Luiz Inácio da Silva, the progressive politician popularly known as Lula, is poised to take office as the president of Brazil on January 1. His administration is set to embrace a return to environmental protection following the destructive policies of outgoing president Jair Bolsonaro. Key to these efforts is slowing the deforestation of the Amazon rainforest,more than half of which is in Brazil.
“There is no climate security for the world without a protected Amazon,” Lula said in aspeech at the United Nations COP27 meeting in Egypt in November. “We will do whatever it takes to have zero deforestation and the degradation of our biomes.”
He hadexclaimed at the meeting ahead of his speech, “You all know that we are going to undertake a big fight against deforestation.”
Lula’s incoming administration has putclimate change at the core of its mission. It has promised to end deforestation by 2030, open a ministry of Indigenous peoples, and expand renewable energy alternatives.
Lula had prioritized climate change and the protection of the Amazon during his previous two terms as Brazil’s president, from 2003 to 2011.
“Lula has an important experience,” María del Carmen Villarreal Villamar, a Brazilian researcher at the Latitude Sul Platform, tells The Progressive. “There were real acts or practices of commitment in favor of the environment and in favor of the fight against climate change.”
But the incoming administration faces major challenges in achieving its new goals: Lula is inheriting a country whose environmental safeguards have been slashed under the far-right administration of Jair Bolsonaro. Specific challenges extend beyond just slowing deforestation, but also addressing the total deregulation of measures to protect the rainforest, and impunity for companies that are illegally expanding operations in the Amazon.
“We have experienced a real tragedy, a catastrophe from an environmental and climatic point of view in the last four years,” Villarreal Villamar says. “Especially since the Bolsonaro government has been part of the problem.”
She adds, “The legacy that Bolsonaro leaves behind is record deforestation, a very significant increase in greenhouse gas emissions, a central increase in the invasion of Indigenous lands, and the Amazon Fund [a mechanism focused on reducing emissions from deforestation and forest degradation] is paralyzed.”
Bolsonaro’s administration actively promoted the“colonization” of the Amazon. At the time Bolsonaro was elected, Brazil was seeing nearly 2900 square miles of Brazil’sjungles being cleared annually. This figure jumped to 5020 square miles in 2021.
Environmental activists accused the Bolsonaro government ofemboldening illegal loggers,illegal miners, and ranchers. During the 2022 election, those involved in illegal logging operations in the Amazon widelysupported Bolsonaro, hoping for a victory that would permit them to continue.
This deforestation especially has impacted Indigenous communities.
Brazil’s social movementsplayed an important role in the October 30 election of Lula, and these groups will help guarantee that his administration honors his promises. But in recent years, environmental activists have faced dangers and violence for their efforts. The Bolsonaro administration made this worse.
“Throughout this period of extreme violence and lack of respect for human rights from the Bolsonaro government there has been an impressive capacity of social movements, of Indigenous peoples, and of women to resist, to think of alternatives and to work for the construction of a better Brazil,” Villarreal Villamar says. “It is important to recognize the arrival of Lula and what his victory means, but it is important to not forget those who have been resisting here and what actually builds a better Brazil is the [social] base.”
Between 2009 and 2019,more than 300 environmental activists were killed in Brazil. Since then, numbers of attacks against activists haveincreased each year, withtwenty-six killings in 2021. All too often, these deaths have gone uninvestigated.
Brazil is considered thethird most dangerous country for environmental activists in the Western hemisphere,according to the organization Global Witness, especially for Indigenous activists. The hostility from the Bolsonaro government towards activists and civil society led to many feeling unease to show their rejection of his policies.
“[We were fearful] due to the loss of people who were environmentalists,” Isvilaine Da Silva Conceição, a Brazilian environmental activist, tells The Progressive. “Of course we are going to protest. Now we have the freedom to do that and we are not going to pretend to be convicted or persecuted for it.”
There is still concern that Lula will continue to expand extractive industries, as he did during his previous presidency.
In 2007, Lula faced protests from Indigenous communities forhighway projects that crossed through their territories. Three years later in 2010, the president received intensecriticism and protests for the construction of the Belo Monte hydroelectric plant.
“[The Belo Monte project] generated many conflicts with the Indigenous populations,”
Villarreal Villamar says. “So we are talking about a Lula who says one thing and does another, or one thing [when] Lula is a candidate, another [when] Lula is president.”
In spite of this, the election of Lula has led to a sense of hope after the years of what Da Silva Conceição describes as a “tragedy” of the Bolsonaro years.
“We have a lot of hope in Lula,” Da Silva Conceição says. “And we are very hopeful that Brazil will once again be the great protagonist of the climate [as seen] at COP27.”
Jeff Abbott is an independent journalist currently based out of Guatemala. “The Other Americans” is a column created by Abbott for The Progressive on human migration in North and Central America.