Lula victory spurs hope for Amazon, fight against climate crisis

Brazil’s president-elect promises to boost protection of Amazon rainforest after surge in deforestation under Bolsonaro.

Lula da Silva
Brazil's president-elect, Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, could face tough political opposition in areas where Amazon deforestation is happening [Mariana Greif/Reuters]

Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva’s presidential election victory in Brazil has spurred renewed hope for the future of the world’s largest rainforest as the left-wing leader pledged to combat climate change and reverse some of his predecessor Jair Bolsonaro’s policies.

“Brazil is ready to resume its leading role in the fight against the climate crisis,” especially by protecting the Amazon, Lula said shortly after being declared the winner on Sunday evening.

“In our government, we were able to reduce deforestation in the Amazon by 80 percent. Now, let’s fight for zero deforestation,” Lula, who previously served as president from 2003 to 2010, wrote on Twitter.

Brazil’s president-elect campaigned on a promise to protect the Amazon, which is critical to the global fight against climate change and has seen years of increased destruction under Bolsonaro’s administration.

The far-right former army captain had pushed for more mining and other development projects in the Amazon, saying they would stimulate the economy.

But rights groups accused Bolsonaro of gutting Brazil’s environmental and Indigenous protection agencies, leading to an uptick in deforestation and violence across the sprawling Amazon region.

Greenpeace Brazil on Monday called on Lula to follow through on his campaign promises, including rebuilding the government agencies tasked with protecting the environment – a measure it called “urgent”.

Human Rights Watch also urged Lula to put human rights at the centre of his policies. It called on him to strengthen “law enforcement to fight the destruction of the Amazon and threats and attacks against forest defenders”.

Indigenous leaders for years have raised alarm over the threats their communities face in the South American nation, particularly in areas with little government oversight that farmers, miners and poachers are seeking to control and exploit.

Brazil is home to more than 800,000 Indigenous people from over 300 distinct groups, according to data from the last census in 2010 cited by the Articulation of Indigenous Peoples of Brazil rights group.

The Indigenous Missionary Council recorded 305 cases of “invasions, illegal exploitation of resources and damage to property” on Indigenous territories last year that affecteded 226 Indigenous lands in 22 Brazilian states. That was up from 109 such incidents in 2018, the year before Bolsonaro took office – a 180 percent increase.

Andrea Carvalho, a senior research assistant at Human Rights Watch in Brazil, told Al Jazeera in September that the escalation of attacks on Indigenous people and their lands “is driven by disastrous policies related to the protection of the environment and Indigenous rights”.

Carbon Brief, a UK-based climate website, said in a report last month that a Lula election victory could see deforestation drop by 89 percent in the Brazilian Amazon over the next decade and would prevent the destruction of 75,960sq km (29,328sq miles) of rainforest by 2030.

Still, Lula could face tough political opposition in areas where Amazon deforestation is happening, and he also must deal with the difficulty of policing such vast, often remote areas.

Bolsonaro was backed by major business interests, including loggers, miners and other groups exploiting Brazil’s natural resources.

“Agribusiness has been clearly adopting an anti-Lula stance,” Roberto Ramos, a social sciences professor at Roraima Federal University, told the Reuters news agency.

On Monday, truckers and other protesters blocked highways in several Brazilian states in an apparent protest against Bolsonaro’s election defeat.

Burning tyres, trucks and cars blocked several points in the west-central farm state of Mato Grosso, which largely supports Bolsonaro, a company that manages a highway in the state said.

Road blockages were also seen in at least five other states, including Rio de Janeiro and Sao Paulo, according to local media.

Oliver Stuenkel, a professor of international relations, told Al Jazeera that Lula – who won by a razor-thin margin of 50.9 percent support to Bolsonaro’s 49.1 percent on Sunday – will need to work hard on reconciliation given how polarised Brazil has become.

“Basically 50 percent of Brazilians are very afraid of his return to power. This is a very polarised country, it’s a frustrated country,” said Stuenkel, from the Fundacao Getulio Vargas in Sao Paulo. “I think it’s a volatile moment now, and Lula will have to choose his words very carefully.”

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies