet-warming greenhouse gases than it absorbs them. This scenario is already happening in heavily deforested parts of the Brazilian Amazon.

Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva rallies his supporters in Belo Horizonte.
Former president and poll front-runner Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva rallies his supporters in Belo Horizonte, the Minas Gerais state capital, in August. Image courtesy of Ricardo Stuckert.

Brazil holds 60% of the Amazon, and 21% of the Brazilian portion is already gone, an area three times greater than the United Kingdom. The main drivers of this deforestation are livestock ranchers, loggers, illegal miners and land grabbers, who have acted largely with impunity in the absence of law enforcement. That’s why the Brazilian people’s choice in next month’s election will be a “game changer” for the planet’s future, said Mercedes Bustamante, a professor at the University of Brasília and one of the country’s leading authorities on environmental issues.

“The Brazilians’ decision will have worldwide repercussions. Actually, we have an escalation of forest losses supported by the executive and legislative branches,” Bustamante told Mongabay by phone.

Lula’s success in bringing down the deforestation rate was attributed to coordinated actions by several government agencies working together, and not relying solely on the Ministry of Environment and related agencies. The strategy was called the “Action Plan for the Prevention and Control of Deforestation in the Legal Amazon” (PPCDAm), and was implemented from 2004 to 2015, focusing mainly on monitoring, enforcing and punishing environmental crimes and the regularization and planning of land use.

“But development and economic fostering policies to keep the forest standing were lacking,” Adalberto Veríssimo, co-founder of Imazon, a Brazilian conservation nonprofit, told Mongabay by phone.

Another strategy by Lula, who appointed activist Marina Silva as his environment minister from 2003 to 2008, was the creation of new protected areas and Indigenous lands. His administration approved a total of 268,000 km2 (103,500 mi2) of protected areas and 88 Indigenous territories.

Despite all his progress in bringing deforestation under control, Lula was criticized by environmentalists and scientists for reviving projects from Brazil’s military dictatorship that ruled the country from 1964 to 1985. These include the Belo Monte hydroelectric power plant. One of the largest of its kind in the world, the project was carried on by Rousseff’s administration, causing severe environmental damage and displacing Indigenous communities. Lula was also criticized for his alliances with the soybean and meat-packing industries.

When Lula left office in January 2011, he had an overall approval rating of 87%, according to polls, but public support for environmental policies was lower, at 60%.

Former president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva faces president Jair Bolsonaro.
Former president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva (the third from the left) faces president Jair Bolsonaro (with hand on his chest) at the inauguration of the new president of Brazil’s Superior Electoral Court. Polls show they will also face each other in October’s runoff. Image courtesy of Antonio Augusto/Secom/TSE.

Slashing and cutting

Brazilians will go to the voting booths on Oct. 2 amid a mix of crises: a pandemic-induced economic downturn, high inflation and unemployment rates, and the return of the country to the U.N.’s hunger map. Nonetheless, the fate of the Amazon Rainforest remains a major concern. A recent poll commissioned by the environmental NGO Instituto Clima e Sociedade found that 76% of Brazilians say the Amazon is “very important” to the future of Brazil and should be a priority for the presidential candidates.

Although conserving the Amazon has widespread public appeal, and most Brazilians agreed with Lula’s policies for the forest, those sentiments didn’t seem to matter when Bolsonaro was elected in 2018 while promising to halt the demarcation of all awaiting Indigenous territories and slash environmental regulations. When he took office in January 2019, he proceeded as planned. He froze 3.3 billion reais ($640 million) from the Amazon Fund, which since 2008 has invested donations by Norway and Germany to protect the rainforest. The fund was key to paying for projects initiated by governments and NGOs to help Indigenous lands and protected areas and boost sustainable forest management.

No new Indigenous territories or protected areas were established during Bolsonaro’s presidency — this remains one of the few campaign promises he has managed to keep.

In April 2020, Ricardo Salles, the environment minister at the time, suggested slashing environmental regulations while the country was focused on the COVID-19 crisis — “running the cattle” as he put it. He resigned in June 2021 after being caught up in an investigation into illegal logging in the Amazon. The case is still under investigation.

Bolsonaro also slashed funding as promised: In 2021, the Ministry of Environment’s budget was the lowest since 2000. He also stocked key positions in Funai, the federal agency for Indigenous affairs, with political supporters who had no technical experience and a track record of anti-Indigenous actions or rhetoric.

The Bolsonaro government is also supporting bills in Congress that would weaken environmental licensing, open Indigenous lands to mining, oil exploration and agribusiness, allow greater unregulated use of pesticides, and legalize land grabbing in the Amazon.

“Today, we have actions that are the complete opposite of previous governments,” Izabella Teixeira, the environment minister in the Lula and Rousseff administrations, told Mongabay by phone. “Bolsonaro has destroyed the country’s environmental governance and tries to fool the world by promising to fight deforestation in the Amazon.”

A boat arrives at a riverside community on the banks of the Rio Negro.
A boat arrives at a riverside community on the banks of the Rio Negro, in the state of Amazonas, to deliver an electronic ballot box on the eve of the 2017 elections. The October elections in Brazil will decide the future of the Amazon Rainforest. Image courtesy Roberto Jayme/Ascom/TSE.

Bolsonaro has publicly said he opposes illegal activities in the Amazon, but experts say his policies empower these very crimes. “Socio environmental destruction and organized crime have taken over the forest thanks to this government’s total lack of action,” said Imazon’s Veríssimo. A study by the NGOs Instituto Centro de Vida, Instituto de Manejo e Certificação Florestal e Agrícola and the Federal University of Minas Gerais (UFMG), supported by WWF-Brazil, concluded that practically all deforestation (94%) in the Amazon and the Cerrado savanna is illegal.

In places like the Vale do Javari, where Brazilian Indigenous rights activist Bruno Pereira and British journalist Dom Phillips were murdered in June, criminal organizations are engaged in drug trafficking, wildlife poaching, and illegal fishing.

With much of their budget slashed, protection agencies have been hamstrung, critics say. Due to government inaction, public lands, Indigenous territories and protected areas all over the Amazon, such as the Juami-Japurá Ecological Station (near the border with Peru and Colombia), are being destroyed by deforestation, logging and gold mining by groups from Brazil and neighboring countries.

A report by the Indigenist Missionary Council (CIMI), a Catholic Church-affiliated NGO, notes that under Bolsonaro, there have been an average of 275 annual invasions of Indigenous lands. Killings of land defenders are also up: 157 on average since 2019. The BBC reports that government inaction can also be measured by the decrease in environmental fines issued, despite the growing number of violations.

Lula meets Indigenous leaders.
Lula meets Indigenous leaders at an event in early September. The former president promised he would create a new ministry for Indigenous affairs if elected. Image courtesy of Ricardo Stuckert.

Bolsonaro doubles down

In an interview with foreign media on Aug. 22, Lula promised to eject illegal miners from the Amazon and fight the criminal networks wreaking destruction in the rainforest. He also said he would rebuild IBAMA, the federal environmental protection agency, as well as create a new ministry for Native peoples, and make the climate crisis an “absolute priority.”

“We will put a complete end to any kind of illegal mining. This can’t be simply through a law — it must be almost a profession of faith,” Lula said, according to The Guardian.

Lula’s plan should he win office, a document made public in August, also promises to “defend the Amazon from the policies of devastation put into practice by the current government” and says “illegal mining, particularly in the Amazon, will be harshly fought.”

“We will fight environmental crime promoted by militias, landowners, loggers and any economic organization that acts against the law. Our commitment is to combat illegal deforestation and promote zero net deforestation implacably,” the document says.

“Many of these measures depend on the National Congress and governors’ support,” said Bustamante from the University of Brasília. “Brazilians need to focus not only on the presidential election but search for a set of representatives aligned with what the country really needs.”.

Experts largely agree that Lula would restore the functions of the Ministry of Environment if elected. Under Bolsonaro, the ministry has often been even harsher against the environment than the Ministry of Agriculture, which has long sided with the powerful agribusiness lobby.

However, Lula does not rule out infrastructure projects deep in the forest. In a replay of his support for the Belo Monte plant, the former president said in an interview in late August that it is possible to combine the protection of the environment and the reconstruction of the BR-319 highway. The plan is supported by Bolsonaro and opposed by environmentalists, who believe that the road would ease the access of land grabbers and loggers to untouched parts of the Amazon.

Jair Bolsonaro kicking off his campaign for reelection.
Jair Bolsonaro kicked off his campaign for reelection in the Maracanãzinho stadium in Rio de Janeiro in July. Image courtesy of Tomaz Silva/Agência Brasil.

Unlike Lula’s plan, Bolsonaro’s reelection plan avoids addressing his government’s records on deforestation and violence. And despite the trail of destruction, it doesn’t back down from his environmental policies. Instead, it recycles the proposals that helped win him the presidency in 2018, such as allowing mining and oil exploration on Indigenous lands, weakening environmental licensing, legitimizing land grabs, and deregulating the use of pesticides. The renewal of his plan was celebrated by the agribusiness caucus in Congress and other political and economic groups aligned with Bolsonaro, whether by ideology or profit motives.

“We made progress with the pesticides bill, on environmental licensing, land regularization, issues that had been blocked for 10, 20 years,” Sérgio Souza, leader of the agribusiness caucus in the lower house of Congress, said at an event in August attended by Bolsonaro. “Our alignment between the National Congress and the executive [branch] is essential for these achievements.”

In an interview on a popular podcast in August, Bolsonaro reaffirmed his ideology. He blamed “Indians and riverside dwellers” for some of the record-breaking numbers of fires in the Amazon. He also said the forest “doesn’t catch fire because it’s humid.” He said the investigation against his former environment minister, Ricardo Salles, is “nonsense that does not interest the population,” and downplayed the deforestation rate during his time in office, suggesting instead that people should “compare them with Lula’s first three years.” The first years of Lula’s presidency had high deforestation rates, but the numbers declined to the lowest rates ever measured.

Experts say this agenda could isolate Brazil even further if Bolsonaro is reelected. “It’s no use to soften speeches while letting everything run wild. There is no control over what happens in the Amazon and in the rest of the country,” Bustamante said.

“Unfortunately, the [environmental] issue is not decisive in the elections, but regardless of who wins in October, the Amazon will always be on the global agenda,” Veríssimo from Imazon said.

The agribusiness caucus and the federal government’s Special Secretariat for Social Communication did not respond to Mongabay’s requests for an interview.

Related audio from Mongabay’s podcast: Could Brazil’s 2022 election decide the fate of the Amazon rainforest? Listen here:

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