Brazil, the largest country in South America and home to the iconic Amazon rainforest, will have a new leader on January 1: Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva. In Sunday’s second round of elections, Lula, as he is widely known, defeated incumbent President Jair Bolsonaro, securing just over 50% of the vote.
It was a historic defeat and a sensational comeback for Lula. After serving two terms as president of Brazil, between 2003 and 2011, Lula went to prison for corruption, but was later released after the Supreme Court overturned his convictions. Bolsonaro, meanwhile, is the first president to lose reelection in the country’s 34 years of modern democracy. (He has yet to concede.)
The results also represent a historic moment for the Amazon rainforest.
Under President Bolsonaro, deforestation has accelerated, threatening not only wildlife and indigenous communities, but also the global climate. But Lula promised to give the forest a second chance. “Let’s fight for zero deforestation”, Lula said Sunday evening after his victory. “Brazil is ready to resume its leadership role in the fight against the climate crisis, protecting all our biomes, especially the Amazon rainforest.”
Lula often points to his track record to prove he can succeed: During his presidency, deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon dropped by more than 80%, meaning there was less forest loss. An analysis by the climate website Carbon Brief suggests that under the next Lula administration, annual deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon could be reduced by almost 90% by the end of the decade.
“Everything Lula has said, and even his track record, would indicate that he is going to undo the brutal regressions of the Bolsonaro regime,” Christian Poirier, program director of the nonprofit advocacy group Amazon Watch, told Vox en september.
Few political issues have higher global stakes than the conservation of the Amazon. Cutting down the rainforest not only erodes a critical carbon sink, which helps suck planet-warming gases out of the atmosphere, but also fuels climate change. Ongoing deforestation could also trigger a runaway reaction that could turn parts of the rainforest into a savannah-like ecosystem, robbing the forest of its many ecological benefits and natural wonders.
What Bolsonaro did to the Amazon rainforest, briefly explained
Brazil was once a symbol of conservation. For much of the past two decades, the nation has protected indigenous lands, cracked down on illegal logging, and begun to monitor forest loss more carefully, leading to a precipitous decline in deforestation.
In 2004, the Amazon lost 28,000 square kilometers (about 7 million acres), but by 2012 that figure had fallen to just 4,600 square kilometers (1.1 million acres), according to the National Institute of Brazilian Space Research, known as INPE. Destruction remained relatively low over the following years.
Then, in 2019, Jair Bolsonaro came to power.
The right-wing leader has scrapped enforcement, cut spending for science and environmental agencies, fired environmental experts and pushed to weaken indigenous land rights, among other activities largely in support of the agribusiness industry. . (A Brazilian government official told Vox in September that he is fully committed to reducing deforestation in the Amazon and is working to that end.)
Between August 1, 2019 and July 31, 2021 – a period that largely overlaps Bolsonaro’s first three years in office – more than 34,000 km2 (8.4 million acres) disappeared from the Amazon, not counting the many losses caused by natural forest fires. This is a larger area than the whole of Belgium and an increase of 52% compared to the previous three years.
Today, about 17% of the Amazon rainforest is gone, according to a 2021 report. Scientists estimate that if that number reaches 20-25%, parts of the tropical ecosystem could dry up, further accelerating the loss of forests and threatening millions of people. and the animals that depend on it.
The largest rainforest on the planet, the Amazon is home to a truly remarkable assemblage of species, including 14% of the world’s birds and 18% of its vascular plants. Many of them are found nowhere else. The loss of organisms to deforestation erodes essential functions, including oxygen production and carbon storage, on which we all depend, and undermines scientific discovery. Many medicines are derived from Amazonian plants, but only a fraction of forest species have been studied.
A second chance for the Amazon under Lula
Icon of the left and leader of the Brazilian Workers’ Party, Lula has repeatedly pledged to protect the Amazon. Critically, Marina Silva, a prominent conservationist and former environment minister, backed him earlier this fall, helping Lula beat Bolsonaro. This made Lula the “greenest” candidate in this year’s race, according to Observatório do Clima, an environmental coalition in Brazil.
But the best indicator of Lula’s ability to quell deforestation is what he has done in the past, according to several conservationists. When he came to power in 2003, deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon was at its highest level in eight years, at more than 25,000 km2 (6.3 million acres). 2004 was even worse. “He inherited an environmental disaster,” Poirier said.
Then his administration – largely under Minister Silva – began to implement existing laws to protect the Amazon, including enforcing a law called the Forest Code and getting various government agencies to work together. to halt forest loss. As the chart above shows, deforestation dropped dramatically between 2004 and 2012, and Lula was in power for most of that time.
“Let’s go back to doing what we were doing,” Lula said in a radio interview in June. “We have to take care of the Amazon forest and people.”
Deforestation is unlikely to stop completely once Lula takes office. Bolsonaro’s party still dominates Congress and will likely continue to support the cattle industry, which is responsible for almost all forest loss in the Brazilian Amazon. The country is also facing an economic crisis and the fallout from mishandling the coronavirus pandemic, and it’s unclear how Lula will prioritize these competing crises. There is also a question of whether Bolsonaro will accept defeat.
Still, conservationists celebrated the victory.
“The nightmare must finally end,” the Observatório do Clima wrote in a statement on Sunday. “The president-elect is remarkably well placed to deliver the socio-environmental turnaround the country so badly needs.”