Could ex-president Lula's return mean a Green New Deal for Brazil?

Replanting forest would minimise soybean and livestock expansion
calendar icon 6 March 2022
clock icon 6 minute read

Brazil's voters head to the polls in October, with a chance to to decide if they want to hand a second four-year term to far-right President Jair Bolsonaro, according to a special report from Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Under Bolsonaro, deforestation rates in the Amazon have surged as the president, who has close ties to the country's powerful agricultural industry, backs farm and ranching expansion in the region.

Critics accuse him as well of promoting illegal mining and logging in the Amazon, weakening environmental agencies and ignoring concerns by Brazil's indigenous communities over growing invasion of their lands.

Such concerns have tarnished Brazil's image internationally and raised growing concern at home as well, with protection of the Amazon - the world's largest rainforest - seen as crucial to stemming worsening climate change impacts.

Polls show Bolsonaro more than 10 points behind the main opposition candidate, former president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, from Brazil's leftist Workers' Party (PT).

Political observers say Lula, who ruled from 2003-2010, has a real shot at becoming Brazil's president again - and he may make green shifts a key part of his platform.

Here's what voters could expect from him in a second term, according to politicians, PT party members and two of his three former environment ministers:

When will Lula's expected environmental policy become public?

Before election day, candidates must submit a program outlining their plan for office. In the last elections, in 2018, Lula's PT party presented the plan in August.

This year's submission is expected to follow the party's "Rebuild and Transform Brazil" plan created in 2020, party members said. But details haven't been developed yet, as they need to be negotiated with allies in other parties.

Still, "in the environmental area, it is essential, in addition to fighting the environmental devastation caused by the current government, to promote a Green New Deal" including an "ecological transition to a low carbon economy," the 2020 document noted.

What would a Brazilian Green New Deal look like?

At the end of 2021, Brazil's unemployment rate was about 11%, which means about 12 million people lacked jobs.

Creating green jobs in the Amazon region will be a top priority for Lula's Workers' Party, said Nilto Tatto, a PT congressman and a respected environmentalist in Brazil.

To meet its Paris Agreement obligations to help curb climate change, Brazil needs to restore about 12 million hectares of forests - but under Lula that goal could rise to 17 million hectares, Tatto predicted.

Replanting forests could generate as many as 2 million jobs in poor regions badly affected by deforestation, he said.

Agroforestry - or inter-planting trees with farm crops - is also expected to play a role, said Penildon Silva Filho, PT's national secretary of environment and development.

Setting up cooperatives to increase jobs and income around products such as açaí, an Amazonian palm tree berry now popular around the world for its health benefits, could help develop the region without felling trees, Silva said.

"The profit from açaí is five times greater than that of soybeans and 10 times greater than that of cattle raising," he added. "It is possible to develop, generate employment and preserve the forest."

Under Lula, Brazil would also reopen its Amazon Fund, formerly used by other nations to pay Brazil to monitor and combat deforestation in order to combat climate change and protect biodiversity.

The fund was suspended by Bolsonaro's administration in 2019 after major donors such as Norway and Germany pulled their contributions in the face of accelerating deforestation.

Once restored, the fund could be used to develop a payment system for forest communities and others protecting the Amazon.

Before asking for new contributions, however, Brazil will have to reduce deforestation rates and rethink how its agriculture works, Tatto said.

But he said he was confident that, under Lula, "Brazil will deliver this (environmental) agenda and open the door to investment opportunities."

What could happen in Lula's first few months in office, if he is elected?

Many of Bolsonaro's moves to weaken environmental policy came in the form of decrees - including recent moves to allow expansion of gold mining in the Amazon.

Once in power, Lula could undo them with a simple signature, political analysts said.

Both Tatto and Silva said they think Lula could impose a moratorium on deforestation in the Amazon region. But since most deforestation there is illegal, the move is likely to have little direct immediate effect, although it would send a powerful message.

Also, since Bolsonaro came to office, no new indigenous territories have been recognized, despite hundreds of indigenous communities with long historical ties to their land seeking that formal recognition.

Under Lula, that would change, Tatoo said.

"This you can write down: In a Lula government, the process of demarcating indigenous lands ... will resume," he said. "Traditional peoples are our partners in preserving biodiversity."

How might deforestation be reduced?

Critics say Bolsonaro has weakened Brazil's environmental agencies - Ibama and ICMBio - and Brazil's indigenous affairs agency, Funai. Under Lula, new appointees would head those bodies.

Rebuilding the agencies - which have seen sigificant staff departures under Bolsonaro - will take more than a few months, and cutting deforestation rates will take even longer, said Izabella Teixeira, a former environment minister for Lula and his successor, Dilma Rousseff.

But Teixeira said she would expect some show of force to signal to the international community that "Brazil is back" in trying to combat forest losses.

That could mean early large-scale operations to fight deforestation or illegal mining, she said, as well as a push toward a Green New Deal for Brazilians.

"After (the operations), you have to start a process of social inclusion and development, to establish trust, because Bolsonaro's government not only destroyed Brazil's credibility abroad but also broke the trust Brazilians have (in their government)," she said.

What is Lula's record on the environment?

In his previous term in office, Lula's administration reduced the country's deforestation rate, empowered environmental agencies and passed some important pieces of legislation.

But the president also opened up the Amazon to large hydroelectric dams, and controversially enacted a law allowing the planting of genetically modified soy in Brazil.

In 2008, Lula's first environment minister, the Amazon-born environmentalist Marina Silva, quit after five years on the job, citing a lack of support from the president.

Silva's successor, Carlos Minc, recalls that during his tenure - between 2008 and 2010 - a range of disputes arose between his agency and the agriculture ministry.

Lula often mediated the conflicts that could go on for months and "I won most battles," Minc said.

"If at that time (Lula) gave us strength, why now, after the IPCC, the UN, the goals, Biden, would he go backwards?" he said, referring to science and political advances in acting on nature protection, climate change and sustainable development.

How serious is Lula's commitment to green aims?

Last year, Minc met with Lula and congressmen Alessandro Molon in Rio de Janeiro. There Molon - a former PT party member - gave Lula a "Green New Deal" paper he had written and was to present at the COP26 climate meeting in Glasgow.

Written by Brazilian economists coordinating with Molon, the document estimated Brazil could create 9.5 million jobs by 2030 as it greened its econonmy by adopting a set of about 30 measures.

Some would be massive shifts, such as making 10% of Brazil's car fleet electric, and others simpler, such as teaching school children about the need for a "just transition" to a lower-carbon economy.

Minc remembers that Lula was very interested in the document.

"Of course Lula won't become an environmentalist," Minc said, noting that, as a former union leader, Lula's main concern is jobs.

But "when you talk to Lula about creating millions of green jobs, his eyes light up," he added.

Thomson Reuters Foundation

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