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The future of the Amazon rainforest rests on Brazil’s presidential run-off

Victory for Jair Bolsonaro, who is closing the gap on Lula, would almost certainly accelerate the rate of deforestation.

By Ido Vock

Who will become Brazilian president in the election run-off round on 30 October? It is between Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva – universally known as Lula – a former union leader who headed the country between 2003 and 2010, and Jair Bolsonaro, the far-right incumbent who has been in power since 2019 and is an open admirer of Brazil’s former military dictatorship. Perhaps more importantly, what will happen after we learn the results, which Bolsonaro has heavily hinted he will not accept if he loses?

The first round of the election, held on 2 October, dashed Lula’s hopes of an outright win: he took 48 per cent of the vote to Bolsonaro’s 43, a significant dip for the former compared with pre-election polls. The race has narrowed considerably in the three weeks since, with analysis by the Economist putting Lula’s average poll lead at just 52 per cent to Bolsonaro’s 48 per cent.

Lula has heavily criticised Bolsonaro’s handling of the Covid-19 pandemic, during which the president downplayed coronavirus, comparing it to “a little flu,” opposed mask wearing and spread misinformation about vaccines. Brazil’s official death toll from the disease stands at around 680,000, one of the highest figures in the world. “Never before in history was there a government that fooled around with a pandemic or with death as you did,” Lula told Bolsonaro during a TV debate on 17 October.

The divide with the highest stakes is over the Amazon rainforest, which covers swathes of Brazil. Under Bolsonaro’s rule deforestation has accelerated (after drastically falling while Lula was in power), according to Brazil’s National Institute for Space Research. Bolsonaro has weakened enforcement of environmental laws and encouraged “land grabbing”, the piecemeal deforestation of rainforest by handing parcels of territory to private owners.

Deforestation in the Amazon is an environmental disaster, both for its biodiversity and global climate change. The Amazon was one of the world’s largest carbon sinks but is now believed to be emitting more carbon dioxide than it absorbs, even without the fires – many deliberately set to clear land for cattle and soy farming – that ravage the rainforest. Brazil is now the world’s sixth-largest emitter of CO2.

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If elected, Lula would certainly move to strengthen protections for the Amazon, while a Bolsonaro victory would likely lead to further concessions for agribusiness, to the environment’s detriment. Attacks on the rights of the Amazon’s indigenous people – which, as the author Andrew Downie wrote in last week’s New Statesman, have stepped up under Bolsonaro – would also be weakened.

Considerable uncertainty about what will happen after the election remains. Bolsonaro has promised not to accept a result that shows he lost, deliberately casting doubt on the integrity of the voting system. A Lula win by a few percentage points could be challenged by Bolsonaro, opening up the possibility of a severe test of Brazil’s democracy and the potential for constitutional crisis. It would be an echo of the former US president Donald Trump’s attempt to cling on to power in early 2021 – but under institutions that, it is feared, are considerably weaker.

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[See also: Letter from Brazil: the rainforest fights back]

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