Brazil’s New President Vows to Save Amazon Forests

Brazil’s New President Vows to Save Amazon Forests

Environmentalists are calling Brazil’s presidential election of Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, popularly known as Lula, a big win for the Amazon rain forest. After Jair Bolsonaro, a far-right president, took office almost four years ago, the ecosystem experienced record low levels of deforestation HTML1.

Brazil is home to more than half the Amazonia region, which is vital for slowing climate change. According to MapBiomas and Imazon, Brazilian environmental research groups, Bolsonaro was responsible for the destruction or burning over two billion trees in Brazil’s Amazon. Scientists fear that the rain forest is approaching a tipping point, beyond which the region could become dry savanna. A decrease in trees has also led to less rain and higher temperatures in the Amazon region, which has exacerbated drought.

Bolsonaro rolled back legal protections for the forest and its Indigenous inhabitants, and he opened the region to dam building and agribusiness expansion. By contrast, President-Elect Lula, who served two terms as president from 2003 through 2010, said during his campaign that preserving the rain forest will be one of his top priorities. In a victory speech delivered in Sao Paulo, he stated that Brazil is ready to regain its leadership in the fight against climate change. “Brazil and the world need a living Amazon .”

What can the new president do after he takes office in January? Scientific American spoke with Paulo de Bessa Antunes, an environmental law professor at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro and a former federal prosecutor in Brazil. He has been a prosecutor in many environmental cases and fought the Bolsonaro government in court.

Portrait of Paulo Antunes.
Paulo Antunes. Credit: Courtesy Compos Mello Advogados Office

Bessa Antunes lamented the lawlessness of Bolsonaro’s years, but stated that Brazil has excellent environmental regulations. There are also many highly motivated people within its agencies that are willing to help Lula reach his goals. Bessa Antunes, based on his faith in law, seems to be genuinely optimistic about Lula’s chances of protecting Amazon forests.

[ An edited transcript of the interview is available below. ]

Amazon deforestation decreased by an estimated 67 percent under the previous Lula administration. What will his challenges be now?

We have a strong commitment by various countries not to purchase illegal timber, soybeans, or beef. Because they know that foreign markets will not allow them to buy their products, the modern sector of these industries will be alongside Lula.

Does greater unity of the international community put Lula in a better position now than in his last tenure?

Yes. Brazil was once a leader in environmental issues. I believe other countries feel that Brazil is “back to the gate”, something similar to what happened with Trump’s transition to the Biden administration. I think things are moving quickly now. Lula also wants to create a dedicated agency for climate change that will be better than the current structure, which places climate change under the umbrella of environmental ministry.

Bolsonaro’s administration damaged the Amazon by ignoring a variety of illegal activities. Are there any government rules that would allow Lula better control?

Bolsonaro attempted to amend some laws but was stopped by the congress of Brazil and our supreme court. In 90 percent of the cases that went before the supreme court, the court ruled that the changes were unlawful. Brazil now has 29 percent of its land protected by environmental law, far higher than the world average. This does not include Indigenous lands, which are among the most protected lands in Brazil.

But the powerful ruralista” agribusiness lobby that fights for the expansion of soy and beef production remains. Brazil elected a more conservative congress last October. How much of a stumbling block might this be to Lulas environmental agenda?

Here is the truth: money speaks loudest. Exporting agricultural products abroad is a major part of the agricultural sector’s business model. The main stream of modern Brazilian agriculture knows that they must adapt. Simone Tebet [a conservative politician than Lula] came in third in round one of voting [for the presidential elections]. She’s now joined Lula by endorsing his final election. She is from Mato Grosso which is highly agrodependent. Lula is skilled at making alliances and arranging things with people like these.

During his campaign, Lula advocated for a green economy, including increasing environmental protection, subsidizing sustainable farming and reforming Brazil’s tax code. Skeptics are unsure how he will pay.

Brazil, a large country. It is home to the Amazon rain forest, the largest environmental area in the world. Brazil is a green country. It is completely different from countries like the U.S. or China. Our power is not weapons, it is the soft power that the environment gives us. Once we have a trusted government and a clear plan for protecting the environment, the money can come from carbon credits or from foreign aid. Perhaps I’m optimistic, but I believe that Brazil will be able to wield this power and bring money and green growth.

Nevertheless, Lula also said he wants to develop infrastructure. How is that possible while protecting the forest?

Infrastructure is desperately needed in the Amazon. Brazil is part of the ILO 169 convention [also called the Indigenous and Tribal Peoples Convention, 1989, an international legal instrument that establishes basic rights of Indigenous and tribal peoples]. Lula has the right to apply the “free and informed consent”, in good faith, of Indigenous peoples and traditional communities to comply with the convention.

Indigenous people have lost rights under the Bolsonaro administration. Their lands have been infiltrated by ranchers and gold miners with impunity. How will this change?

Indigenous rights have been incorporated into the Brazilian constitution. Bolsonaro didn’t comply with these rights, but the rights existed. Lula has promised to create a new ministry to protect Indigenous areas. The head will be an Indigenous person. This will make a big difference. Bolsonaro had drastically underfunded the previous agency FUNAI [National Indian Foundation].

Are you worried that some of the states remain under right-wing leaders? How much do states control environmental policy?

The power of the states is more important to the U.S. The union is the dominant player in the Brazilian Federation. The central government is very important to the states. Yes, there are right-leaning state governments. They must align with the federal government to function. Lula will meet with all governors in his first meeting. He’ll say, “Listen, tell us what your needs are.” And there will be some bargaining: “I’ll give you what I want .”

Does Brazilian public opinion support preserving the rain forest?

In big cities like Sao Paulo, the population is committed both to protecting Indigenous people and the Amazon. There is no question. There are two ways to look at the Amazon. The Indigenous and traditional communities are fully committed to protecting our environment. Others believe that environmental protections are detrimental to the region’s economic progress. This type of thinking is, however, a minority. All illegal actors will be notified. It won’t solve the whole problem because it is a complex problem. We need to ensure that the Amazon provides the basic necessities for survival and well-being of the people living there. The Amazon’s people are very poor. If we can provide them with a better quality of life, they will support environmental protection.

Does the political instability of recent years, with one president being impeached and another gutting environmental regulations and encouraging lawlessness, give you pause?

I’m a real optimist. Our society has grown to accept the need for stability after all the political chaos. Even those who voted for Bolsonaro have seen this. When Lula won, the president of Brazil’s Chamber of Deputies [essentially] said,Well, Lula is the next president.” The president of the senate said the same thing. The political elite knows that if we continue to struggle, we won’t get anywhere. Because Lula has a large alliance, basically everyone except the far right, he will bring stability. We will have a national unity administration. If we continue on this path, the future looks bright. Brazilians seem to understand this.

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