Over the past couple of years, South America’s political landscape has been shifting. Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva’s (commonly known as Lula) win as president in Brazil makes the country the latest in South America to turn to the left, after Peru, Chile, and Colombia, among others. Many of you must be asking yourselves: why should I concern myself with foreign elections if there is so much already going on in my country? The answer is simple: many of the above-mentioned countries are home to the ‘lungs of the world’, the Amazon.
The Amazon Rainforest
The Amazon is around 10 times the size of France, it holds 1/5 of all the world’s fresh water, and the whole thing is on track to becoming a dead zone. On the 22nd of August 2022, 3,358 fires were detected in the Brazilian Amazon, according to the Brazilian space agency, INPE. This was the highest number of fires recorded for any 24-hour period since 2007. The 22nd of August was no special day, just another normal day in the Amazon rainforest. It is important to highlight at this point that, unlike wildfires being seen in places like California and Australia, the fires in the Amazon are more often than not started intentionally (for reasons such as clearing space for cattle ranching, growing animal feed, or illegal logging). Besides the obvious impact of the Amazon’s deforestation on indigenous people and the biodiversity of the region, the rainforest also stores large amounts of carbon. When the forest is cut or burnt down, that carbon is released into the atmosphere, contributing to global warming. In the past, the Amazon served as a carbon sink, absorbing the emissions driving the climate crisis and contributing to a cleaner environment. However, last year, scientists confirmed for the first time that more carbon dioxide is being released from the Amazon Rainforest than it is able to absorb.
Bolsonaro’s role in destroying the Amazon
Brazil is home to the biggest part of the Amazon. Before looking into the new president’s approach to deforestation, we have to consider the country’s previous president, Jair Bolsonaro, and the radical shift he caused to the country’s environmental policies. Since he came into power, Bolsonaro has made his views on environmental protection clear, saying things such as ‘The environment can and will join with development. As long as I am president, development will come first’, and ‘I will no longer allow Brazilian environmental protection agencies to go around imposing fines’. True to the last quote, during his presidency he sacked Brazil’s environmental protection agency, who were in charge of protecting the environment. Because of this, despite Brazil’s advanced technology which allows the authorities to monitor how many trees are being cut as it is happening, 98% of the cases of illegal deforestation were not investigated (2021). It is no surprise that Bolsonaro is wildly supported by the agribusiness elite, who can now more swiftly destroy the Amazon to get farm land.
Additionally, Bolsonaro is internationally known for his controversial views on climate change, having said multiple times that he does not believe in the climate crisis, and even assigning Ernesto Araújo, a fellow climate change denier, as foreign minister (responsible for climate foreign affairs). Between 2019 and 2021 – a period that overlaps with Bolsonaro’s three years in office – there was a 52% increase in the Amazon deforestation compared to the previous three years.
Lula – a new hope for the Amazon?
Lula’s approach to deforestation and the Amazon could not be more different from his predecessor’s. Recently, Lula has pledged a transition to a greener economy, alongside other left-wing leaders prioritising sustainability in the region, including in Colombia and Chile. After his victory on Sunday night, Lula said: ‘Brazil is ready to resume its leading role in the fight against the climate crisis, protecting all our biomes, especially the Amazon forest’. In his victory speech, Lula also pledged to clamp down on illegal logging, mining, and land grabbing that have driven the surging deforestation of the Amazon. Furthermore, according to the president’s senior advisors and campaign documents, Lula is vowing an environmental overhaul of government policy on a scale rivaling the proposed Green New Deal in the US.
Whilst those are all good news and during his previous 2003-2010 presidency, Lula did effectively reduce the destruction of the rainforest (by as much as 80%), he also previously embraced traditional industrial development with little regard to emissions.
Additionally, after the destruction that Bolsonaro’s changes have caused, it will be a huge challenge to recover what has already been lost. One of Brazil’s most prominent environmentalists, Marina Silva, compared Lula’s plan for restoring strong institutional protection of the rainforest after Bolsonaro’s legacy to a ‘post-war recovery effort’. On top of that, Bolsonaro’s party still dominates Congress and will likely continue supporting the cattle industry, which is behind most forest loss in the Amazon.
It is still too soon to tell whether the shift to the left in Brazilian politics is going to be beneficial for the planet, and if Lula is going to deliver on his promises. However, Lula’s victory and pledge to reinstate environmental protections, especially after the surge in deforestation during Bolsonaro’s administration, certainly is promising. If Lula does keep his promises to safeguard the Amazon, that could play a vital role in the worldwide fight against climate change. Furthermore, Lula might have an easier time winning over international supporters, as many European leaders have signaled that they are eager to collaborate on renewed preservation of the Amazon. So, at least for now, environmentalists around the world should be celebrating this election’s outcome.