“There is no climate security for the world without a protected Amazon.”Brazilian President-Elect Luis Inácio Lula da Silva
By Dr Marcelo Gonçalves de Lima
As the night progressed on Sunday, the 30th of October, many of us, members of the Brazilian Worker’s Party, PT, and other progressive activists in the UK, sat glued to whatever media outlet was available, waiting for the election results. Around 9:45 pm, Luis Inácio Lula da Silva, our dear Lula, overtook the far-right proto-fascist candidate, and we all started celebrating the beginning of the end of a nightmare.
Celebrations were happening across Brazil, and we soon heard from Lula inspiring words of “peace, love and hope” while addressing the press after he had secured his victory. “Today we are saying to the world that Brazil is back,” he said after receiving multiple congratulatory calls from world leaders. Lula’s victory was also warmly welcomed by environmental and indigenous activists and organisations, not only in Brazil but also globally.
This enthusiasm was further expressed during the Climate COP27 in Egypt. After his stunning victory, he was invited by Egypt’s President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi and other dignitaries to attend the conference where, as Reuters put it, he was “Greeted like a rock star”. There he pledged to recommit Brazil to tackle the climate crisis and zero deforestation and the degradation of the Brazilian biomes by 2030. In his own words, “There is no climate security for the world without a protected Amazon.” During the conference, Lula and his team started negotiating important climate agreements as well as promising to re-engage with the many multilateral environmental agreements that the current government has ignored (currently Brazil owes more 250 million pounds to the UN for example).
Brazil is a megadiverse country, which houses not only the most extensive rainforest area in the world but also the most biodiverse savannah, the Cerrado, and other important biomes more threatened by deforestation than the Amazon. The Cerrado, for example, has lost more the 50% of its 2 million km2 extent, mainly to soya and cattle ranching, which have caused a massive increase in carbon emission figures in the country.
During Lula’s first tenure as president and President Dilma’s two mandates, deforestation figures in the Amazon were cut by 80%, primarily due to an efficient anti-deforestation national policy called PPCDAM (Action Plan for the Prevention and Control of Deforestation in the Legal Amazon) coupled with other public policies aiming at the sustainable use of resources and health and wellbeing of riverine communities and indigenous people. A similar action plan was set up to address the deforestation of the Cerrado. However, after the coup that ousted Dilma and the election of Bolsonaro, there was a surge in deforestation figures as the far-right government severely cut the budget of the agencies tasked with enforcing Brazil’s (excellent) environmental laws and public policies. The challenge now is not only to return to those low deforestation figures but also to reach the ambitious zero deforestation target.
The success of reducing deforestation and other interventions to address carbon emissions and biodiversity conservation was not an easy endeavour. Lula faced criticism because of his drive towards developing infrastructures such as large-scale dams and deep-sea oil rigs. His former environmental minister Marina Silva was very influential, especially in the beginning, in putting climate change and biodiversity as a top priority for the government and faced much resistance from other government members. Marina ended up putting her aspirations to be the successor of Lula in front of her environmental commitments. She approved the controversial building of two mega dams in the Amazon, at odds with the official impact assessment, as well as the weakening the environmental enforcement by splitting the responsible agency Brazilian Institute of the Environment and Renewable Natural Resources – IBAMA amid a staff strike and crisis. The newly created agency Chico Mendes Institute for Biodiversity Conservation- ICMBIO, named after Marina’s close environmentalist friend and rubber tapping union leader murdered in 1988, took years to organise itself, which led to damaging consequences for biodiversity conservation.
Lula now seems much more environmentally wiser, and his commitment to zero deforestation is a welcome sign that re-engagement with international agencies to help combat deforestation is already a reality. The Norwegian government, for example, announced during the COP27 that it would unfreeze the critical $542 million Amazon Fund after their environment minister met with Lula. The UK Government is considering an invitation to join the fund, as are the US, French, Canadian and Swiss governments.
However, Lula will face new challenges as he was elected with the help of a broad coalition of left, centre-left, and centre-right political parties, all with agendas and thirsty for power, influence and funds to support their agendas. Senator Simone Tebet, who was also a presidential candidate, strongly endorsed Lula’s bid after the first round and is expected to have an essential role in PT’s government, possibly as Agriculture Minister. The left considers her a keen agribusiness activist, although she is said to favour a “zero tolerance policy” towards illegal deforestation. Meanwhile, there is a fierce dispute about who will be the next environmental minister, with the top candidates being former ministers Marina and Izabella Teixeira, a career employee of IBAMA and considered more of a pragmatist than her predecessors, including Carlos Minc, who was instead a picturesque minister during his tenure.
However, these former ministers of the environment are not a consensus amongst PT environmentalists. They would prefer a “purebred” PT member like Congressman Nilto Tatto from São Paulo state, who has a long history as an environmentalist working with indigenous people. Suppose Brazil is to be again a leader in tackling both the climate crisis and the biodiversity crisis. In that case, it will need to solve these rather petty issues as the clock is ticking, and there is little time to lose.
But, in the meantime, as Lula said, “we are back!” and actively participating in the ongoing Biodiversity COP15 in Montreal. Let’s hope there will be good news from that front as well!