Brazil’s upcoming elections will decide the fate of the Amazon rainforest, environmentalists have warned, as the country appears poised to choose between re-electing current President Jair Bolsonaro or his rival and former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva.
Since Bolsonaro took office in 2019, deforestation records have been broken several times as his administration pursued a policy of environmental deregulation. Now, ahead of the Oct. 2 poll, the Amazon is under increasing threat as land grabbers exploit what could be their last opportunity to clear trees without retaliation, says Philippe Fearnside at the National Amazon Research Institute.
The number of fires in the Brazilian Amazon typically increases in June, when ranchers take advantage of a drop in rainfall to clear land. But even for the dry season, the level of fires in the Amazon this year has shocked conservationists: 31,513 fires have been detected by Brazil’s national space agency in August, the highest number in 12 years and nearly half the number seen in 2018.
“People realize they can get away with ignoring all the current environmental regulations under Bolsonaro, but the end of his first term is approaching and many believe he may not be re-elected,” Fearnside says.
Issues such as soaring inflation and hunger levels are high on the political agenda, but the vote is also a referendum on the future of the Amazon, researchers say.
“I don’t say this lightly as a scientist, but this is the most important election ever held in Brazil for the Amazon and its survival,” says Erika Berenguer at Oxford University.
The amount of forest lost in the Amazon is now 74.65% higher than when Bolsonaro took office, with 13,000 hectares cleared in 2021 alone, the highest annual figure since 2008.
This deforestation has pushed the Amazon to a tipping point, let’s say ecologists. Unless this is stopped, the rainforest will no longer be able to store enough moisture to sustain itself and will become a savannah.
Experts blame Bolsonaro for the destruction. The president has removed environmental regulations, appointed military officials seeking to develop the Amazon to lead environmental institutions, and publicly encouraged colonization of the forest. “The Bolsonaro administration has been a complete disaster for the environment,” says Fearnside.
Bolsonaro’s main opponent, Lula, was president from 2003 to 2010 and leads the latest polls with 41% against 37% for Bolsonaro. To win in the first round and avoid a second round ballot, scheduled for October 30, a candidate must collect 50% of the vote.
Former Ceará state governor Ciro Gomes and Senator Simone Tebet are also in the presidential race, but are underdogs, polling 8% and 6% respectively.
Lula says he will reverse environmental damage by dissolving many of Bolsonaro’s decrees, appointing experts to environmental agencies and purging indigenous reserves of illegal miners.
The former president also proposed more ambitious measures, such as the creation of a carbon pricing system, a ministry dedicated to indigenous peoples and a National Climate Change Authority ensure that Brazil’s policies are consistent with the objectives of the Paris Agreement.
Conservationists have raised concerns about mega-dams built when Lula was in power, but the former union leader has a strong record when it comes to defending the Amazon: deforestation plunged 72% between 2004 and 2016, when Lula and then Dilma Rousseff – his successor, both leader of the Workers’ Party and president – were in power.
Lula’s administration has made Amazon conservation a central goal for all ministries, says Suely Araújo of the São Paulo Climate Observatory. In addition to stepping up forest monitoring, they have sought to tackle the causes of deforestation by promoting sustainable production and formalizing land ownership.
The task would be more complicated this time. Growing mining communities depend on the illicit gold they mine from indigenous reserves, new roads have been built and parts of the Amazon have gone anarchic.
If elected, Lula’s strategy will have to be more ambitious this time around, said Izabella Teixeira, the candidate’s environmental adviser and Brazilian environment minister from 2010 to 2016.
In addition to military operations to rid the Amazon of illegal miners, loggers and ranchers, the government must better regulate food and gold markets, encourage sustainable production and use technology to make agriculture more sustainable, she says.
“I think Lula is very careful to understand that this is a huge challenge and completely different from what it was in the past,” Teixeira says.
Lula would bring the government together with the private sector, scientists and civil society to tackle the root causes of deforestation, Teixeira adds. It would also seek to restore international relationships and funding for conservation that were lost under Bolsonaro, making Brazil a global leader in the fight against climate change, she says.
Meanwhile, Bolosonaro has played down increasing deforestation. He say it United Nations General Assembly in New York on September 20 that the Amazon is as intact today as it was in the 1500s. His office did not respond to a request for comment.
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