The presidential election in Brazil means more than the future of the country. The Amazon and the fight against climate change could depend on it.
The Itaquai River snakes through the upper Amazon basin. (AP Photo/Edmar Barros)
As Brazilians cast their votes in a polarizing election last Sunday, fires burning the Amazon rainforest at the fastest pace in a decade underlined why the result matters to us all.
The outcome is still hanging in the balance after a surprisingly close first round of the presidential election. Voters for right-wing incumbent Jair Bolsonaro came out in stronger numbers than polls had predicted, deflating leftist hopes that former president Luiz Ignacio Lula da Silva could score an outright win and complete a remarkable political resurrection.
The race now goes to a tense run-off vote on October 30 between two politicians who offer starkly different paths forward for the world’s fourth-largest democracy and its largest rainforest.
Former soldier Bolsonaro — labeled the “Tropical Trump” — showed in the first round that his right-wing, Christian evangelical-influenced movement is here to stay, despite intense criticism of his performance and policies since his underdog victory in 2018. He has framed himself as God’s standard-bearer, stoking Brazil’s culture wars and dismantling environment protections to the approval of his pro-agribusiness allies.
Lula, a former metalworker who became Brazil’s first working-class president in 2002, is vying to add another chapter to one of the world’s most remarkable political biographies. The gruff, charismatic 76-year-old was sitting in a jail cell only three years ago after being convicted on corruption charges that have since been quashed.
Lulu ended his two-term presidency in 2010 riding an economic boom with approval ratings of over 80%, having moved to the political center. Lula is favorite to win the second round, but it will be a tough, acrimonious race that could strain Brazil’s democracy.
Brazil’s election matters for the world.
A win for Lula would allow Brazil, a vast country of over 200 million people, to rebuild the global diplomatic ties and influence that frayed under Bolsonaro. A peaceful transition of power — after Bolsonaro repeatedly cast doubt on the integrity of the vote and raised the specter of military intervention — would underpin the resilience of Brazil’s democratic institutions, 37 years after it emerged from dictatorship.
But it’s the fires in the Amazon that represent the most urgent reason why Brazil’s election matters globally.
The forest’s 390 billion trees absorb about a quarter of the carbon dioxide the earth takes in from the atmosphere, performing a crucial role in regulating the climate. Yet decades of deforestation in the vast, often lawless region have brought the ecosystem close to a tipping point, undermining its carbon-sink capabilities and threatening to make it a contributor to the perilous rise in global temperatures. Brazil is already the sixth-largest emitter of greenhouse gasses.
Bolsonaro has outraged environmentalists by slashing funding for agencies that monitor the forest and enforce laws against illegal deforestation. Growing impunity for loggers, miners and farmers has led to a more than 50% increase in deforestation in the past three years compared to the prior three.
In contrast, Lula has pledged to seek “net zero” deforestation, aiming to clamp down on illegal burning while generating jobs through forest restoration efforts. The former shoeshine boy and union leader has pledged to return Brazil to a position of global leadership on climate, and he can point to a big reduction of deforestation during his presidency.
Conservation versus “Beef, Bible and Bullets”
His actual record on the environment is more nuanced. In the latter years of Lula’s presidency, annual deforestation was as high as it is now, and he was far from being seen as an Amazon defender, having split with environmentalist allies and approved big development projects in the region. He railed against foreign critics of his stewardship of the forest, saying they should keep their noses out of Brazil’s business.
That raises the question of how much of Lula’s new Amazon policy is rhetoric aimed at winning votes and how much he will implement once in office, especially given the pressure he faces to grow Brazil’s struggling economy. Deforestation has traditionally risen and fallen in line with the prices of commodities like soy and beef, of which Brazil is the world’s largest exporter.
The strong performance of Bolsonaro allies in congressional and state governor races on Sunday ensures that a Lula government would face stiff opposition to its policy efforts.
Many states in the Amazon region are controlled by right-wing governors and political parties that favor agriculture expansion over conservation, a group known as the “Beef, Bible and Bullets” caucus. And the sheer size of the Brazilian portion of the Amazon — an area bigger than India — means it remains an extremely difficult region to monitor and police
Still, environmentalists see the October 30 result as having a massive bearing on the Amazon’s future and its very existence.
Brazil nears a tipping point.
Stela Herschmann, a climate policy specialist at the Brazilian Climate Observatory, noted that climate change is now a far more urgent issue than it was during Lula’s first presidency and that action on that front would be crucial to his goal of restoring Brazil’s international standing.
“You could summarize this election as: ‘Do you want the Amazon, or do you want Bolsonaro?’” she told News Decoder.
An analysis by climate experts for the Carbon Brief site found that a win for Lula — assuming he follows through on his policy pledges — could, by 2030, avoid more than 75,000 square km of Amazon loss, an area the size of Panama.
By contrast, a report by Brazil’s Clima & Desenvolvimento (Climate and Development) group found that a continuance of Bolsonaro policies would see Brazil surpass its greenhouse gas emissions target by 137% by 2030 and lead to a quarter of the Amazon being destroyed — compared to around 17% now, pushing the ecosystem to an irreversible tipping point.
Herschmann said the first 100 days of a new Lula administration — which encompass the next United Nations Climate Conference in Egypt — would be crucial. She said that the government would at a minimum need to significantly increase funding for Amazon protection, expel miners who have invaded indigenous areas and move forward with concrete steps on its net zero deforestation plan.
Questions to consider:
- Why are the forces of development and conservation of the Amazon and other forests usually in conflict? How could that change?
- How can other countries and groups support the conservation of the Amazon while respecting the right of Brazil to develop its economy and control its territory?
- What other major “carbon sinks” exist, and how are they under threat from human activity?
Stuart Grudgings reported from dozens of countries in a 19-year career with Reuters. As Malaysia bureau chief, he contributed to a Pulitzer Prize-winning series of stories on the plight of Myanmar’s Rohingya Muslims.