To understand the choreographed chaos that erupted in the Brazilian capital on 8 January it is useful to look at the new government’s ambitious plans to protect the Amazon rainforest and other biomes such as the Pantanal and Cerrado. Once the historic significance of these proposals is appreciated, it is easier to identify why powerful vested interests feel so threatened that they were willing to instigate the violent invasion and destruction of Congress, the Supreme Court and other centers of power.
Why have Lula’s plans for the Amazon enraged allies of destruction?
The new president and his new environment and climate minister Marina Silva have promised zero deforestation, an end to invasions of all of Brazil’s biomes, and greater participation for indigenous peoples in national decision making. These are changes on a historically epic scale. Since the arrival of the first European colonisers 500 years ago, the economy of what was later to be named Brazil, was centred on destruction of the wilderness and subjugation of the original inhabitants.
Lula has taken this step in response to the greater threat to national and global security posed by climate breakdown. Scientists warn that further forest clearance could push the Amazon past the point of no return, with catastrophic implications for Brazilian agriculture, regional weather patterns and climate stability. His plans should allow Brazil to tap international funds, open up foreign markets to Brazilian goods, and claim a leadership position in world affairs. But as with any major change, some sectors of Brazilian society feel threatened.
They include a privileged, mostly white, elite who have profited from the historic model of exploitation and feel it is part of their identity. It also includes those involved in land-grabbing, wildcat gold mining and unsustainable logging whose activities are often illegal, but very much in keeping with the old pioneering animus of a nation infused with the bandeirantes spirit. Of the seven states in the North region, where the Brazilian Amazon is concentrated, Bolsonaro won in four, Amapá, Acre, Roraima and Rondônia, and in the last three he secured an overwhelming 70% of higher share of the vote. In the three northern states that Lula won (Amazonas, Pará and Tocantins), Lula did not exceed 55% of the votes.
How strong is the connection between the anti-democracy attackers and extractionists in the Amazon and other biomes?
It is too early to tell. Many different groups from all across the country are likely to be involved for many different reasons. Immediately after the attack on Congress, President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, commonly known as Lula, suggested illegal miners and loggers from the Amazon were involved in the acts of terrorism in the Praça dos Três Poderes. It is reasonable to assume the President is in possession of intelligence to justify this claim. If so, it would not be the first act of terrorism by people linked to rainforest destruction. The terrorist who tried to explode a bomb at the airport in Brasília in December is a businessman from Pará, George Washington de Oliveira Sousa, who works in the fuel and transport sector in cities in the arc of deforestation.
What is important is what the Amazon and other areas of biodiversity and indigenous independence represent in the imagination of Bolsonarist insurrectionists. Protecting other biomes goes against their values. The role of the security forces in the attacks on democracy remains to be seen. It is evident that the military police were at least negligent in responding to the attack and may even have colluded. Some commentators have speculated that elements of the army may later attempt an intervention — as recently happened in Bolivia — on the grounds that they need to forestall further chaos. The coming days and week will prove how real that threat is. But it is evident the military played a prominent role in the administration of Bolsonaro, who was himself a former army captain and attempted a terrorist attack at that time. The former president, now avoiding justice in Florida was an enthusiastic supporter of Brazil’s last military dictatorship from 1964-85, which started with a coup and devoted considerable energy to opening up the Amazon to exploitation by sympathetic business groups.
What has Lula done for indigenous peoples and why does this upset some people?
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 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.” All of these moves pose a threat to those who believe white, Christian capitalists have the right and duty to seize land from people of a different colour skin with different cultural values and more of a focus on their home and peaceful way of life than their income and expansion of their territory. Bolsonaro refused to demarcate any indigenous land and encouraged invasions by miners of already recognised territories.
Yes. Many of the tensions now erupting both in Brazil and previously in the United States are related to climate stress on the old industrial capitalist political and economic systems. Bolsonaro and Donald Trump represent the ancién regime, which wants to continue with the old way of doing business regardless of the impact on the climate, the environment, other species and people. Lula represents those at the bottom who are most at risk from the theft and contamination of fertile land, clean water and fresh air, along with scientists and an international educated elite who realise the old model is broken. Lula 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 is also pushing for greater exploitation of oil and gas reserves, and there is uncertainty about his position on large infrastructure projects, such as hydroelectric dams and new roads, which are a threat to nature and the climate. Lula announced in his inaugural speech the return of the Growth Acceleration Program (PAC), which in previous PT governments was responsible, for example, for the return of large hydroelectric plants in the Amazon, such as the disastrous Belo Monte. What the PAC for Lula 3 will be is still unknown.
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. 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? This policy divides agribusiness. Some major corporations may support it because they already have considerable land and realise that climate instability poses a threat to their productivity. But those who have profited from land-grabbing will feel they are losing out.
Why does Lula pose a threat to the tens of thousands of illegal miners who have invaded indigenous lands in the Amazon?
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. But any effort to curtail gold mining will stir up resistance in places like Roraima state, where the local economy is dependant on this activity.
What is the importance of Lula saying in his inaugural speech that he will not “tolerate violence against the ‘little ones’”?
This is another threat to those who have used violence to secure land and power in the Amazon and other biomes. The latest annual report by the Pastoral Land Commission (CPT), shows that conflicts in the countryside have worsened. Thirty-five people were killed in 2021, 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.” This is a very obvious challenge to those who profited from the impunity of the Bolsonaro era.
How is the prospect of environmental fines adding to the tension?
The new government is planning to send out thousands of environmental penalty notices to those who illegally cleared land in recent years. 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. Collecting those funds will no doubt infuriate those who have been dodging their legal responsibilities.
What benefits can Lula offer to ease tensions?
Fresh funds for people in the Amazon will be essential and they need to come quickly. 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. There are many proposals for “green bonds” that would channel tens of billions of dollars of finance to Brazil to fund the transition to a less destructive economy, which should be used to find alternative forms of employment and income for those who lose out from a new forest policy.
How can Lula balance the need to protect the Amazon and its people with social stability and economic equality?
The new president must persuade people that there is more to be gained by moving forward and addressing the challenge of climate breakdown than by looking backwards and pretending the problem does not exist or is someone else’s responsibility, as Bolsonaro did. In his inauguration speech, Lula balanced ecosystem conservation and indigenous rights with economic growth and social equality. Finding the right balance is a challenge that all countries will face in the coming years. International support will be crucial — both encouragement and hard cash. Many political battles lie ahead.
NOTE: This is based on a previous Q & A explainer about the new government, which has been updated in the light of the attack on Congress