Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva (left) and Jair Bolsonaro are the main presidential candidates in Brazil’s election

Foto Arena LTDA/Alamy

Brazil’s upcoming elections will decide the fate of the Amazon rainforest, environmentalists warn, as the country looks set to choose between re-electing current President Jair Bolsonaro or his rival and former president Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva.

Since Bolsonaro took office in 2019, deforestation records have been repeatedly broken as his administration pursued a policy of environmental deregulation. Now, ahead of the Oct. 2 vote, the Amazon is under increased threat as land grabbers use what could be their last chance to clear the trees without retribution, says Philip Fearnside at the National Institute for Amazonian Studies.

The number of fires in the Brazilian Amazon usually increases in June, when ranchers take advantage of the drop in rainfall to clear the land. But even for the dry season, the level of fires in the Amazon this year shocked conservationists: 31,513 fires were discovered by Brazil’s national space agency in August, the highest number in 12 years and almost half the number seen in all of 2018.

“People realize they can get away with ignoring all the current environmental regulations under Bolsonaro, but the end of his first term is looming and many are suggesting he may not be re-elected,” says Fernside.

Issues such as rising inflation and hunger levels are at the top of the political agenda, but the vote is also a referendum on the Amazon’s future, researchers say.

“I don’t say it easily as a scientist, but these are the most important elections in Brazil for the Amazon and its survival,” he says Erica Berenger at Oxford University.

The amount of forest lost in the Amazon is now 74.65 percent higher than when Bolsonaro took office, with 13,000 hectares cleared in 2021 alone, the highest annual figure since 2008.

That deforestation has pushed the Amazon to a tipping point, environmentalists say. Unless this is stopped, the rainforest will no longer be able to store enough moisture to sustain itself and will turn into a savannah.

Experts blame Bolsonaro for the destruction. The president removed environmental regulations, appointed military officials seeking to develop the Amazon to run environmental institutions, and publicly encouraged the colonization of the forest. “The Bolsonaro administration has been a complete disaster for the environment,” says Fearnside.

Bolsonaro’s main opponent, Lula, was president from 2003 to 2010 and leads in recent polls with 41 percent to Bolsonaro’s 37 percent. To win in the first round and avoid a runoff scheduled for October 30, a candidate must win 50 percent of the vote.

Former Ceará state governor Ciro Gómez and Senator Simon Tebbet are also in the presidential race, but are outsiders, with 8 and 6 percent respectively.

Lula says he will reverse the environmental damage by reversing many of Bolsonaro’s decrees, appointing experts to environmental agencies and clearing local reserves of illegal miners.

The former president also proposed more ambitious measures, such as the creation of a carbon pricing scheme, a ministry dedicated to indigenous peoples and National Climate Change Authority to ensure that Brazil’s policies are in line with its Paris Agreement goals.

Environmentalists have raised concerns about the mega-dams built when Lula was in power, but the former union leader has a strong track record of protecting the Amazon: deforestation submerged 72 percent between 2004 and 2016, when Lula and his successor Dilma Rousseff were in power.

The Lula administration has made protecting the Amazon a central goal for all government ministries, says Sueli Araujo of the Sao Paulo Climate Observatory. In addition to strengthening forest monitoring, they sought to address the causes of deforestation by promoting sustainable production and formalizing land ownership.

The task this time would be more complicated. Growing mining communities depend on the illegal gold they extract from local reserves, new roads are built and the Amazon region has descended into lawlessness.

If elected, Lula’s strategy will need to be more ambitious this time, says Isabela Teixeira, the candidate’s environmental adviser and Brazil’s environment minister from 2010 to 2016.

In addition to military operations to clear the Amazon of illegal miners, loggers and farmers, the government should better regulate food and gold markets, promote sustainable production and use technology to make agriculture more sustainable.

“I think Lula is very cautious to understand that this is a huge challenge and it’s completely different from what it was in the past,” Teixeira says.

Lula will bring the government together with the private sector, scientists and civil society to tackle the root causes of deforestation, she added. He will also seek to restore international relations and conservation funding that were lost under Bolsonaro, making Brazil a world leader in tackling climate change.

Bolosonaro, meanwhile, downplays increasing deforestation. He said to United Nations General Assembly in New York on Sept. 20 that the Amazon is as pristine today as it was in 1500. His office did not respond to a request for comment.

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