Bolsonaro or Lula? The future of Brazil - and possibly the world - is on the precipice of major change this Sunday.
For the past three years, far-right Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro has governed the country under an environmental iron fist. The Amazon rainforest, one of the world’s biggest climate stabilisers, has been under attack, metaphorically and physically.
Now with the country on the edge of ousting Bolsonaro for left-wing Lula, could a regeneration of the rainforest be on the cards? And what needs to be done to reverse his damage to the climate? NationalWorld spoke to Friends of the Earth Brazil President Lúcia Ortiz about the devastation the president has caused, and what the rainforest needs to endure in the future.
How has Bolsonaro affected the Amazon rainforest?
The decimation of the rainforest was signalled early in Bolsonaro’s term. This included the early cutting of budget to departments dedicated to saving the rainforest.
Ms Ortiz said: “Bolsonaro has significantly cut the budget of the Ministry of Environment and its institutions for biodiversity protection (Instituto Chico Mendes) and environmental control (Brazilian Institute of the Environment and Renewable Natural Resources).
“The Amazon forest has turned into a land without law; where illegal loggers, miners, land grabbers and drug dealers can operate in total impunity, and where farmers are armed and allowed to create private militias to intimidate, threaten and persecute small rural settlements, indigenous peoples, territories of traditional communities and environmental defenders.”
This unlawfulness seen in the Amazon rainforest has had dire effects. Bolsonaro, who has been in power since January 2019, has overseen a huge shrinkage of woodland in the area.
“An area equivalent to the size of the city of São Paulo was deforested in the Amazon only in July 2022,” she said. “Estimates indicate that the annual deforestation rate will be the highest since 2006.”
Ms Ortiz explained that in the months of July - from 2020 to 2022 - the Bolsonaro regime felled 4,600 sq km of forest - almost triple the amount compared with the previous government over a comparable time period.
What did Bolsonaro promise at COP26?
COP26 was one of the biggest meetings of world leaders to discuss global climate issues. With the Amazon rainforest and deforestation in Brazil, all eyes were on President Bolsonaro as he descended on Glasgow to make climate pledges.
At the conference, Brazil pledged to reach net zero emissions by 2025, while also promising to eliminate illegal deforestation by 2030. However, these promises have appeared to be sidelined.
Ms Ortiz said: “Bolsonaro has done everything and worse than he announced on his campaign for presidency in 2018 regarding climate, environmental issues, indigenous peoples and social movements that protect and defend forests and biodiversity, so his lack of commitment to anything said on the COP shouldn’t be a surprise.
“After presenting false promises at COP26 in Glasgow, the Brazilian emissions kept the growing trend due to Amazon deforestation, mining and agribusiness expansion and liberation of new pesticides. The plan that indeed started to be implemented was the sellout of conservation units and privatisation of parks, offering public money from The Brazilian Development Bank (BNDES) for private sectors interested in concessions to explore those areas.”
What needs to change to save the rainforest?
The future of the rainforest and the indigenous rests heavily on the outcome of the presidential election. While Bolsonaro has overseen a wipe-out of large areas of the rainforest while in power, his opponent in the election is left-wing candidate Lula.
Lula is campaigning on the promise of reversing Bolsonaro’s decimation of the rainforest. This includes planning to hold a summit of Amazon rainforest nations to discuss what can be done to save the vital jungle.
“Lula has to have respect for all human rights and the rights of the peoples, that defend, protect, live with nature and have been residing for centuries - such as Indigenous and Quilombola Peoples - and have developed practices and economies,” explains Ms Ortiz
She adds that “those basic rights which have been eroded along with civil and political rights during a fascist regime” also needs to be reversed if Lula is to become the Brazilian president. Alongside this, the prospective president must take part in “transparent participation” to rebuild the environmental policies which Bolsonaro has scaled back on since 2019.
The race for the presidency in Brazil is expected to be closely fought, with Lula having a narrow 48% majority from the first round of voting. The future of the rainforest, and in turn, the climate situation for the entire world hangs in the balance.