Brazilian campaigners fighting to protect the Amazon have largely celebrated Lula da Silva’s presidential election victory over President Jair Bolsonaro as a lifeline for a rainforest exploited with impunity under the current leader. Lula took 50.9% of the second-round vote to Bolsonaro’s 49.1%, according to the country’s election authority, marking a remarkable comeback that could be big not just for Brazil, but for the entire planet.
Brazil is home to a large part of the Amazon rainforest, which is one of the most biodiverse regions on earth. The Amazonian rainforest contains more than 3 million animal and plant species and plays an important role in regulating global climate. This makes the Amazon rainforest extremely important not just for Brazil, but for the entire world — which is why this year’s elections were so important.
It was a big comeback for Lula da Silva. After serving two terms as president, between 2003 and 2011, Lula went to jail for corruption, though he was later freed by a Supreme Court ruling. Bolsonaro, meanwhile, is the first Brazilian president to lose reelection of the country’s modern democracy. The results are also a big moment for Amazon.
Under Bolsonaro, deforestation surged, threatening wildlife, indigenous communities, and the global climate — and Bolsonaro showed no signs of slowing down deforestation. Meanwhile, Lula has promised to reverse this. “Let’s fight for zero deforestation,” Lula said after his victory. Brazil will resume “its leading role” in tackling the climate crisis by protecting all its biomes, including the Amazon, he said.
Few issues have higher global stakes than protecting the Amazon. Deforestation not only affects a critical carbon sink, which helps suck greenhouse gas emissions out of the atmosphere but also fuels climate change. Destroying the rainforest could also trigger a runway reaction that turns some regions into a savanna-like ecosystem.
A legacy to forget
For much of the past two decades, Brazil was seen as a poster child for conservation. It protected indigenous lands, began monitoring forests more carefully, and reduced deforestation. In 2004, the Amazon lost 28,000 square kilometers, but by 2012, that figure had fallen to 4,600 square kilometers, according to official government data.
Then came Bolsonaro.
The right-wing leader cut spending for environmental agencies pushed to weaken indigenous land rights and stripped enforcement measures. Between August 2019 and July 2021, over 34,000 square kilometers disappeared from the Amazon, not including the losses from the many forest fires.
About 17% of the Amazon rainforest is already gone, according to a 2021 report. If the number reaches 20% to 25%, scientists believe that parts of the ecosystem could dry out. The Amazon hosts a big mix of species, including 14% of the world’s birds and 18% of its vascular plants. Losing them to deforestation erodes the essential roles of the forest.
Lula has repeatedly pledged to protect the Amazon during his presidential campaign. Marina Silva, a former environmental minister, and well-known environmental advocate, endorsed him earlier this fall. Observatório do Clima, an environmental coalition in Brazil, said Lula was the “greenest” candidate in this year’s elections.
A study conducted for Carbon Brief found that the loss of Bolsonaro could lead to Amazon deforestation in Brazil falling by 89% over the next decade, avoiding over 75,000 squared kilometers of rainforest loss by 2030. The analysis models the implementation of Brazil’s Forest Code for reducing deforestation in the Amazon.
However, this won’t be straightforward. Bolsonaro’s party still dominates the Congress and will likely continue supporting the agribusiness sector, which is largely behind deforestation in the Amazon. The country is also dealing with an economic crisis and fallout from the coronavirus pandemic. And there’s the question of whether Bolsonaro will accept defeat.
“The socio-environmental and climate agenda is one of the places where Lula will need to act fast and firmly. Stopping the slaughter of indigenous peoples and the devastation of the Amazon will require countering powerful gangs and, very often, the interests of allies and supporters in local governments and the Parliament,” Observatório do Clima wrote.