At COP27, Brazil bets on Lula to reclaim forest leadership

An aerial view shows a deforested plot of the Amazon rainforest in Manaus, Amazonas State, Brazil July 8, 2022. REUTERS/Bruno Kell

An aerial view shows a deforested plot of the Amazon rainforest in Manaus, Amazonas State, Brazil July 8, 2022. REUTERS/Bruno Kell

What’s the context?

With President-elect Lula's victory, plans to shut down illegal forest losses take shape

SHARM EL-SHEIKH, Egypt - When Tasso Azevedo, who runs a project tracking forest loss in Brazil, walked around the halls at the COP26 U.N. climate talks last year in Glasgow, people clapped him on the shoulder, shaking their heads and offering sympathy.

"They said, 'We're so sorry'," as deforestation soared and environmental and indigenous agencies lost power under far-right Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro's government, he remembered.

But since leftist Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva Lula - widely known as Lula - won Brazil's presidency last month, promising to make forest protection a key focus, the mood has dramatically shifted, climate and nature specialists said.

"Now everybody's smiling. It's 180 degrees different," said Azevedo at Brazil's "Climate Action Hub" at the COP27 climate conference in Egypt, as throngs gathered to talk to new indigenous Congress members beneath the country's green, blue and yellow flag.

President-elect Lula is due to arrive in Sharm el-Sheikh next week and is expected to deliver what Marina Silva, an Amazon-born former Brazilian environment minister, described on Saturday as a big announcement on policy shifts.

That is expected to include an overhaul of Brazil's environmental policies and the creation of a new national climate authority to oversee efforts by all ministries and agencies to combat global warming.

"Brazil is returning as a protagonist" in global efforts to protect forests and drive climate action, Silva told journalists, adding that reversing soaring forest losses is Lula's "top priority".

Under Lula, who unseated Bolsonaro in the October elections, Brazil plans to reforest 12 million hectares (29 million acres) of land by 2030, as it earlier promised under the Paris Agreement.

It also aims to create a new "bioeconomy" for the Amazon and other natural areas, to displace the current model built on deforestation for cattle ranching and soy farming, mining and other destructive activities, Silva said.

The new approach could involve things like bringing high-speed internet to remote areas of the Amazon and boosting production of renewable solar, wind and biomass energy.

It may also explore how to inject more forest products into the pharmaceutical and cosmetics industries, she said.

The work Brazil's forests do in absorbing carbon could also be monetised in the form of offsets - but huge amounts of work are needed to verify that any credits reflect real climate protection, she said.

Brazil's stocks of carbon have their limits, she added - and companies looking for credits to offset their climate-heating emissions must "do their homework" and cut pollution themselves.

Lula's return is expected to reopen international funding taps of forest protection money that were closed under Bolsonaro - but Azevedo said cash was needed more to drive a new Amazon economic model than to enforce forest protection. 

"It's not, 'Pay me and I'll save the forest' - the forest enforcement we can do by ourselves," he said. "But if there are funds for the new economy, it would be amazing."

Célia Xakriabá, a newly elected indigenous Brazilian congresswoman, poses for a photo at the COP27 U.N. climate negotiations in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt, November 11, 2022. Thomson Reuters Foundation/Laurie Goering

Célia Xakriabá, a newly elected indigenous Brazilian congresswoman, poses for a photo at the COP27 U.N. climate negotiations in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt, November 11, 2022. Thomson Reuters Foundation/Laurie Goering

Célia Xakriabá, a newly elected indigenous Brazilian congresswoman, poses for a photo at the COP27 U.N. climate negotiations in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt, November 11, 2022. Thomson Reuters Foundation/Laurie Goering

Indigenous rights

Lula, who will take office in January, will have new allies in Congress - including Sonia Guajajara, Sao Paulo's newly elected first indigenous member of Congress, widely backed to head a new Indigenous Peoples Ministry in Brazil.

She and Célia Xakriabá, another new indigenous representative congresswoman, are both at COP27, along with many other indigenous Brazilians.

They have emphasised that they will push for protection for all of Brazil's diverse natural areas - not just the Amazon - as well as efforts to formalise protection of more indigenous areas and to better safeguard indigenous people, particularly women.

"We can't think of Amazon protection and indigenous protection separately," Xakriabá said in an interview.

Dinamam Tuxá, a lawyer and coordinator of the Articulation of the Indigenous Peoples of Brazil (APIB), which represents many of the country's 900,000 native people, said repairing the damage to forests and institutions done during Bolsonaro's administration would take time.

Lula's administration "won't fix all our issues", he said at COP27, but "we have hope".

"The rebuilding will start from now," he added.

Lula will face stiff political obstacles too, including from pro-Bolsonaro Amazon governors and congressmen, in a country where illegally seizing and burning forest for grazing and farming has long been highly profitable.

Deforestation reached a 15-year high last year in Brazil, driving its climate-changing emissions up 12%, with changes in land use, particularly deforestation, now accounting for almost half of Brazil's total emissions, Azevedo said.

About 21% of the Amazon forest has been lost, an area the size of Spain and Italy combined that is now mainly low-quality pastureland, said Brenda Brito, a researcher with IMAZON, a non-profit group working on Amazon conservation.

A Brazilian flag flies at the country's 'Climate Action Hub' at the COP27 U.N. climate talks in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt, November 12, 2022. Thomson Reuters Foundation/Laurie Goering

A Brazilian flag flies at the country's "Climate Action Hub" at the COP27 U.N. climate talks in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt, November 12, 2022. Thomson Reuters Foundation/Laurie Goering

A Brazilian flag flies at the country's "Climate Action Hub" at the COP27 U.N. climate talks in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt, November 12, 2022. Thomson Reuters Foundation/Laurie Goering


Deforestation penalties

But the tools available to stem illegal deforestation are growing. Without Congressional approval, Lula's administration could swiftly overturn about 160 decrees or rules that have weakened accountability for deforestation, Azevedo said.

One, for instance, authorizes only one person per state working for Ibama, Brazil's environment agency, to sign illegal deforestation penalties, an unnecessary bottleneck, he said.

Another requires every penalty issued to go through a "conciliation panel" at the Ministry of Environment, which has meant that only about one in 100 penalties moves forward, he said.

"They created things that made the government not work. We need to liberate people to work," Azevedo said.

His MapBiomas project, which uses detailed satellite images to document forest losses, can produce 1,500 reports of illegal deforestation each week, he said.

Under Brazilian law, a property that is illegally seized and deforested can be "locked", which bars the person claiming it from selling products from it, getting bank loans or seeking legal title to the land, he noted.

Deploying such sanctions could dramatically boost the risk and take the profit out of illegal deforestation, he said.

"It's expensive to deforest. If you can't make money, you stop," he said. "We have to change the perception of impunity."

(Reporting by Laurie Goering; Editing by Megan Rowling.)


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