The future of Brazil’s democracy as well as its environmental integrity was at stake in Brazil’s presidential election and, with the success of Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, supporters of climate change action in Brazil and around the world can take a temporary sigh of relief.
During Jair Bolsonaro’s four years in power, the rate of deforestation increased by 72 per cent, after key government agencies were defunded and their ability to enforce environmental protection regulations were eroded.
This contrasts with the eight years of Lula’s presidency, where the rate of deforestation systematically decreased by 70 per cent between 2004-12 as command-and-control policies and regulations were implemented, such as the blacklisting of municipalities with the highest illegal deforestation rates so that producers in these areas were not able to access rural credits.
In 2018, Bolsonaro was the first presidential candidate to put the Brazilian Amazon explicitly on a presidential campaign trail but it was not to protect the Amazon or its indigenous population. Instead, he explicitly rejected forest protection, promised not to expand indigenous territorial rights and threatened to take Brazil out of the Paris Agreement. Indeed, he was elected with 52 per cent of the vote with the help of seven out of nine states in the Amazon region.
In contrast, in 2022, all of the major presidential candidates – Simone Tebet, Ciro Gomes and Lula – adopted a strong environmental agenda. However, Bolsonaro did not prioritize the Brazilian Amazon this time around nor did he try to stoke polarization on indigenous people. Conversely, he adopted some climate promises as a result of pressure from some of his supporters from the agribusiness sector that depend on the export market. However, the environmental movement largely regarded these as empty promises being familiar with Bolsonaro’s tactics of decoupling between what he says abroad and what he delivers at home.
This presidential election also demonstrates how far climate change has become a key political issue in Brazil. Pre-election polling by Poder 360, for example, showed that there was an increase in public opinion saying that they would prefer to vote for a candidate that protects the Amazon and the environment. Indeed, for young people between 16 to 24 years old, protection of the Amazon was a key priority for how they would choose their presidential candidate this year.
This growth in interest, however, did not homogenously translate into votes in the Amazon region. Five of the nine states located in the region have elected state governors that are Bolsonaro supporters. Some of these states are located in the ‘Arc of Deforestation’ which is a region that is under constant pressure from deforestation for being at the forefront of the agriculture frontier.
Even though Lula has won the presidential election, and will broadly have the support of the Brazilian public over implementing an environmental agenda, he will still face a Congress and Senate that is leaning to the right. Bolsonaro’s party was the most voted party both in the Congress and the Senate with the support of other right-wing parties achieving the majority of the seats. In this vein, it is likely that the incoming president will face difficulty in passing new progressive environmental regulations or demarcating new land for indigenous people.