Cautious optimism lies ahead for the Brazilian Amazon

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. 

Expert comment
Published 31 October 2022 3 minute READ

Ana Toni

Executive Director, Instituto Clima e Sociedade

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.

Five of the nine states located in the Amazon region have elected state governors that are Bolsonaro supporters.

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.

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What Lula will be able to do is to implement existing regulations and reactivate the public agencies that were defunded under Bolsonaro. Lula will also be able to reinstate the role of environmental protection agencies, such as IBAMA and ICMBio, and public prosecutors – Ministerio Publico – to enforce these existing regulations. He may also be able to reverse multiple attempts at dismantling existing environmental laws currently being debated in Congress.

Based on the lessons from the past, the slowing of deforestation may not be immediate. There will be a lag between implementating regulations and curbing illegal activities on the ground. Moreover, environmental protection is an issue that is aggravated by the increase in other illicit activities in the region and will therefore need to be combined with the fight against narcotrafficking, illegal mining and the expansion of armed groups. However, what will be working in Lula’s favour is that there is also unprecedented support from the financial sector and the progressive private sector such as from the major Brazilian banks Itau and Santander.

Protecting the Brazilian Amazon and combating climate change is going to be central to Lula’s political agenda going forwards.

Protecting the Brazilian Amazon and combating climate change is going to be central to Lula’s political agenda going forwards. Looking ahead, Brazil will need to implement effective policies and legislation to stop deforestation in order to put the country back on track to deliver its commitments under the Paris Agreement which will mean working on alternative development pathways.

There are promising nature-based-solution projects and restoration initiatives with the backing from the private sector that could transform the country into a bioeconomy powerhouse in the future. But the only way forward will be if the government, private sector and civil society work together to build a country that helps all Brazilians while providing jobs and prosperity to the 30 million Amazonidas who live in the region. It will only be then that the Brazilian Amazon, and the global climate, will have a fighting chance of surviving.