In a remarkable comeback, former president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva has just won Brazil’s presidential election, ending the regime of the far-right incumbent Jair Bolsonaro whose reign has proved devastating for the Amazon rainforest, climate change, and the country’s Indigenous people.
Known mononymously as Lula, the left-wing politician and trade unionist previously served as president of Brazil from 2003 to 2010 and, following this weekend's election results, will return to this position in 2023.
The victory has been widely celebrated by environmentalists who are pleased to see the back of Bolsonaro. During his controversial presidency, the far-right populist rolled back protections for the Amazon rainforest, opening it up to big business for mining, logging, and infrastructure development. As a result, deforestation skyrocketed under his administration.
Brazil’s pledges to cut greenhouse gas emissions were not met under Bolsonaro and he even threatened to pull the country out of the Paris Climate Agreement.
By contrast, Lula has run on a platform to fight deforestation, subsidize sustainable farming, and reform Brazil's tax code as part of a green new deal. An analysis by Carbon Brief predicts that Lula’s presidency could lead to Amazon deforestation falling by 89 percent over the next decade compared to a scenario where Bolsonaro held onto power.
Lula’s got the track record to back up his promises too; his previous presidency saw significant cuts in rates of deforestation.
“Greenpeace Brazil comes to the public to welcome the results of the polls,” the environmental NGO said in a tweet.
“The challenges that the elected government faces will require a deep reconstruction of everything that has been weakened in recent years by the current government,” Greenpeace Brazil added.
Bolsonaro’s time in office has additionally been marked by hostility towards Brazil’s Indigenous people. Relaxing protections on Indigenous lands have seen the communities increasingly come into conflict with illegal loggers and miners.
He has a long history of aiming racist insults toward Indigenous people, describing Indigenous reserves as “an obstacle to agri-business” and calling for the forced “integration” of uncontacted tribes. He even once bragged he would happily eat an Indigenous person's flesh.
Lula has vowed to steer a completely different course from Bolsonaro when it comes to the rights of Indigenous people and the protection of their lands.
“Lula’s win in Brazil’s presidential election is a crucial moment for Indigenous peoples and their lands,” said Sarah Shenker, head of the human rights organization Survival Brazil, in a statement sent to IFLScience.
“We hope it will allow for a desperately needed shift from the devastating and criminal onslaught of the last four years. It’s a matter of life or death for Indigenous people nationwide, and for the uncontacted tribes in the Amazon, it could mean the difference between survival and complete destruction,” she said.
“Over the past four years, Indigenous peoples across Brazil have endured the most anti-Indigenous government since the military dictatorship. Lula has promised a change in direction. He has pledged to uphold Indigenous rights, demarcate and protect Indigenous territories and put a stop to the war waged on Indigenous peoples by the Bolsonaro government."
It’s hard not to overstate the importance of the Amazon. The rainforest is sometimes called the “lungs of the planet” because of its ability to intake carbon dioxide and breathe out oxygen. Acting as a colossal carbon sink, its health is an important proxy for Earth's wider environmental well-being.
However, the past few years have seen the rainforest approach a grim tipping point, with significant parts of the world's largest tropical rainforest now emitting more carbon than it absorbs. Now that Bolsonaro is exiting government, it's hoped this vital ecosystem can get back on its feet.