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Leon Kaye headshot

The Return of Lula Gives Some Breathing Room to the Brazilian Amazon

By Leon Kaye

The Palácio da Alvorada, the official residence of Brazil's president in Brasília, Brazil

His presidency witnessed spectacular economic growth and his social welfare policies by many accounts lifted as many as 20 million Brazilians out of poverty. But his successor ended up impeached in 2016 and soon after, he started a prison term that lasted 580 days due to corruption charges. He then witnessed the “Trump of the Tropics” win the 2018 presidential election and for the next four years, saw many of his policies reversed. But now Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva — known as Lula to his supporters — has made his return to the Palácio da Alvorada, the President of Brazil’s official residence. 

Sworn in on New Year’s Day, one of Lula’s first decisions was to restore the regulatory authority of the country’s environmental watchdog. That agency, Ibama, had been defanged under his predecessor, Jair Bolsonaro, a policy critics said helped contribute to the devastating wildfires that were partly responsible for the loss as much as 11,000 square miles of Amazonian rainforest in recent years.

Lula's new presidential cabinet indicates a 180-degree turn away from the policies under Bolsonaro. To start, he named Marina Silva, a 2010 Green Party presidential candidate and who for years has been committed to stopping deforestation in the Amazon, as his environmental minister again (Silva had the same role in Lula’s presidency from 2003 to 2008, but she resigned her post when he started to take keener interest in supporting Brazil’s agribusiness sector).

In addition, Lula reinstated the Amazon Fund during his first day back in office. Launched in 2008 but shuttered a decade later during Bolsonaro’s presidency, the fund had been tasked with monitoring activities in the Amazon, particularly ones committed to stopping deforestation. Lula’s swift relaunch of the fund led more governments to respond in kind, starting with Norway’s climate and environment ministry, which almost immediately announced an approximate $500 million (6 billion kroner or about 3 billion Brazilian reals) donation. The next day, Germany’s government pledged an additional $37 million (35 million euros) contribution to the Amazon Fund.

In another signal that the Brazilian government is committed to restoring the region’s rainforests, yesterday a coalition of regional governments announced that it is seeking to host COP climate change meetings within the Amazon in 2025.

So, what do these environmental policy changes mean for companies with supply chains in Brazil — particularly for ones in sectors such as soy and beef that over the years have promised their own voluntary commitments to curb deforestation?

To start, it is clear that corporate pledges to prevent the loss of rainforests across the Brazilian rainforest have added up to little more than public relations talking points. During the previous administration, leaders of global corporations could simply look the other way: After all, Bolsonaro was on the record of actively encouraging people to clear the Amazonian rainforests. But in his inaugural address on Sunday, Lula promised a zero-deforestation policy during his term in office; a tall order indeed, but it sends a signal to companies with ties to the region.

“The victory of Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva in the Brazilian presidential election has been welcomed as a positive step in reducing deforestation in company supply chains but the opportunity remains for procurement to do more,” wrote Will Phillips for Supply Management, a leading procurement publication, shortly after Lula’s election last October.

A study released during the closing days of the Brazilian presidential resolution confirmed any assumption that voluntary pledges to deforestation in the Amazon had amounted to almost zero action. A team of researchers from the University of Cambridge, Boston University, ETH Zurich and New York University concluded that long before Bolsonaro’s presidency, global corporate promises to end the procurement of any soy linked to deforestation were ineffective. In fact, during a nine-year period from 2006 to 2015, such pledges only amounted to preserving about 890 square miles of rainforest — less than the land mass in Rhode Island, the smallest U.S. state. To put those deforestation “commitments” into perspective, the Amazonian basin comprises about 2.7 million square miles, or about 2,224 Rhode Islands (if you include the tiny state’s water ways).

The bottom line is that if companies believe that they can offer excuses for any links to deforestation within Brazil, the new administration’s actions within its first week suggest otherwise. Environmental activists, as well as those fighting for Indigenous rights in the Amazon, endured a huge spike in violence during the previous administration; they will now only be emboldened to take a stand against any illegal land clearing or mining within the region. The time to not only commit, but to become proactive and take steps necessary to stop any deforestation in the region, is this week. It’s not only Brazil’s federal government that has shifted its deforestation gears, as local and regional governments will feel empowered to assert their regulatory power as well.

Image credit: Daniel Duarte via Unsplash

Leon Kaye headshot

Leon Kaye has written for 3p since 2010 and become executive editor in 2018. His previous work includes writing for the Guardian as well as other online and print publications. In addition, he's worked in sales executive roles within technology and financial research companies, as well as for a public relations firm, for which he consulted with one of the globe’s leading sustainability initiatives. Currently living in Central California, he’s traveled to 70-plus countries and has lived and worked in South Korea, the United Arab Emirates and Uruguay.

Leon’s an alum of Fresno State, the University of Maryland, Baltimore County and the University of Southern California's Marshall Business School. He enjoys traveling abroad as well as exploring California’s Central Coast and the Sierra Nevadas.

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