Saving the rainforest: the pledge of Brazil’s new president

Lula faces “an uphill battle” in his pledge to reverse and eventually end deforestation in the Amazon

Lula with environmentalist Marina Silva during the Brazilian election
Lula with environmental activist Marina Silva
(Image credit: Alexandre Schneider/Getty Images)

The Amazon is far and away the world’s most important rainforest, said Karl Mathiesen on Politico (Brussels). A huge carbon sink, it is key to tackling climate change. Yet this was of scant concern to Brazil’s former president, Jair Bolsonaro: he stripped back enforcement of forest protections, attacked indigenous landowners and encouraged industry. During his term, there was a 60% surge in deforestation compared with the previous four years.

Thankfully, all that may change under Brazil’s new president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, who was sworn in for a third term on 1 January. Pledging to reverse and eventually end the deforestation, he has already secured promises from Norway and Germany to unfreeze contributions to the multibillion-dollar Amazon Fund, which they had frozen during Bolsonaro’s presidency. And he has named Marina Silva – a high-profile Amazon activist who served under Lula in his first term – as his environment and climate change minister.

‘Violent criminal networks’

The challenge facing Silva is even more daunting than it was when she first took up the post 20 years ago, said Folha de S.Paulo. In point of fact, the scale of deforestation is actually smaller than it was then: some 11,500sq km of the Amazon were destroyed in the 12 months to July last year, but in 2004 the figure was 27,700.

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However, back then the main problem was how to prevent ruthless pioneers from bribing officials and forging deeds in order to claim the land and clear the forest: federal agents and the use of satellite data went a long way to tackling that problem. It’s quite different today. Now officials have to contend with the violent criminal networks that flourished under Bolsonaro’s regime. These networks thrive by flooding international markets – notably China – with soy, beef, leather and other products cultivated on cleared rainforest land.

‘An uphill battle’

Lula should be applauded for his resolve to safeguard the forest, said Heriberto Araujo in The New York Times. But he faces “an uphill battle”. Many of those living in the nine states that make up the Brazilian Amazon see the destruction of the forest as a prerequisite for economic prosperity. It’s no accident that in the recent election Bolsonaro won the popular vote in the majority of those states. And since agribusiness is such a major force in Brazil, there is a fear that Lula’s green agenda will hinder economic growth.

Lula deserves a fair chance to prove he can become a climate protector, said Tobias Käufer in Die Welt. But we need to tone down the euphoria at his return to office: “the expectations projected onto Lula are almost unfulfillable”.

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