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The New Lula Government Faces Significant Challenges on the Road to Zero-Deforestation

08 Mar 2023
By Dr Kathryn Baragwanath
Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva - World Economic Forum Annual Meeting Davos 2007. Source: WEF/

Brazil’s president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva was once a champion for protecting the Amazon forests. His first actions back office show that this environmentalism remains a contemporary feature, however the challenges this time around are starker and the opposition forces meaner. 

The dawn of the new year brought a sense of hope for environmentalists as President Lula took office on 1 January 2023. Deforestation had been surging in the Amazon under the government of Jair Bolsonaro. With a marked change in rhetoric, Lula has pledged to preserve the Amazon rainforests, uphold the rights of indigenous peoples, and turn Brazil into a “green superpower.” However, he will face significant challenges in achieving these goals, including a conservative congress, a sluggish economic outlook, vested interests in the Amazon – some of which are linked to entrenched criminal networks – and a weak and under-funded environmental agency.

Deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon

The Amazon rainforest accounts for half of the remaining tropical forests on our planet and is an important source of carbon storage and biodiversity. Importantly, therefore, it has a major influence on the world’s climate and hydrological cycles. Preserving the Amazon is crucial in the fight against climate change. Around 60 percent of the rainforests are located within Brazil, meaning that such contrasting political shifts in the country can have an enormous impact on the world’s climate.

For the last four years (2018-2022), Brazil was ruled by an explicitly anti-environmental, anti-indigenous government. Under Bolsonaro, numerous laws and decrees limited environmental oversight, cut environmental agency budgets, provided amnesty for land grabbers, allowed extractive activities on protected indigenous territories, and relaxed environmental licensing requirements. Environmental institutions, such as the Brazilian Institute of Environment and Renewable Natural Resources (IBAMA), the National Institute for Space Research (INPE) and National Indigenous People Foundation (FUNAI), were defunded or dismantled, and there was a general sense of impunity for environmental offenses.

This led to a surge in deforestation, an increase in land related violence, and a pause in much needed international support. Between 2018 and 2022, an area of 45,300 square kilometres, approximately three and a half times the size of Sydney, was deforested. In 2022, deforestation reached its highest level since 2004. Scientists now worry that the Amazon might be nearing a tipping point, whereupon the dense rainforest will no longer regenerate, and the landscape changes from a dense closed canopy rainforest to an open savannah.

Lula’s Election: Reasons for Hope

Under these circumstances, Lula’s election victory marked an urgent and critical moment for the world’s climate and the future of the Amazon. In his victory speech, the new president promised a strong commitment to the environment, even referring to a zero-deforestation target.

While Lula has a generally mixed environmental track record, he did preside over a period of reduced deforestation. Led by Marina Silva, his Minister for the Environment, deforestation was reduced by more than 80 percent between 2004 and 2012. Important environmental policies enacted during Lula’s first terms in office included the use of remote sensing for real time monitoring of the Amazon, an expansion of protected areas and indigenous territories, and a strategic focus on high deforestation municipalities for monitoring and enforcement. Lessons learned from the 2004-2012 period will be invaluable in the fight to reduce contemporary deforestation.

In a clear signal that he is committed to following through on his environmental pledges, Lula has, once again, named Marina Silva as his Minister for the Environment and Climate. One of his first actions in office was to enact six decrees which revoked anti-indigenous and anti-environmental measures undertaken by the former government. These decrees reinstated the Amazon Fund, and banned mining on Indigenous Lands. Lula also created the Ministry of Indigenous peoples and swore in indigenous leader Sonia Guajajara as its first minister, a strong signal that Indigenous rights will become a more important issue in national politics.

The Challenges Ahead

Among other roadblocks, Lula faces a highly conservative congress and a sluggish economy with high inflation. To make matters worse, the new government began under inauspicious terms as pro-Bolsonaro protests broke into riots, concluding with the 8 January storming of the capital. The Congress, Presidential Palace, and Supreme Court were all invaded with rioters claiming the election was stolen and calling for a military coup. This shocking event underlines the current level of polarisation within Brazilian society, illustrating that the political landscape is much changed from what Lula faced when he first took office in 2002. There are a further four key challenges the president will face.

The first is that any new laws will need to be approved by Brazil’s legislative body. The congress is now heavily conservative and contains a large representation of the agricultural caucus (the Bancada Ruralista), who have historically opposed stricter environmental policies. Although congress and the executive branch appeared united after the 8 January riots, the conservative nature of its representatives and the underlying polarisation of its political makeup will make it difficult to approve controversial environmental laws.

Second, after years of impunity, organised criminal groups with interests in deforestation have become entrenched in the Amazon. An early test has been the heart-breaking Yanomami crisis, where illegal mining practices have caused disease and malnutrition among the indigenous peoples. Lula was quick to act, ordering a crackdown on supplies to the invaders, cancelling flights and transportation in and out of the Indigenous territory, and forcing the miners to leave the indigenous lands. However, it will take a concerted and organised effort to completely curb this undercover and remote activity in the Amazon.

Third, the Bolsonaro years have left a severely weakened and underfunded state apparatus. IBAMA, the environmental agency responsible for monitoring and enforcing environmental laws, was severely defunded and dismantled from within. Important technocratic positions held by experts with long careers in environmental policymaking and enforcement were replaced by military personnel. Teams were disbanded. At the height of its capacity, IBAMA had more than 2,000 agents on the ground. It now has only 350. Rebuilding the environmental state capacity will take time and effort, but if anyone has the experience to do it, it is Marina Silva. Recently, IBAMA has announced that it will look to reduce deforestation by half within Lula’s first year in office, even as it rebuilds capacity. Achieving this target would be an extraordinary success.

Finally, Brazil is facing a complex economic outlook. Passing controversial laws through congress always poses a complicated political challenge, but even more so when times are economically tough. Lula’s great success in reducing deforestation his first time around occurred during an unprecedented commodity boom which spurred high growth in the Brazilian economy. This time, his political wits will be put to the test under more hostile circumstances. His recent criticism of the Brazilian Central Bank is an unwelcome sign, and puts him squarely in opposition to the centrist political forces he will need to pass his environmental agenda.

The next four years will be crucial for Brazil and the world. Lula has once before managed to control rampant deforestation through smart politics and effective policymaking. The current scenario seems even more complex as political and economic circumstances pose great challenges to his environmental agenda. There is reason for hope, but the task ahead will be an onerous one.

Kathryn Baragwanath is a Research Fellow at the Australian Catholic University, based in Melbourne. She received her PhD in Political Science from UCSD in 2021. Her research focuses on the political economy of natural resources and environmental politics, with a focus on Latin America, where she is from.

This article is published under a Creative Commons License and may be republished with attribution.