Brazil, the largest nation in South America and home of the iconic Amazon rainforest, will have a new leader come January 1: Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva. In the runoff election Sunday, Lula, as he’s widely known, beat incumbent President Jair Bolsonaro, earning just over 50 percent of the vote.
It was a historic defeat and a sensational comeback for Lula. After serving two terms as Brazil’s president, between 2003 and 2011, Lula went to jail for corruption, though he was later freed after the Supreme Court overturned his convictions. Bolsonaro, meanwhile, is the first president to lose reelection in the 34 years of the nation’s modern democracy. (He has yet to concede.)
The results also represent a historic moment for the Amazon rainforest.
Under President Bolsonaro, deforestation accelerated, threatening not only wildlife and Indigenous communities but also the global climate. But Lula has promised to give the forest a second chance. “Let’s fight for zero deforestation,” Lula said Sunday night after his victory. “Brazil is ready to resume its leading role in the fight against the climate crisis, protecting all our biomes, especially the Amazon forest.”
Lula often points to his track record to prove he can succeed: During his presidency, deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon fell by more than 80 percent, meaning there was less forest loss. An analysis by the climate website Carbon Brief suggests that under Lula’s next administration, annual deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon could be down by nearly 90 percent by the end of the decade.
“Everything that Lula has said, and even his track record, would indicate that he’s going to undo the brutal regressions of the Bolsonaro regime,” Christian Poirier, program director at the nonprofit advocacy group Amazon Watch, told Vox in September.
Few political issues have higher global stakes than the conservation of the Amazon. Felling the rainforest not only erodes a critical carbon sink, which helps suck planet-warming gases out of the atmosphere, but also fuels climate change. Ongoing deforestation could also trigger a runaway reaction that may turn regions of the rainforest into a savanna-like ecosystem, stripping the forest of its many ecological benefits and natural wonders.
What Bolsonaro did to the Amazon rainforest, briefly explained
Brazil was once a poster child for conservation. For much of the past two decades, the nation protected Indigenous lands, cracked down on illegal logging, and began monitoring forest loss more carefully, resulting in a precipitous decline of deforestation.
In 2004, the Amazon lost a staggering 28,000 square kilometers (roughly 7 million acres), but by 2012, that figure had fallen to just 4,600 square km (1.1 million acres), according to Brazil’s National Institute for Space Research, known as INPE. The destruction remained relatively low over the next few years.
Then, in 2019, Jair Bolsonaro came into power.
The right-wing leader stripped enforcement measures, cut spending for science and environmental agencies, fired environmental experts, and pushed to weaken Indigenous land rights, among other activities largely in support of the agribusiness industry. (A representative of the Brazilian government told Vox in September that it’s fully committed to reducing deforestation in the Amazon and is working to that end.)
Between August 1, 2019, and July 31, 2021 — a period that largely overlaps with Bolsonaro’s first three years in office — more than 34,000 square km (8.4 million acres) disappeared from the Amazon, not including many losses from natural forest fires. That’s an area larger than the entire nation of Belgium, and a 52 percent increase compared to the previous three years.
Now, about 17 percent of the Amazon rainforest is gone, according to a report from 2021. Scientists estimate that if that number reaches 20 to 25 percent, parts of the tropical ecosystem could dry out, further accelerating forest loss and threatening the millions of people and animals that depend on it.
The largest rainforest on Earth, the Amazon is home to a truly remarkable assemblage of species, including 14 percent of the world’s birds and 18 percent of its vascular plants. Many of them are found nowhere else. Losing organisms to deforestation erodes essential functions including the production of oxygen and storage of carbon, on which we all depend, and undermines scientific discovery. Many medicines are derived from Amazon plants, yet just a fraction of the forest’s species have been studied.
A second chance for the Amazon under Lula
An icon of the left and a leader of Brazil’s Workers Party, Lula has repeatedly pledged to protect the Amazon. Critically, Marina Silva, a prominent environmental advocate and former environmental minister, endorsed him earlier this fall, helping Lula beat Bolsonaro. That made Lula the “greenest” candidate in this year’s race, according to Observatório do Clima, an environmental coalition in Brazil.
But the best indicator of Lula’s ability to quell deforestation is what he’s done in the past, according to several environmental advocates. When he came into power in 2003, deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon was at an eight-year high, at more than 25,000 square km (6.3 million acres). 2004 was even worse. “He inherited an environmental catastrophe,” Poirier said.
Then his administration — largely, at the direction of minister Silva — began implementing existing laws to safeguard the Amazon, including enforcing a law called the Forest Code, and getting various government agencies to work collaboratively to curb forest loss. As the chart above shows, deforestation fell dramatically between 2004 and 2012, and Lula was in power for most of that time.
“Let’s go back to doing what we’ve been doing,” Lula said in a June radio interview. “We have to take care of the forest and the Amazonian people.”
Deforestation is unlikely to stop altogether once Lula takes office. Bolsonaro’s party still dominates Congress and will likely continue supporting the cattle industry, which is behind nearly all forest loss in the Brazilian Amazon. The country also faces an economic crisis and fallout from mismanaging the coronavirus pandemic, and it’s not clear exactly how Lula will prioritize these competing crises. There’s also a question of whether Bolsonaro will accept defeat.
Still, environmental advocates celebrated the win.
“The nightmare is due to end at last,” Observatório do Clima wrote in a statement Sunday. “The president-elect is remarkably well positioned to implement the socio-environmental turnaround the country so badly needs.”