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Lula’s government must go far beyond undoing Bolsonaro policies on Amazon forest & Indigenous rights (commentary)

Marina Silva and Lula in a meeting with local leaders.

Marina Silva and Lula in a meeting with local leaders during a walk through Grande Belo Horizonte (MG) in Oct. 202, during the presidential campaign. Photo by Ricardo Stuckert/Fotos Públicas.

  • Despite the hope embodied in Brazil’s new president, the protection of Indigenous peoples and reducing deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon still face an uphill struggle.
  • “To ensure continued protection for Brazil’s environment and Indigenous communities, Lula and his government institutions need to go beyond merely undoing Bolsonaro’s previous policies. They must expand the work that they do,” the authors of a new op-ed argue.
  • This post is a commentary. The views expressed are those of the authors, not necessarily of Mongabay.

The Amazonian Chief Raoni Metuktire visited the U.K. in January 2020, accompanied by Megaron Txucarramãe and other Indigenous leaders. This visit kicked off a global tour that held very special meaning for Chief Raoni. The Manifest of Piaraçu – a document that denounced the threat of the Brazilian government to the livelihood of Indigenous populations – had been recently released, and set the groundwork for numerous discussions about the preservation of the Amazon rainforest and of Indigenous communities in the region’s future.

While there, Chief Raoni participated in numerous public events telling audiences about the past, present and future of Indigenous communities in the Brazilian Amazon. At one event, held at the Imperial College London, Chief Raoni told those present of the threats posed by the government of President Jair Bolsonaro, who had taken office in January 2019.

Almost immediately after taking office, Bolsonaro’s government had set about dismantling the institutional protection for Indigenous communities across Brazil, who also faced sustained campaigns of harassment and violence. Many faced incursions into their legally protected land by mining or logging interests. Others faced a horizon growing ever closer, driven by the expansion of the Brazilian agricultural frontier.

An overflight conducted by Greenpeace and Instituto Socioambiental in December 2022 spotted four excavators near an illegal road recently discovered inside the Yanomami Indigenous territory, one of the most endangered areas of Indigenous lands in the Brazilian Amazon.
An overflight conducted by Greenpeace and Instituto Socioambiental in December 2022 spotted four excavators near an illegal road recently discovered inside the Yanomami Indigenous territory, one of the most endangered areas of Indigenous land in the Brazilian Amazon.

Two months after Raoni’s speech in London, the Covid-19 pandemic started to sweep across Brazil. Many Indigenous communities remained confined within their territories, yet still exposed to the threat of transmission and infection. The pandemic had dire consequences for many Indigenous communities, with the death toll soaring in many areas. This risk was driven by Bolsonaro’s denial, conspiracy theories and inaction – policies that later led to the president being accused of crimes against humanity.

Under cover of the chaos and flux brought by Covid-19, many took the opportunity to expand illegal fishing, hunting, and mining networks in the Brazilian Amazon region. The period witnessed an intensification of the invasion to Indigenous territories and the murder of Indigenous people and conservationists. Deforestation surged: in April 2020, deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon was 64% higher than the same month the previous year.

The worst was yet to come. Bolsonaro was only one year into his four-year mandate when Covid-19 struck. Tellingly, Ricardo Salles, the Minister of the Environment in Bolsonaro’s government, called for changes in policy to take advantage of the media focus on COVID-related news to cut environmental regulations and protections.

The next few years was a roll call of attacks on Brazil’s Indigenous communities. Bolsonaro extinguished the National Council for Indigenous Policy (CNPI), created in 2015 to coordinate policies for Indigenous communities in Brazil. His government also nominated a police officer linked to the agribusiness sector as director of the FUNAI, the agency tasked with safeguarding Indigenous peoples.

Elsewhere, Bolsonaro sacked the director and head of monitoring of the deforestation program of the Brazilian Space Agency (INPE), which regularly published evidence of the increasing occurrences of slash and burn-driven land clearances across the country. Environmental regulations were scrapped, and the government provided approval to over 2,000 pesticides and herbicides — at least double the approval rate of the 10 previous years. Many of them contained at least one substance that has been banned to use for agriculture in the European Union.

Some 300 people reunited at the headquarters of Brazil's Indigenous affairs agency, Funai, in Brasília to mark a "new era" for the institution and its "reopening" under the government of President Lula. Image by Karla Mendes/Mongabay.
Some 300 people reunited at the headquarters of Brazil’s Indigenous affairs agency, Funai, in Brasília to mark a “new era” for the institution and its “reopening” under the government of President Lula. Image by Karla Mendes/Mongabay.

Gun ownership rules were also loosened. During Bolsonaro’s four years in power, the number of gun licenses increased from 350,000 to 1 million. People had access to a wider range of weapons and were allowed to carry them in public. Under the false pretense of hunting, illegal gold miners were weaponized with hunting weapons, such as the ones that killed the British journalist Dom Phillips and the Indigenous expert Bruno Pereira last year in the Amazon, and used them to frighten and kill Indigenous people.

All of this created a government-enabled context in which Indigenous communities faced increased violence, invasions, and exclusion at the hands of armed men intent on securing land, extracting resources and polluting the environment. Bolsonaro’s government will be remembered for many things. Central will be its legacy for Brazil’s Indigenous peoples who had been sabotaged, killed, and rendered evermore vulnerable by government policy.

Plot twist

Bolsonaro only served one time. With former-president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva winning the 2022 presidential election, exactly three years after his international tour to denounce Bolsonaro’s atrocities, Chief Raoni attended the inauguration ceremony in January 2023, delivering the presidential sash to Lula.

This is Lula’s third spell in office and his government quickly got to work reversing Bolsonaro’s acts. Relaxed gun ownership rules have been revoked and a review of current licenses is promised. Efforts are also being made to reverse appointments linked to Bolsonaro’s clan, particularly restricting their access to sensitive information – which may allow attacks by Bolsonaro’s supporters, such as on January 8 in Brasilia.

However, not every move will be as quick or easy. On his way to defeating Bolsonaro during the two-round election, Lula made the largest alliance of his political career. Now in office, payback time arrived and to reward his allies, Lula increased the number of ministries from 23 to 37.

A key ministry created is one exclusively focused on Brazil’s Indigenous peoples. This is the first time in Brazilian history that a high-level government office has been created for these communities. This ministry is led by an Indigenous member of the Brazilian Congress, Sônia Guajajara:

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Its first tasks will be to resurrect CNPI and restructure FUNAI. On January 16, Minister Guajajara also announced the revoking of the previous government’s legislation that had allowed logging on Indigenous lands.

However, problems remain. One of Guajajara’s greatest challenges will be to further facilitate the delimitation of Indigenous territories. This was a process that has been heavily disrupted during Bolsonaro’s government – with the former president labeling the protection of territories as holding the Brazilian economy back.

The protection of Indigenous land is no small task. Around a third of the 722 Indigenous territories are still to be officially recognized. Delimitation of these areas is a slow-paced process, which needs detailed cartographical, legal, anthropological, social, historical, and environmental studies.

However, this work needs to be done. The timing of the delimitation of Indigenous lands is even more important now due to the potential passing of a controversial bill in the Brazilian Congress. If passed, this bill will add more bureaucracy to the ongoing delimitation processes by requiring proof of the use of these lands by Indigenous peoples since 1988, the year the federal constitution was promulgated.

This bill adds that the Indigenous territories can be explored for other activities such as the construction of dams (for hydropower generation), mining, commercial agriculture, and road construction, without any approval or consultation with the current population that lives in these lands. This 1988 cut-off date was used by the Bolsonaro administration to suspend the delimitation of 27 Indigenous territories. Any presence of this in Brazilian law will represent a major limit on land protections for Indigenous communities. The race is on.

See related: Amazon’s tallest tree at risk as deforestation nears

The Amazon’s largest tree grows in the Paru State Forest and is one of several giant trees in the region. Each one can sequester up to 40 tons of carbon, nearly as much as a hectare (2.4 acres) of typical forest. Image © Havita Rigamonti/Imazon/Ideflor.
The Amazon’s tallest tree (88.5 meters or 290 feet) high) was recently discovered in the Paru State Forest: it is one of several giants growing there that are under threat as illegal deforestation nears. Image courtesy of Havita Rigamonti/Imazon/Ideflor.

Coming challenges

While Lula might hold the presidency, the Brazilian Congress will not necessarily work in his favor. Right-leaning parties previously allied with Bolsonaro control half of the Brazilian Chamber of Deputies. Bolsonaro might have fled to Florida, but his politics remain.

Lula will need to find ways to convince the Congress to work with him and reverse the legacy of aggressive environmental laws of the previous government. Bills currently being discussed in the Brazilian Congress will be key signals of what Lula could do in the future.

The Congress is currently discussing two policies that might continue Bolsonaro’s legacy: Bill 1459/2022 would limit government and regulatory control over the approval of new pesticides. This has been labeled the ‘poison package’ by environmental activists and was approved by the Senate Commission on Agriculture on 20 December 2022 (only 11 days before Bolsonaro left office). It has now been tagged as an urgent matter for plenary vote in the senate.

Another bill, Bill 510/2021, has proposed that people who invaded public land including areas deforested in the Amazon prior to 2017 — and possibly afterwards — be rewarded with formal ownership, rather than prosecution.

Lula’s social and environmental agenda will also depend on national economic growth and the government’s own approval rating. It has recently been announced that the increase of the minimum wage, a key election promise, will not happen until May 2023 at the earliest, due to budgetary constraints.

The government’s critics in congress will use any bad news against him when it is politically convenient. Internal tensions are present too: the government is still dealing with internal conflicts regarding the lack of military support and trust for the president, which had previously been supportive of Bolsonaro.

Célia Xakriabá is a newly elected Indigenous member of the congress and spoke to Mongabay about her legislative priorities and active role in denouncing Bolsonaro for crimes against humanity:

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It is likely that, given this context, a focus on restoring and restructuring national institutions to protect the environment and Indigenous communities will be Lula’s flagship policy against deforestation in the future. However, this will be put at risk by continued political tensions and the sustained presence of Bolsonarismo.

To ensure continued protection for Brazil’s environment and Indigenous communities, Lula and his government institutions need to go beyond merely undoing Bolsonaro’s previous policies. They must expand the work that they do. This can be in further work towards expanding international conservation coalitions, such as the Amazon Fund – which was suspended during Bolsonaro’s presidency. It could also involve working with other governments to secure economic opportunities for businesses that follow sustainable supply chain models, such as the ones in the new European Supply Chain Law.

Bolsonaro’s government caused severe harm for Brazil’s environment and Indigenous communities. Their future protections must not merely be based on repairing the previous governments damage, but include action that builds a better and more resilient future.


Rodolfo Nóbrega is a lecturer at the University of Bristol and works on ecosystem assessment and the conservation of natural ecosystems. Find out more about this work via his Twitter account, @RodolfoNobrega

Ed Atkins is senior lecturer at the University of Bristol and works on decarbonization and social justice issues. Find his latest thoughts on Twitter via @edatkins_.

Banner image: Environment Minister Marina Silva (at right) and President Lula (second from left) meet local leaders in Grande Belo Horizonte in Oct. 2022, during the presidential campaign. Photo courtesy of Ricardo Stuckert/Fotos Públicas.

Related audio from Mongabay’s podcast: Will Lula’s election decide the fate of the Amazon? A discussion with Mongabay’s CEO, listen here:

President Lula’s first pro-environment acts protect Indigenous people and the Amazon

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