Lula da Silva’s election as president of Brazil has raised hopes around the world for swift action in defence of the Amazon rainforest. His predecessor, Jair Bolsonaro, opened up huge areas of the Amazon to deforestation by minimizing protected areas and emboldening agribusiness. The annual deforestation rate under Bolsonaro rose 75.5 percent compared to the previous decade. In the last month of Bolsonaro’s presidency alone, an area of forest cover four times larger than Manhattan was destroyed.
By contrast, Lula has promised to end illegal deforestation in the Amazon by 2030, and his rhetoric around the rainforest has focused on conservation. “In his first decisions as president,” outlines Rosie Frost,
he restored the authority of the government’s environmental protection agency Ibama to combat illegal deforestation, which had been diluted by Bolsonaro. He also revoked a measure that encouraged illegal mining on protected Indigenous lands. In addition, he unfroze the billion-dollar Amazon fund financed by Norway and Germany to back sustainability projects, reinforcing his commitment to ending deforestation in the Amazon, which surged to a 15-year high under Bolsonaro.
Having declared “There is no climate security for the world without a protected Amazon,” Lula’s administration is struggling to undo Bolsonaro’s legacy of environmental destruction. Many oversight bases meant to monitor illegal deforestation were closed under Bolsonaro, and the Brazilian environmental agencies do not have the resources necessary to meet the challenge of curbing logging and clearcutting.
Paulo Barreto, a senior investigator at Imazon, an Amazon conservation organization, told the Brazilian Report that “the lack of a swift decrease [in deforestation] was to be expected. The government started out with a low capacity for action, less money, and depleted staff. Environmental agencies needed rebuilding, and this process still hasn’t finished yet.”
Natalie Unterstell, head of a climate policy think tank called the Talanoa Institute, concurred: “Environmental protection institutions are still getting back on their feet after four years of the Bolsonaro government. They’re short on staff, they’re short on all kinds of resources.”
Unterstell added that the government needs to establish more of an on-the-ground presence in affected areas to discourage illegal deforestation. “When there’s someone in the Amazon looking to cut down a part of the forest,” she explained,
they make their decision based on the risk of getting caught by the authorities. The government’s discourse on deforestation is important, but it’s not enough to contain the problem. Federal authorities need to go to the field and prevent these illegal activities, and in the first three months of the year that really hasn’t been the case.
Deforestation in the Amazon is driven by the activities of illegal gold miners, loggers, cattle ranchers, and industrial agriculture. Bolsonaro’s anti-environmental policies encouraged aggressive actions by these groups. By contrast, Lula has vowed to target their activities in order to protect the rainforest.
Shortly after his inauguration, Lula launched a “mega-operation” targeting illegal gold mining on the lands of the Indigenous Yanomami people. The number of illegal gold miners on Yanomami lands had skyrocketed to 15,000 during Bolsonaro’s time in office, as had the noxious environmental effects of their operations, including deforestation and the dumping of toxic by-products in the water.
Lula’s administration gave illegal miners, or garimpeiros, until the beginning of May to clear out before security forces made them leave. Thousands departed as a result, and the government destroyed remaining equipment and campsites.
Nevertheless, illegal gold mining is only a small part of deforestation, the majority of which is caused by cattle ranching. The soy industry also plays a significant part in driving deforestation by buying up existing pasture, leading cattle ranchers to fell more trees for the purpose of creating new pastures in a cycle that must be broken if the rainforest is to be preserved.
Brazil's Lula is aiming for "zero deforestation" in the Amazon, but he faces significant political headwinds.— Yale Environment 360 (@YaleE360) April 26, 2023
Congress is dominated by a right-wing lobby that has sought to scrap environmental protections and legalize land grabs.https://t.co/CT8XBq6ItL
While Lula struggles to set Brazil’s environmental agencies on the right track, right-wing lawmakers are targeting NGOs that support Amazon conservation through the so-called “NGO inquiry.” Bolsonaro had previously stated that these organizations are a “cancer” and their actions, not the policies of his government, are responsible for the destruction of the Amazon.
Recently the Biden administration pledged to contribute $500 million to Brazil’s Amazon Fund, which is managed by the Brazilian National Development Bank and promotes sustainable development projects in the rainforest. In 2019, Bolsonaro froze the Amazon Fund and its related projects. Lula’s Environment Minister Marina Silva reactivated the Fund after taking office in January 2023.
Biden’s contribution is compelling, especially in the context of leaked Pentagon documents that revealed Washington’s anxieties about Lula’s foreign policy decisions, especially concerning the Ukraine war and Brazil’s relationship with China.
As Andre Pagliarini explains, the Biden administration has been muted in its public criticism of Lula, even if behind closed doors Washington officials are expressing worries. “A heavy [anti-China] hand from Washington,” he writes, “could legitimately be seen in Brazil as an attempt to deprive Latin America’s largest nation of crucial infrastructure investment. The Biden administration seems cognizant of what a bad look that would be in the region.”
The $500 million contribution to the Amazon Fund should be seen in this context. Perhaps the donation is Biden using the carrot rather than the stick—seeking to mend somewhat tense relations with Brazil by helping tackle one of the administration’s most pressing exigencies.
Lula’s efforts to repair the environmental damages done by the Bolsonaro administration have gotten off to a slow start, but progress has undoubtedly been made in the repairing of the governmental agencies that will play a role in reining in deforestation. Going forward, readers should closely follow events in Brazil to see if Lula will succeed at mending the immense harms that his predecessor inflicted upon the Amazon, an indispensable carbon sink that is vital to the fight against climate change.
Owen Schalk is a writer from Manitoba. His book on Canada’s role in the war in Afghanistan will be released by Lorimer in September. You can preorder it here. To see more of his work, visit www.owenschalk.com.