Journalism from the center of the world

In a symbol of the broader shift, Lula was accompanied by indigenous elder Raoni Metuktire in his ceremonial walk to power up the ramp of Planalto. Photo: Maíra Erlich/SUMAÚMA

The new government of Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva has made a strong start in repairing the wreckage left by Jair Bolsonaro. There has been a flurry of presidential decrees, administrative reorganisations and public statements about the Amazon rainforest, indigenous rights and environmental administration. To keep you up to date, Sumaúma has sifted through the speeches and documents and tried to answer some of the key questions about the first days of the new government:

What are Lula’s plans for the Amazon?

He and his new environment minister Marina Silva are aiming for zero deforestation. That represents important progress after the 59.5% increase in forest clearance under Bolsonaro. It is also a step forward from Lula’s past administrations, which targeted only illegal deforestation. Implementing this ambitious goal will be a challenge given the historic model for Brazil’s economic development has been to open up new frontiers, but scientists say it is essential to prevent Amazon degradation from reaching a tipping point, after which it will no longer be able to regenerate.

What about Brazil’s other biomes, the Cerrado savanna, Pantanal wetlands, Atlantic forest, Sertão caatinga and pampas grasslands?

Lula did not mention them by name, but he stated he wanted to “put an end once and for all to the devastation of our biomes, especially the Amazon.” This is an issue to watch carefully. In previous administrations, Lula protected the Amazon at the expense of the Cerrado, which became the country’s main agricultural frontier. This time, the environment minister Marina Silva has insisted the government must put more effort into other biomes. This is important because they are interconnected like organs in a human body. The failure of one can lead to a breakdown of another.

How and why has Lula given more power to indigenous peoples?

The most progressive move by the new government is the creation of a new indigenous affairs ministry, which will be headed by Sonia Guajajara. This gives first peoples more power and a greater platform than at any time since the first European colonisers invaded Brazil more than 500 years ago. The main office for indigenous affairs, Funai has been renamed the National Foundation of Indigenous Peoples, (Fundação Nacional dos Povos Indígenas rather than Fundação Nacional do Índio, which was considered pejorative and overly generic. It will have its first indigenous leader, the respected lawyer and former congresswoman, Joenia Wapichana – who will have a very different outlook from her predecessor, a white former police officer with links to agribusiness. In a symbol of the broader shift, Lula was accompanied by indigenous elder Raoni Metuktire in his ceremonial walk to power up the ramp of Planalto. “Indigenous peoples…are not obstacles to development – they are guardians of our rivers and forests, and a fundamental part of our greatness as a nation,” the new president said in his first public speech. Earlier he had hinted to Congress that his government will expand indigenous land: “Each demarcated land is a new area of ​​environmental protection. We owe respect to native peoples. We will repeal all injustices against indigenous peoples.”

How seriously is the new government taking the threat of climate change?

Lula briefly mentioned the need to “combat climate change” in his inaugural speeches and said he would engage more with the international community. Inside the government, the Ministry of the Environment has been renamed the Ministry of the Environment and Climate Change. There isn’t a new super ministry that will coordinate climate policy across all government departments, as some had predicted, but Marina Silva, however, said in an interview with Valor Econômico newspaper that the climate issue will be transversal to the government and there will be specific structures on the subject in ministries such as Finance and Justice. Brazil’s main contribution to international efforts to stabilise the climate will be to halt deforestation. If that can be done, it would represent a major success. Progress on reforestation would be an additional achievement. But there are concerns that Lula will also push for greater exploitation of oil and gas reserves, and there is uncertainty about his position on major infrastructure projects, such as hydroelectric dams and new roads, which are a threat to nature and the climate.

Will agribusiness accept that it can no longer expand ranches and plantations by cutting down forests?

This is the multi-billion dollar question. In his inauguration address to Congress, Lula laid down a clear line: “Brazil does not need to deforest to expand the agricultural frontier, but to replant 30 million (hectares of) cleared areas. There is no need to invade our biomes.” He was essentially telling the agribusiness-dominated parliament that the forest was off limits and farmers needed to switch their attention to under-used, previously cleared land if they wanted to expand areas of cultivation. For better or worse, this was a suggestion made by Katia Abreu, the former head of the agricultural lobby who was became a Lula ally. While it sounds promising, the devil will be in the detail. How will “degraded land” be classified, how will protections be enforced, and can the government close the loopholes that previously allowed land-grabbers to launder and legitimise illegally cleared land?

Has he done anything about the tens of thousands of illegal miners who have invaded indigenous lands in the Amazon?

Yes, Another of Lula’s first decrees was to revoke a measure from the previous government that encouraged illegal mining in indigenous lands and in areas of environmental protection. Aides say that in the coming weeks and months, federal authorities will raid some illegal mining camps, expel invaders and destroy equipment. A long-term solution will be more complicated and require police intelligence work because illegal mining now involves organized crime and drug-trafficking groups.

What is the importance of Lula saying in his speech that he will not “tolerate violence against the ‘little ones'”?

The latest annual report by the Pastoral Land Commission (CPT), with data for 2021, shows that conflicts in the countryside have worsened. Thirty-five people were killed that year, up from 20 the previous year. Impunity for environmental crimes and land invasions, greater access to weapons and the actions and speeches of the former president increased tension in the Amazon. Not tolerating violence means rebuilding inspection structures and guaranteeing greater security for the people who fight for the standing forest. They may be small in terms of their political and economic power, but Lula is recognising their moral stature and the importance of their struggle. He is also re-establishing the rule of law and presence of the state in the Amazon: “We will encourage prosperity in the land, but we cannot make it a lawless land, we will not tolerate deforestation and environmental degradation.”

Are there any moves to reverse destruction?

Lula’s primary goal is to halt, rather than reverse, deforestation. This already gives Brazil a more progressive environmental position than most countries in the world. But the government could go further. One of the decrees the president signed upon taking office restored the state’s obligation to allocate 50% of revenues from environmental fines to the National Environmental Fund, which can use the money for reforestation and other projects. Under Bolsonaro, inspections and fines were reduced, causing a loss of more than 18 billion reais to public coffers, according to the transition team report.

How else will the new steps be funded?

Another of Lula’s inauguration-day decrees authorized the National Bank for Economic and Social Development (Bndes) to once again raise donations for the Amazon Fund for actions to combat deforestation and promote the sustainable use of the rainforest. This is mainly financed by the governments of Norway and Germany, who have begun releasing funds that were blocked during the Bolsonaro era. The transition team also asked Congress for an additional 536 million reais for the environment ministry.

Do the Amazon and its people now have a more central position in government policy?

Compared to the last four years, yes, but there is still a long way to go. The life-centred values of the Amazon are more prominent than they were in previous Lula administrations because the nature and climate crisis has sharply deteriorated. Lula stressed that climate change, ecosystem conservation and indigenous rights were in the national interest. But he will try to balance this with economic growth and social equality, which Lula mentioned higher in his speech. Many political battles lie ahead, and pressure needs to be maintained on the new government not to slip back towards the old destructive models of economic growth at the expense of all else.

Storm approaches the forest in the Xingu Indigenous Land. Photo: Pablo Albarenga/SUMAÚMA

© All rights reserved. Written authorization must be obtained from SUMAÚMA before reproducing the content of this page on any channel of communication