In recent years tragedy has played out in the Amazon rainforest. After more than a decade of declining or stable deforestation rates in the Brazilian Amazon, the past four years under the country’s right-wing president, Jair Bolsonaro, has brought a dramatic year-on-year increase of cleared, forested land.
The latest data shows that 3,988 square kilometres of the Brazilian Amazon – an area two and a half times the size of Greater London – was lost in the first six months of 2022 alone. The massive pasture requirement of the Brazilian beef industry is by far the main driver of the country’s deforestation, followed by soybean and animal feed production.
Rampant deforestation has turned Brazil into the sixth-largest emitter of carbon dioxide. And last year, scientists from Brazil’s National Institute for Space Research were able to confirm that the Amazon rainforest is now a net emitter of emissions. This is largely a result of forest fires – many of which are started deliberately to clear land for agriculture – now producing more carbon than the remaining trees absorb each year.
Throughout his four years in office, Bolsonaro has weakened existing environmental protections, scaled back efforts to reduce illegal logging, and allowed big mining and agricultural companies to operate in the region without restrictions. An estimated 90,000 kilometres of illegal roads are now believed to exist across the Brazilian Amazon, while reports of land conflicts and invasions of indigenous territories have surged. Many of those who have opposed the land grab – including the journalists Bruno Pereira and Dom Phillips, as well as innumerable indigenous activists – have died as a result.
“Climate action has been non-existent in Brazil under Bolsonaro,” said Ana Toni, executive director of the Brazil-based non-profit Instituto Clima e Sociedade. “Instead of putting an end to deforestation, Bolsonaro has incentivised people to deforest, both legally and illegally. Emissions from Brazil increased in 2019, 2020 and 2021 as the Amazon burned. And there has been no programme of reforestation introduced.”
The presidential election in Brazil could determine whether the entire ecosystem can survive. “If Bolsonaro wins,” explained Ane Alencar, from the non-profit IPAM Amazônia, “we will see the criminal gangs that control the Amazon region consolidate their grip, and it will become hard to ever impose good governance on the region again.”
The former president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva won fractionally more of the vote in the first round and so heads in to the run-offs with an advantage. This would be good news for the Amazon: under Lula’s previous presidency, in 2003-10, satellite data shows deforestation declined by three quarters. Lula has pledged on the campaign trail to create a ministry for native peoples and to rebuild the country’s decimated environment agency. He has also vowed to clamp down on illegal mining prospectors in the region, and said he would be willing to accept international help in protecting the forest – something Bolsonaro vehemently opposes.
According to Thiago Kanashiro Uehara, a research fellow at the think tank Chatham House, “If Lula is elected, one can expect a return of relatively successful environmental and social policies created in the 2000s, that have been weakened since the early 2010s.”
Yet such a dramatic shift in policy will not be easy. “When Lula was first in power,” said Alencar, “there were certainly illegal activities taking place in the Amazon. But we did not have the same level of organised crime as we have [now], which will be very hard to disentangle.”
Cláudio Ângelo, from the Brazil-based Climate Observatory, said, “Armed criminal organisations in the Amazon have spent the last four years feeling free to do whatever they like. State representatives and local politicians all have ties with environmental crime. Lula is going to need public pressure and international support to essentially take back control of a region that makes up 60 per cent of the country.”
But if Lula wins the election, and is able to reimpose environmental regulations, then the gains could be substantial. An estimated 75,000 sq km could be saved in the Amazon by the end of the decade – equivalent to the size of the Republic of Ireland – according to research carried out by scientists at the University of Oxford, the International Institute for Applied System Analysis, and the National Institute for Space Research on behalf of the environmental publication Carbon Brief.
The research is based on whether or not Brazil’s leader would enforce the Forest Code, a 1965 law that requires landowners to designate a certain share of their property to forestry. It is Brazil’s main anti-deforestation law, but it has been poorly enforced under Bolsonaro.
The environmental benefits of a new Lula presidency would also stretch beyond the Amazon. Until Bolsonaro took office in 2019, Brazil was a front-runner in environmental diplomacy and climate policy. The international convention on climate change that resulted in the UN’s annual Conference of Party (Cop) meetings was born in Rio de Janeiro in 1992. Brazil is also the largest economy and the largest consumer of energy in South America; what happens in the country is significant to the entire region.
Lula would likely return Brazil to a pivotal spot at the climate diplomacy table. “Brazil is awash with brilliant civil servants and diplomats eager to once again make the country a powerhouse in environmental diplomacy,” said Uehara. “Having the powerful middle income nation of Brazil pushing for greater and more equitable climate action will be good news for all countries in the Global South.”
[See also: Lula vs Bolsonaro: Everything you need to know about Brazil’s 2022 presidential election]