4 November 2022

How Lula could help curb the environmental crisis

“Working with nature, not against it”

A mountainous forest in Brazil at sunset

Growing up in Brazil in the 1980s, deforestation rates in the Amazon were soaring, but there was still a lot remaining. Today, 18% of the world’s largest rainforest is gone, and models show that losing just 2% more could push the biome beyond a ‘tipping point’. If that were to happen, enormous amounts of carbon would be released into the atmosphere, hundreds of thousands of species could go extinct, and the livelihoods of millions of people would be at peril.  

So let’s not go there. As a biodiversity scientist, I see three key opportunities for Brazil’s new and returning President, Luis Inacio Lula da Silva, to steer the country in a new direction that helps curb the twin climate and biodiversity crises, and brings long-lasting benefits to its people.  

Getting the choices right.

President Jair Bolsonaro told his supporters there was a choice to be made: to either leave the country’s unparalleled natural resources intact, or to use those resources to grow a strong economy. That dichotomy was as dangerous as it was false. Studies have shown overwhelming negative social consequences in regions of high deforestation; there’s typically a very short period with increased money flow, before communities fall into poverty.  

Under Lula’s leadership, Brazil needs to work with nature, rather than against it. The real choice is between continuing to deplete the country’s resources and facing its manifold consequences, or finding sustainable routes to socio-economic development. Brazil can learn internally, from its diverse indigenous communities who have been stewards of biodiversity and carbon-rich ecosystems for millennia, and externally, from countries like Costa Rica which went from having one of the highest rates of deforestation in Latin America to becoming one of the world’s greenest and most environmentally sustainable nations.  

Becoming a team player

Bolsonaro famously declared the Amazon as an exclusively Brazilian asset and dismissed international attempts to support its protection, calling them interference into national affairs. He skipped critical meetings such as COP26 in Glasgow and burned many international bridges. His anti-environmental discourse prevented many philanthropists I’ve talked to from investing or donating to projects in the country, for fear their efforts might be wasted, or their funds diverted.   

Now, Lula has a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to change that as the playing field has changed since he was last in power. Never before has there been so much money on the table. The UN has declared this the Decade on Ecosystem Restoration. Companies around the world are scrambling to offset their carbon emissions to reach net zero targets, increasingly considering biodiversity in their portfolios. Tech giants like Microsoft have committed to compensating for all their current and historical emissions. Norway’s Amazon Fund withdrew its substantial financial aid under Bolsonaro but has already said it’s keen to reinstate it. And others will certainly follow if Lula shows genuine commitment to engage and is able to deliver on his promises to halt deforestation.     

Leaving a legacy

President Bolsonaro worked hard to destroy the work of his predecessors, cutting back investment in science and education, shrinking the rights of indigenous people, and threatening to leave the Paris accord.  

The decisions that Lula makes for the next few years must, therefore, be future-proof. For that, he needs to use the country’s legal framework wisely. For instance, I hope Lula will considerably expand the country’s network of protected areas. Deciding what to protect should be based on the best available scientific evidence and methodology, and protection must be written permanently into the law.  

Lula could also awake a ‘sleeping giant’. Between 2006 and 2014, over 100,000 Brazilians received excellent training opportunities overseas through the Science Without Borders programme. Today, many of those highly skilled individuals are jobless, or their skills are being under-used. The new administration could harness the knowledge and potential of those people to create a new country – the foundation of a truly global green economy. 

The stakes couldn’t be higher. I’m optimistic, but not naïve. President Lula has his work cut out without a majority in Congress, a very tough domestic and global economic environment, and an election win that was just inching over his rival.  In many ways it is tougher than when he was last in power but with support from the international community to turn things around in favour of nature, I and others like me can remain hopeful. 

Prof Alexandre Antonelli is an award-winning Professor of Biodiversity, Director of Science at the Royal Botanic Gardens Kew, and author of “The Hidden Universe: Adventures in Biodiversity”.