Brazilian president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva has a vision to both conserve and harvest the Amazon’s resources. But can he keep everybody onside?
Report by Mark Rowe
Brazil is back’ proclaimed Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva after his victory in last year’s general election. Lula ousted the incumbent, Jair Bolsonaro, who had all but taken his personal chainsaw to the Amazon Basin’s rainforest during four years in office. As Lula declared an aim to achieve zero deforestation in the Amazon by 2030, his supporters, NGOs and, perhaps above all, the forest peoples of the Amazon, breathed a collective sigh of relief.
Yet you would be mistaken if you thought that the Amazon will now return to a pre-Lapsarian world where logging is halted and the infinitely complex, if battered, chains that hold the ecosystem together are left to naturally regenerate. In the real world, Lula must address fiercely competing and vested interests and, although it’s a long way out, have an eye on the next election.
The damage done
The ‘Trump of the Tropics’ lived up to his moniker, causing meaningful harm to the rainforest, its inhabitants and institutional protective structures. ‘Bolsonaro objectively did a lot of damage,’ says Rhett A Butler, founder and CEO of Mongabay, the online conservation and science platform. The annual rate of deforestation in the Amazon surged nearly 60 per cent during his administration (according to InfoAmazonia, Lula cut deforestation by 70 per cent in his first term of office from 2003 to 2010). ‘More significantly, there was a major rollback of environmental law enforcement, tacit endorsement of forest conversion through both rhetoric and forgiving past illegal deforestation, and a hollowing out of institutions that previously played a critical role in protecting the Amazon.’
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Bolsonaro also dismembered the environment ministry, diluting laws that required Amazonian landowners to conserve up to 80 per cent of their land as forest. ‘Through speeches, acts and measures, Bolsonaro demonstrated his contempt for environmental protection agencies, Indigenous peoples, environmental activists and democracy,’ says Luiza Lima, public policy campaigner for Greenpeace Brazil. In a blunt condemnation of the former president’s actions, she adds: ‘It had inconceivable and drastic consequences – notably the explosion of deforestation, illegality, impunity and violence.’
Prosecutions fell off a cliff; just 40 cubic metres of illegal timber, equal to ten large trees, were confiscated in the first four months of 2019 (25,000 cubic metres were seized in 2018). The Chico Mendes Institute, Brazil’s leading environmental enforcement agency, had to announce in advance the time and location of its raids on illegal loggers. When National Institute for Space Research satellite data showed increased deforestation, Bolsonaro accused the institute of lying and fired its director.
Widespread intimidation was effectively condoned. ‘Violence in the countryside was the main factor for NGOs reducing their work,’ says Greenpeace’s Lima. ‘Many NGOs and social movements had to change their ways of working in order to guarantee the physical security of their members.’ In 2020, 20 people were murdered in relation to defending environmental and human rights in the Brazilian Amazon.
‘The harsh rhetoric against civil society and climate of impunity during Bolsonaro’s presidency probably contributed to the increase in violence and threats,’ says Butler. ‘Bolsonaro’s decision to jettison the Amazon Fund [a mechanism for foreign governments to help pay for preservation efforts] directly impacted the availability of financial resources for groups working to protect the Amazon.’
The low point
This supertanker will take time to turn – barely a month after Lula took office, Brazilian Amazon deforestation reached its worst-ever February level, when surveillance satellites detected 209 square kilometres of forest destroyed, an area equivalent to about 30,000 football fields. At least 600 infrastructure projects are operating along rivers in the Amazon, with 20 road projects being planned and more than 400 dams operating or in the planning stage. Meanwhile, gold mining operations continue to clear forest and dump harmful chemicals such as mercury into the water, according to WWF. At least 25,000 miners flocked into the forest-dwelling Yanomami’s tribal territory to mine for gold during Bolsonaro’s rule. Hundreds of Yanomami are thought to have died from pollution and illness during Bolsonaro’s term in office.
‘The Amazon rainforest can recover under the right conditions provided it is given time and the chance to do so,’ adds Butler. ‘However, the dismantling of environmental regulations and norms will be challenging to overcome, given the degree of the damage wrought to institutions and the current toxicity of political discourse.’
A new dawn?
The mood, however, is tentatively upbeat. ‘Lula’s election has created a ripple of hope and excitement,’ says Ani Dasgupta, president of the World Resources Institute (WRI). On Lula’s first day back in office, he rebooted the frozen Amazon Fund, which holds £385 million; re-appointed Marina Silva, his old environment minister; and appointed Sônia Guajajara to lead Brazil’s first-ever Ministry of Indigenous Peoples. In February, Lula made it clear he intended to improve the health of the rainforest and those who lived there, targeting the tens of thousands of illegal miners in the Yanomami territory, with special forces environmental operatives destroying aircraft and seizing weapons.
Lima describes Lula’s first steps as ‘positive, good beginnings’. The real challenge, she acknowledges is just how quickly he can move. ‘It’s important to turn decisions into action and rebuilding so that they bring results at the impact and speed that the climate crisis, social and environmental issues require for our entire society.’
Competing interests remain
Yet the future seems as hazy as the smoke over an illegally cleared tract of rainforest. Illegal logging didn’t start with Bolsonaro and won’t end now that he has gone – he simply spent four years making an awful situation far, far worse. For years, there had been widespread impunity for all types of crime, including deforestation, illegal mining, land-grabbing, biopiracy and animal trafficking, while individuals and companies had long been accustomed to cultivating permissive relationships with authorities. The agricultural sector has become key to the country’s foreign trade portfolio in recent decades, something that must somehow be aligned with the need to rein in the deforestation that has cleared thousands of hectares of jungle to create new pastures for cattle.
‘The challenges Lula faces today are greater than in his first terms, and he knows it,’ says Lima. ‘Unfortunately, driven by Bolsonaro, environmental crime in the Amazon today is in very large proportions, with large gangs that spent four years legitimised by the then-president acting in an organised, violent and dangerous way.’
Many, including Lima, are mindful of what she calls the ‘extreme right in the country, which mobilises its followers through fake news and distortions of reality’. Additionally, the pro-deforestation faction in Brazil’s Congress is still strong, despite Bolsonaro’s defeat. As Dasgupta points out, Lula won the election but didn’t win a majority in every part of the government. ‘He will have to work with a range of interests to achieve much,’ he says. ‘We actually need a different approach for protecting forests that takes the whole economy of the Amazon and other forests into account and find a solution that’s not just better for trees, but better for people who live there, so the standing forest is more valuable to them than destroyed forests and grazing land.’ No wonder Lula has called for faith as much as laws to achieve meaningful change for the betterment of Brazil’s environment.
So far, Lula’s actions represent a quantum leap from his predecessor’s, but his comments imply a shift in ideology from his previous term in office – an approach more nuanced than simply proclaiming ‘save the Amazon’. Lula clearly wants to promote economic alternatives to destructive exploitation. Mindful of the attention devoted to the Amazon at the expense of other areas of biodiversity, Lula wants joined-up thinking across Brazil’s environment, from the Amazon rainforest to the Cerrado savannah, Atlantic forest, semi-arid Caatinga, Pampas grasslands and the Pantanal wetlands.
‘There’s huge potential to increase the productivity of existing low-yielding pasture,’ says Butler. ‘Examples include better pasture management, embracing permaculture and agroecological approaches to farming, and using other crops.’
Lula and Silva say they will encourage the revitalisation of degraded pastures. ‘We can already triple our production without having to cut down another tree,’ said Lula. The government plans to offer 20-, 30- and 40-year concessions for the recovery of degraded lands with native species, paid for by carbon credits.
Such moves are supported by WRI Brazil. ‘Intensive cattle ranching reduces the pressure for new pasture areas, with increased productivity and profitability,’ says Fabíola Zerbini, WRI’s director for forests, land use and agriculture. ‘It also frees up areas for other agricultural production, especially grains.’
The future of the Amazon depends, in effect, upon viewing the issues and potential for the rainforest in three dimensions, she suggests. ‘The bioeconomy in a tropical forest such as the Amazon must be an economic system whose foundation is the concrete existence of the biome – as a living, diverse and deforestation-free system,’ says Zerbini. ‘Public policies and financial mechanisms need to be created and strengthened to encourage small and medium-sized producers to adopt best practices and to enforce large slaughterhouses to comply with their deforestation-reduction commitments.’
Prior to his election, Lula said that he would promote the development of research in pharmaceuticals and cosmetics that use Amazonian products. ‘The biodiversity of the Amazon, associated with traditional knowledge, is of inestimable value,’ says Lima. But she warns of pitfalls in developing these resources. ‘It is very important that the development of socio-biodiversity chains takes place in a truly participatory process,’ she says, ‘with compliance with socio-environmental safeguards and ensuring that rights are not violated in the name of economic logic.’
Applying the Nagoya Protocol – 2014 legislation that addresses biopiracy and who gets to use genetic and natural resources – will bring meaningful benefits to indigenous peoples, argues Zerbini. ‘The prospecting, discovery and validation of pharmaceutical and other non-timber products, with benefit sharing, is a strategic economic activity for the bioeconomy in the Amazon,’ she says. WRI believes sustainable ecotourism also has strong potential.
This approach is broadly in line with that suggested by independent analysis of the Amazon biome. According to a paper, ‘Rethinking the Brazilian Amazon’, led by Ana Yang, the executive director for the Chatham House Sustainability Accelerator, a combination of forest management, agriculture, cattle ranching and legal mining may be sustainable. The 2021 paper foresees a region that could support a bioeconomy of unrivalled richness; however, this could only work when land-use planning reflects the priorities and aspirations of the Amazon’s diverse populations and, above all, breaks the ‘slash, burn and abandon’ cycle of land occupation. For example, making cattle rearing sustainable would require more intensive production on better pastures, in turn freeing up land less suitable for farming for natural regeneration and forest restoration, possibly with help in the form of payments for environmental services or carbon credits. All this would require zero deforestation and full traceability of the meat supply chain, from calf producers to final suppliers at meatpacking units. Yang described the process as potentially ‘long and difficult’.
Agribusiness – the good, the bad…
Greenpeace’s Lima says that Brazil’s agribusinesses can be divided into three groups. ‘We have an export-oriented agribusiness sector that is more concerned with its institutional image and does not want to be associated with deforestation and violence,’ she says. ‘For this sector, there is no need to cut down even one more tree to increase agricultural productivity. They may not like it, but they are pragmatic and know their business will go better if they do not explicitly oppose the government.’
Her concern focuses on a second part of the sector, which enjoyed growth based on the exploitation of natural resources, land grabbing, violence and, says Lima, benefited from working practices analogous to slavery. Greenpeace also believes these groups were associated with financing the coup acts of January 2023.
A third agribusiness group mainly comprises historical supporters of Lula – the family farmers and peasant movements that were sidelined during the Bolsonaro years. Lula has indicated that he will reinstate and develop policies aimed at land distribution reform, including agricultural credits to promote family farming and agroecology.
Beyond Brazil’s borders
Others clearly need to step up. Despite unease with Bolsonaro, the EU, the USA and the UK remain the main destinations for illegal Amazonian timber, which is often shipped with false origin documents. That practice continues as you read this article. Before taking power, Lula said the EU needs to help develop the economic potential of the Amazon’s biodiversity.
‘The West absolutely has responsibility for what happens to the Amazon,’ says Butler. ‘The West can provide financial incentives and technical expertise to advance forest conservation in the Amazon. Consumers in the West can push companies and governments to rein in unsustainable sourcing.’
‘The challenge is collective,’ says Lima. ‘It must involve not only changing individual consumption habits, but include financial support from richer countries that have historically been responsible for the highest global emissions. We need to remember that those most impacted by the climate crisis are those who have the least historical responsibility for it.’
Reasons for optimism
As he surveys the carnage of the Bolsonaro years, Butler is optimistic. ‘Lula can do a lot,’ he says. ‘Between raising money internationally, lowering the rhetorical heat against civil society, restoring the institutions that Bolsonaro eviscerated, collaborating with other rainforest nations, and recognising the importance of science in policy making, there are lots of opportunities to make progress in areas beyond the direct influence of pro-deforestation factions in Congress.’
Lula is not only a man in a hurry but a leader who will have no choice but to compromise, admits Lima. ‘Lula will have to govern considering this heterogeneity of interests and pressures,’ she says. ‘Pragmatism seems to be crucial. We know how big are the challenges facing us. But after four years of a complete dismantling and denial of reality, we can say that this is already a reason for hope – but we’ll all need to keep our eyes open to make sure this hope turns into reality.’