Environment
Associated Press

Brazil's new president works to reverse Amazon deforestation

Mon, Jan 23
Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva stands next to Indigenous leader Cacique Raoni.

Brazil's newly inaugurated President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva is seeking to fulfil campaign pledges he made to them on a wide range of issues, from expanding Indigenous territories to halting a surge in illegal deforestation.


Environmentalists, Indigenous people and voters sympathetic to their causes were important to Lula's narrow victory over former President Jair Bolsonaro. Now Lula is seeking to fulfil campaign pledges he made to them on a wide range of issues, from expanding Indigenous territories to halting a surge in illegal deforestation.

To carry out these goals, Lula is appointing well-known environmentalists and Indigenous people to key positions at Funai and other agencies that Bolsonaro had filled with allies of agribusiness and military officers.

In Lula's previous two terms as president, he had a mixed record on environmental and Indigenous issues. And he is certain to face obstacles from pro-Bolsonaro state governors who still control swaths of the Amazon. But experts say Lula is taking the right first steps.

The federal officials Lula has already named to key posts "have the national and international prestige to reverse all the environmental destruction that we have suffered over these four years of the Bolsonaro government," said George Porto Ferreira, an analyst at Ibama, Brazil's environmental law-enforcement agency.

Bolsonaro's supporters, meanwhile, fear that Lula's promise of stronger environmental protections will hurt the economy by reducing the amount of land open for development, and punish people for activities that had previously been allowed.

A section of Amazon rainforest stands next to soy fields in Belterra, Para state.

Some supporters with ties to agribusiness have been accused of providing financial and logistical assistance to rioters who earlier this month stormed Brazil's presidential palace, Congress and Supreme Court.

When Bolsonaro was president, he defanged Funai and other agencies responsible for environmental oversight. This enabled deforestation to soar to its highest level since 2006, as developers and miners who took land from Indigenous people faced few consequences.

Between 2019 and 2022, the number of fines handed out for illegal activities in the Amazon declined by 38% compared with the previous four years, according an analysis of Brazilian government data by the Climate Observatory, a network of environmental nonprofit groups.

One of the strongest signs yet of Lula's intentions to reverse these trends was his decision to return Marina Silva to lead the country's environmental ministry. Silva formerly held the job between 2003 and 2008, a period when deforestation declined by 53%. A former rubber-tapper from Acre state, Silva resigned after clashing with government and agribusiness leaders over environmental policies she deemed to be too lenient.

Silva strikes a strong contrast with Bolsonaro's first environment minister, Ricardo Salles, who had never set foot in the Amazon when he took office in 2019 and resigned two years later following allegations that he had facilitated the export of illegally felled timber.

Lula has also signed a decree to rejuvenate a significant international effort to preserve the rainforest, revoked a Bolsonaro decree that allowed mining in Indigenous and environmental protection areas, and created a Ministry of Indigenous Peoples, which will oversee everything from land boundaries to education.

Indigenous leader Sonia Guajajara.

This ministry will be led by Sônia Guajajara, the country's first Indigenous woman in such a high government post.

"It won't be easy to overcome 504 years in only four years. But we are willing to use this moment to promote a take-back of Brazil's spiritual force," Guajajara said during her induction ceremony, which was delayed by the damage pro-Bolsonaro rioters caused to the presidential palace.

The Amazon rainforest, which covers an area twice the size of India, acts as a buffer against climate change by absorbing large amounts of carbon dioxide. But Bolsonaro viewed management of the Amazon as an internal affair, causing Brazil's global reputation to take a hit. Lula is trying to undo that damage.

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