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High Stakes

The Amazon Rain Forest’s Future Is on the Ballot in Brazil

The murders of Dom Phillips and Bruno Pereira highlight the vast gulf between Bolsonaro’s lawless and exploitative approach to the rain forest and his opponent’s proposed reforms.

People hold signs calling Bolsonaro a "climate criminal" and a liar.
Mario Tama/Getty Images
A Waorani Indigenous leader from Ecuador demonstrates during a protest calling for the protection of the Amazon and denouncing Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro during the Ninth Summit of the Americas on June 8 in Los Angeles.

The Amazon rain forest was razed last year at the fastest rate in 15 years. This year could be even worse. A number of factors, both domestic and international, are conspiring to make the fate of the Amazon a central issue in the world’s fourth-largest democracy, as Brazilians prepare to head to the polls in October.

After the tragic murders of journalist Dom Phillips and Indigenous rights advocate Bruno Pereira last month, the world angrily decried the lawlessness that seems to have gripped the Amazon region under far-right extremist Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, who’s up for reelection in October. The area where Phillips, a British freelance journalist working on a book called How to Save the Amazon, and Pereira, a former Brazilian government official committed to Indigenous rights, went missing is sparsely inhabited and so vast it could fit the state of Texas five times over. It is difficult to keep track of what goes on there, so in an attempt to shield his administration from any culpability, Bolsonaro treated the horrific incident with a degree of fatalism that bordered on victim blaming. Phillips, he said, “was frowned upon in the Amazon region” because of his extensive reporting on the illegal exploitation of the rain forest and should have trodden more carefully. (Amnesty International later denounced these “cruel and insensitive comments,” which were pretty on-brand for Bolsonaro.)

The murders of Phillips and Pereira are part of a pattern. On Bolsonaro’s watch, there has been a huge uptick in illegal deforestation and violent land grabs. His first minister of the environment resigned after federal investigators said he was involved in a conspiracy to smuggle timber out of the country. As an experienced journalist, Phillips had reported extensively on the degradation of the Amazon, drawing international attention to criminal activities that the perpetrators would prefer stay far out of the limelight. Pereira, a dogged advocate for the rights of native peoples, was also a nuisance to those who would rip undue profit from the rain forest and its inhabitants. This combustible climate in one of the world’s most biodiverse places has forced Bolsonaro into a defensive position on the Amazon, some 60 percent of which is in Brazil, throughout his presidency. However, confronting illegal deforestation in the Amazon, as I’ve previously written, “would require making commitments that are anathema to Bolsonaro’s political agenda.” Amazon deforestation today is perpetrated mainly by illicit prospectors, loggers, and cattle ranchers—some of Bolsonaro’s biggest supporters.

Put Bolsonaro’s record next to that of his challenger, former president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, and it’s easy to see why the Amazon is shaping up as a key campaign issue. Lula, as he is known, presided over a drastic drop in the rate of deforestation during his eight years as president (2003–2011), a feat that is all the more impressive given that Brazil increased its soy and beef exports at the same time. Lula’s Workers’ Party was also the political home of internationally renowned environmental leaders like Chico Mendes, killed at the behest of local ranchers in 1988 after ongoing campaigns to unionize small local producers; and Marina Silva, a pupil of Mendes who went on to become a senator, minister of the environment under Lula, and presidential contender. Lula’s party, in other words, has a substantial legacy of engagement on this issue, both in terms of protecting the livelihoods of poor and working-class people in the Amazon and in curtailing deforestation.

Lula’s campaign platform, crucially, rejects Bolsonaro’s thesis that economic development and the health of the Amazon rain forest are a zero-sum game. (Bolsonaro has blamed environmentalists and Indigenous peoples for holding back the exploitation of natural resources.) In sketching out his vision for a return to national office, Lula has emphasized two major themes. First, improving living conditions for the millions of poor Brazilians who have faced hunger and immiseration as the country’s economic fortunes dwindled in recent years. With inflation among the highest in the world and fuel prices reaching unprecedented levels, the average Brazilian has seen her standard of living decline under Bolsonaro. For that reason alone, it is unsurprising that every poll taken this year shows Lula in the lead. But the second priority Lula has staked out is defending the Amazon from wanton destruction. “We will fight environmental crimes … and we will ensure protection of the rights and territories of Indigenous people against the advance of predatory activities,” the former president announced last month.

The Brazilian state can curtail deforestation if it really wants to. It has done so in the past through a combination of stringent government regulation and technological investments. It remains to be seen, however, whether the Amazon has reached a level of criminality and official negligence that will demand a much greater federal investment in the region than in the past. No single solution will suffice, but there are a few on the table.

One idea Lula has proposed is creating a Cabinet-level ministry for Indigenous affairs. Currently, the National Indian Foundation (Fundação Nacional do Índio, or FUNAI) is the leading government entity tasked with mediating relations between native peoples and the state, protecting the former—including uncontacted tribes in the most far-flung parts of the jungle—in the name of the latter. FUNAI is a generally respected institution with devoted and well-regarded experts like Pereira, who was accompanying Phillips in a remote part of the rain forest when they were ambushed and killed. But FUNAI is subsumed within the Ministry of Justice. Pereira was dismissed from FUNAI while former judge Sergio Moro was minister of justice, although Moro denies having played a direct role in the firing. Pereira’s colleagues say he was fired for doing his job too well.

Lula has also said he will revoke Bolsonaro’s policies that have made it easier for private actors to extract profits from protected Indigenous lands. “If we get back in the government, no one will do anything on Indigenous land without your concession, your agreement,” the former president declared in April at an encampment of Indigenous activists demanding greater federal protections. During the same event, he talked about the urgency of electing and bringing into government more Indigenous Brazilians to counter the formidable power of the agricultural lobby, which forms a pillar of Bolsonaro’s support and the Brazilian economy more broadly.

Some wonder whether Lula can afford to tackle that lobby head-on. Jean Marc Von Der Weid, a left-wing student leader in the late 1960s and early 1970s who became a prominent environmentalist in subsequent decades, wrote last month in the progressive outlet Outras Palavras that Lula should pick a fight with the most rapacious forces in the Amazon, even if it means paying a high political price: “The weight of agribusiness in Brazilian exports is too great for Lula to ignore once in government, but the effort to tame the wildest elements of this gang, installed in the Amazon, cannot be avoided. The danger to many aspects of the regional and national environment and to the dangerous acceleration of global warming is too important to allow for compromise.” He also called for the mobilization of the entire federal apparatus—including the Federal Police (Brazil’s FBI equivalent) and the armed forces—to completely stop deforestation and mining in the rain forest. “Nothing less than that will have meaning.”

Should he prevail at the ballot box in three months, Lula will come to power with enormous goodwill from abroad. His earlier time in office shows he is amenable to domestic and international pressure when it comes to environmental issues, opening the door to positive relations from day one with countries whose leaders have barely disguised their eagerness to see Bolsonaro cast out of office. This will be an election in which foreign policy weighs heavily, as Julia Dias Leite and Feliciano de Sá Guimarães recently observed in Americas Quarterly.

But sustaining those positive vibes in the face of material challenges will be a challenge for Lula. What if Brazilian agricultural exports drop over the next few years, slowing the country’s economic recovery? Will Lula have the patience and fortitude to insist on new environmental protections that agricultural lobbyists will assert hurt their ability to sustain growth? As noted above, the Amazon is only the most visible arena of environmental contestation. There will be pressure to use the massive reach of Petrobras, Brazil’s state-owned oil company, to push through a radical rethinking of Brazilian energy production along green lines. Lula has signaled his readiness to take the fight to Big Ag in Brazil, a struggle that will entail expanded protections for Indigenous people and workers trying to support themselves and their families in the face of exploitative practices from powerful economic interests. It will be a bigger battle than many outside Brazil realize.

As of now, however, it seems Lula will be able to count on a sizable coalition of global leaders, NGOs, and multilateral institutions. What unites these actors, including Lula, is a recognition that defending the Amazon is not just about environmentalism; it’s about pushing back against the rapacious forces of capitalist depredation that have helped fuel the most recent wave of far-right authoritarianism around the world. Inevitably, Brazil’s route from the pariah it has become under Bolsonaro back to international respectability will run through the Amazon.