Lula Faces Powerful Opposition as He Seeks To Protect the Amazon and Recognize Indigenous Rights

Brazil’s president is determined to save his country’s rainforest but agribusiness and its political supporters stand in his way

Lula Faces Powerful Opposition as He Seeks To Protect the Amazon and Recognize Indigenous Rights
Brazil’s President Lula (right) and Indigenous Peoples Minister Sonia Guajajara (left) attend a ceremony in Brasilia on April 28, 2023. (Andressa Anholete/Getty Images)

Surrounded by thousands of supporters, Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva (known simply as “Lula”) was sworn into office on Jan. 1, 2023, at a colorful inauguration ceremony held at the Planalto Palace in Brasilia, the capital of Brazil. It was not Lula’s first time assuming the highest office of Latin America’s largest country. He was first sworn in two decades ago and served two terms as Brazil’s president from 2003 to 2010. The 67-year-old is a true veteran of Brazilian politics: He was the presidential candidate of the leftist Workers’ Party in 1989, 1994 and 1998, losing each time. In the October 2022 elections, he narrowly defeated the right-wing populist incumbent Jair Bolsonaro, with 50.9% of the vote.

In his third term as president, Lula faces the formidable task of uniting a deeply polarized Brazilian society. Bolsonaro, a close ally of Donald Trump, did not attend the traditional handover of the presidential sash to his successor. Instead, he repaired to Florida after his defeat and sat out the inauguration. Just a week after Lula assumed the presidency, pro-Bolsonaro militants stormed the Congress in Brasilia in a manner reminiscent of the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection at the U.S. Capitol.

During his campaign, Lula promised to combat deforestation in the Amazon, which worsened under Bolsonaro’s presidency. Brazil is home to nearly 60% of the Amazon, the largest tropical rainforest on the planet. (The remainder is shared by eight other South American nations, principally Peru and Colombia.) Bolsonaro, a consistent defender of Brazil’s powerful agricultural industry, backed farm and ranching expansion in the Amazon.

Lula hit the ground running by appointing the longtime environmentalist Marina Silva as his environment and climate change minister. Silva’s mission is to rebuild Brazil’s environmental protection agencies and stanch the destruction of the Amazon rainforest. Lula also appointed the first-ever Indigenous woman elected to Brazil’s Congress, Joenia Wapichana, as leader of the country’s Indigenous affairs agency, the National Foundation of Indigenous Peoples, popularly known as FUNAI.

This is a landmark achievement for Brazil’s Indigenous communities, which Bolsonaro went out of his way to antagonize — slashing FUNAI’s budget, cutting its staff and crippling its authority after he assumed the presidency in 2019. Vanda Witoto, an Indigenous leader and activist who in 2022 ran for federal deputy for the state of Amazonas (as a candidate of the Sustainability Network, an environmentalist party in Brazil), took to Twitter to voice her joy. FUNAI will be “chaired by an Indigenous woman for the first time in history,” she tweeted. “We trust you, [Wapichana].”

The Bolsonaro administration’s policies threatened the existence of many Indigenous communities within Brazil’s Amazon region. One youth activist fled his home in an Amazonian Indigenous community out of fear for his life, following his tribe’s resistance to the incursion of an agribusiness firm. “They killed two of my friends. I had to run away,” he tells New Lines, speaking in Portuguese through a translator.

The Indigenous activist, who preferred not to be named for security reasons, is now seeking refuge in Manaus, the capital of the Brazilian state of Amazonas, where he is continuing his university education. “Our territory is wanted by the government. They want it for timber logging and cattle ranching. My people have been receiving threats,” he says. “I am fighting to protect our land. I am here on the front line. I am in fear. I don’t even know if I am going back there or not.” He says all the companies threatening his community and exporting timber should be investigated and held accountable for the crimes they are committing.

The lives of Indigenous community activists and leaders have been under threat throughout the Amazon. In 2020 alone, more than 260 human rights defenders were murdered in Latin America, 202 of them in countries of the Amazon Basin, with Brazil, Colombia, Peru and Bolivia representing 77% of the cases, according to a report by the Confederation of Indigenous Organizations of the Amazon Basin, known as COICA. Roughly 69% of those murders were against leaders working to defend the territory, environment and rights of Indigenous peoples.

Brazil and Bolivia are responsible for close to 90% of deforestation and degradation in the Amazon, according to “Amazonia Against the Clock,” a September 2022 report by scientists from the Amazon Network of Georeferenced Socio-Environmental Information, in collaboration with COICA. According to the report, agribusiness is responsible for 84% of deforestation in the region, and the amount of land given over to farming has tripled since 1985. Indigenous organizations are calling for a global pact for the permanent protection of 80% of the Amazon rainforest by 2025.

The rainforest plays a significant role in absorbing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, which reduces the effects of climate change caused by greenhouse gas emissions from around the world. There are over 390 billion trees in the Amazon, helping it to retain some 123 billion tons of carbon dioxide. But over the years, increasing deforestation and land degradation have impeded the forest’s absorption of carbon dioxide and contributed to global warming through both human-caused and natural fires.

The Amazon has also been experiencing droughts and floods. In thick, untouched forests like the one where Camp 41 (a unit of the Thomas Lovejoy Amazon Biodiversity Center) is located, scientists are noticing changes, such as the decline of insect and bird species. Mario Cohn-Haft, a researcher from the National Institute of Amazonian Research, which is funded by Brazil’s federal government, says that on his patrols in the forest he is observing the decline of some sensitive species, and climate change cannot be ruled out as a cause. Cohn-Haft is a research ornithologist and curator of birds who has spent decades conducting studies in this part of the Amazon, which has not yet been devastated by human activities such as mining, agriculture or logging.

Another activist based in Manaus, whose life is in danger from powerful people and who preferred not to be named for security reasons, says that deforestation in the Amazon worsened under Bolsonaro. “He reduced the number of protected areas in the Amazon. He weakened the laws that protect the forest.” During Bolsonaro’s presidency, this activist explains, the rates of deforestation and biodiversity loss increased, while incursions into Indigenous communities in the Amazon rose. Agribusinesses and extractive industries also used pesticides and chemicals that have contaminated bodies of water in the rainforest, putting the lives of many people and animals in danger.

Rafael Ioris, a historian of modern Brazil who teaches at the University of Denver, tells New Lines that, while the Amazon rainforest has been under attack for a long time, Bolsonaro exacerbated the process and reversed the progress made during Lula’s presidency in the 2000s. “The process of exploitative occupation of the Amazon regions dates back decades, but it was accelerated from the 1970s and 1980s, all the way into the agriculture expansion of the last 25 years,” says Ioris, who is also a co-editor of the recent book “Frontiers of Development in the Amazon: Riches, Risks, and Resistances.”

“Under Lula’s first time in power,” Ioris says, “significant rates of reduction of deforestation were seen, but this trend was reversed dramatically under Bolsonaro, who incentivized illegal logging and mining even into protected areas of Indigenous lands.”

Indigenous leader and activist Vanda Witoto at her home in Manaus, capital of the Brazilian state of Amazonas, in October 2022. (Michael Dantas/United Nations Foundation)

Ioris says this motivated Indigenous leaders, including many women in public positions, to resist by calling the attention of domestic and international audiences to the crimes being committed by loggers, miners and farmers under Bolsonaro’s push for massive and unregulated occupation of the Amazon. Vanda Witoto, the Indigenous leader, says that multinational companies and agribusinesses were funding illegal operations such as logging in the Amazon during the Bolsonaro era.

“I visited some communities in the Amazon. There was illegal gold mining. Sadly there is less reporting because the locals are being threatened. Big companies are investing a lot in illegal mining and deforestation in the southern part of the Amazon,” says Witoto, lowering her voice and holding back her tears during an interview at her home in the neighborhood of Parque das Tribos just outside Manaus.

“I saw this with my own eyes,” Witoto continues, noting that poverty and unemployment push many Indigenous people into working for these companies. “We are against this. We have always been fighting to stop it.”

Adriano Karipuna, who represents the Karipuna people, an Indigenous group that has inhabited the Amazon rainforest for centuries, explains that law enforcement agents in the Bolsonaro administration did nothing to stop loggers and miners from committing crimes against his community. “Our people have been struggling with deforestation. We have been reporting for the past years. But it worsened under Bolsonaro,” he says.

“We have been receiving threats. Bolsonaro’s government [took] our land and [donated] it to the invaders. We reported this to Geneva and the United Nations General Assembly. Environmental criminals are going unpunished,” he continues. Karipuna says the group even filed a petition at the German Embassy in Brazil to help push Bolsonaro’s government to protect the Amazon forest.

Witoto says Bolsonaro’s Amazon policies turned the clock back to the 1970s. “It was nothing but promises. Many Indigenous people lost their lives; they were killed because they were simply Indigenous people,” she says.

Indigenous people have a central role to play in safeguarding the Amazon rainforest. According to the “Amazonia Against the Clock” report, Indigenous territories and protected areas represent nearly half the Amazon. About 86% of deforestation has taken place outside these areas. Amazonia is home to at least 16,000 tree species and Indigenous peoples safeguard 80% of the world’s biodiversity, according to data cited in Australia’s newly released “State of the Environment” report.

Lula made environmental issues central to his campaign against Bolsonaro. In June 2022, he published a political plan outlining how his government would preserve the environment through his commitment to the “relentless fight against illegal deforestation” and the restoration of degraded areas to achieve “net zero deforestation.”

Lula pledged to revive the Amazon Fund set up in 2008, a project that is critical to the protection of the rainforest but that Bolsonaro set aside during his four years as president. On his first day in office in January, Lula reinstated the $1.2 billion fund. Norway and Germany, the biggest donors to the fund, had pulled out in 2019, citing Bolsonaro’s rampant deforestation policies.

Ioris says the challenge of turning things around in the Amazon is immense, but Lula has appointed knowledgeable people to important positions, such as Marina Silva as his environment and climate change minister and Sonia Guajajara, an Indigenous and environmental activist, who was named the head of the newly established Ministry of Indigenous Peoples. This body was created on the same day Lula declared a public health emergency for the Yanomami Indigenous peoples. Reports show that, under Bolosonaro’s government, there was a rise in the number of children dying of diseases caused by toxic chemicals from illegal mining in the Yanomami rainforest reserve in northern Brazil, which stretches across the states of Roraima and Amazonas and is home to about 30,000 Indigenous people.

“They will need to rebuild the government’s environmental protection agencies that were dismantled under Bolsonaro. And in this task, they will also need support from international actors, such as the Amazon Fund from European countries that promised to help fund new protective initiatives,” Ioris says. He adds that Lula’s government will need to be bold to face powerful economic interests that favor continuing to explore the Amazon forest in an unsustainable way.

Witoto says she is hopeful that the predicament of Indigenous people will change under Lula’s regime. “Our hopes are in Lula. He supports the rights of Indigenous peoples. I believe he will put in place policies that protect us,” the activist tells New Lines. According to a joint study by researchers at the University of Oxford, the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis and the National Institute for Space Research, deforestation could fall by 89% by 2030 if Lula reinstates the policies introduced during his first term in office, which would save 28,957 square miles of the Amazon rainforest. Yet he faces an enormous challenge: to empower environmental agencies and Indigenous communities that safeguard the Amazon, while resisting powerful multinational companies operating in the tropical rainforest.

In March, lawmakers approved Bill 490, which limits the recognition of new Indigenous territories and threatens to reverse Lula’s measures to protect the environment. To pass, the bill still needs the approval of the Senate (the upper house of Congress) and the president.

The new Ministry of Indigenous Peoples is also being threatened and its powers weakened. Under new measures passed by the Senate in May, land decisions are being transferred instead to the Justice Ministry, which was previously in charge. But Indigenous peoples — many of them now in positions of power, thanks to Lula’s efforts — are fighting back. The opposition to Lula’s environmental agenda is spearheaded by the pro-agribusiness faction of Brazil’s Congress, which numbers 347 of the body’s 594 total members. Some are farmers themselves, and some are Bolsonaro allies. They are keen to return to the modus operandi under Bolsonaro, which served their economic interests.

Given the role the Amazon plays in absorbing greenhouse gas emissions from around the planet and thus in reducing the effects of climate change, the battle over the fate of the rainforest is not only national but global.

Reporting for this story was supported by the United Nations Foundation.

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