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How Lula and the Brazilian Left Can Save the Amazon

Defeating Bolsonaro in this month’s runoff election is the beginning, but it’s not enough.

Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva reaches down to shake supporters' hands.
Presidential candidate Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva greets supporters during a campaign rally in Belford Roxo, Brazil, on October 11.

Brazil is the world’s twelfth-largest economy and sixth-largest greenhouse gas emitter. It’s home, as well, to 60 percent of the Amazon rain forest, known as the “lungs of the earth” for its ability to draw down carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. In barely two weeks, Brazil will host the planet’s most consequential climate election since Joe Biden took on Donald Trump: between far-right incumbent Jair Bolsonaro and his left-wing challenger, former President Luis Inacio Lula de Silva.

Many hoped that Lula—who has polled consistently ahead of Bolsonaro—would win outright during first round of elections on October 2. He instead garnered 48 percent of the vote, with Bolsonaro outperforming pollsters’ expectations in all 27 states to reach 43 percent overall. Lula is still favored to win the October 30 runoff, but the coming weeks will be tense: Bolsonaro has threatened not to recognize a Lula victory. And his supporters—organized into diffuse vigilante gun clubs and emboldened by right-wing state and local governments—have gotten increasingly violent during election season. There’s also the sobering possibility that Bolsonaro might actually win.

On climate, the stakes couldn’t be higher. The Amazon and the people who call it home have been under persistent threat since Jair Bolsonaro first took office in 2018, the result of a coup to oust Lula’s successor, Dilma Rousseff. Thanks to a radical rise in deforestation fueled by the agriculture and mining sectors, experts say that the Amazon could now be emitting more carbon dioxide than it takes in. Brazil’s emissions grew by 9.5 percent in 2020, bucking that year’s dramatic drop in most countries’ emissions due to Covid-19 shutdowns. Forty-six percent of those emissions came from deforestation. In the first half of 2022, deforestation was 20 percent more than over the same period in 2021, and it’s on track to reach record levels this year.

Shortly after the first-round results, Lula won the support of Simone Tebet and Ciro Gomes, centrist politicians who came in third and fourth in the polls, respectively. Both are important endorsements. Even a fraction of their combined 8.5 million first-round voters getting behind Lula would push him well over the threshold needed to handily beat Bolsonaro in the second round. But that support could come with costs. Tebet has long-held ties to Brazil’s powerful agricultural sector.

While he wasn’t necessarily surprised that the election went to a second round, Pedro Charbel, an adviser to the left-wing Socialism and Liberty Party, or PSOL, also worries that a second round could push Lula to moderate his electoral program, which currently includes much stronger commitments on climate and the environment than he voiced during his tenure in government. “Winning in the first term was very important for us because it would liquidate Bolsonaro but also, program-wise, because then there wouldn’t be room for the right and big business to pressure Lula more than he was already pressured to present a more discrete program in certain areas,” Charbel told me.

Lula and the Workers Party, or P.T., have a patchy track record with environmentalists and Indigenous groups, who have spent years battling party-backed megaprojects and what they saw as destructive developmentalism in the Amazon and Cerrado. A hydroelectric plant pushed by the Rousseff government in the state of Pará, called Bela Monte, became a particular flash point during her term. Despite their differences, most of Lula’s harshest critics on the left rallied behind his election bid early on, given Bolsonaro’s outright hostility toward Indigenous and environmental rights, as well as the threat he poses to Brazilian democracy more broadly. For now, their attention is fixed on making sure Lula takes office on January 1, 2023, in a peaceful transfer of power.

Sociologist Sabrina Fernandes—an eco-socialist who runs the popular YouTube channel Tese Onze—sees a major difference in how Lula now talks about climate and the environment compared to his last term. He’s much more overtly pro-environment now, owing to both domestic pressure from the left and the international outrage Bolsonaro’s war on the environment has attracted. Still, the focus is on a vision for sustainable development that may well continue with a number of green capitalist schemes trumpeted during the Bolsonaro administration by the likes of Chicago Boy Paulo Guedes.

A wide margin of victory is key, Fernandes said. “It shows Lula has a stronger mandate, and if the margin is wider it stifles some of the conversations about whether they stole the election or were hacked,” she told me. This year, especially, electoral work has meant battling moral panics stoked by the right on social media, sometimes imported virtually whole cloth from the right wing in the United States. As Fernandes explained, clips have been circulating in WhatsApp groups of surveillance footage of shoplifting in California—a popular Fox News fixation—warning that Lula wants to turn the country into a Communist state like California.

When it comes to a prospective Lula government, many fear that ties to agribusiness nurtured during the second round could undermine the environmental priorities of a new Lula administration. Tebet, as a former senator from the farming state of Mato Grosso do Sol, represents one possible tie to anti-environmental interests. But there are also countervailing pressures: Larger, trade-exposed multinational corporations—including those Tebet is close to—also face pressure from foreign buyers and governments outraged by the destruction of the Amazon, who are eager to please climate-conscious consumers and investors. Some of Brazil’s agribusinesses have been eager to show a greener face to the world and distance themselves from the smaller-scale, Bolsonarismo cattle ranchers most associated with illegal burning and cutting.

Then again, as anthropologist Caio Pompeia has written, those distinctions aren’t so clear cut. More progressive factions of the agricultural sector have worked behind closed doors with its openly reactionary elements, in bodies like the Institute for Agricultural Thinking, or IPA.

While Tebet offered her unconditional support to Lula, that nonetheless puts her in the running for a high-profile post like agriculture minister, which could give certain parts of agribusiness an outsize say in shaping the administration’s climate plans. Lula is also expected to create a special secretariat dealing with climate change, and there are rumors about a new ministry for Indigenous affairs. The latter proposal has been welcomed by some, though it also sparked controversy, as advocates are wary of the ministry siloing Indigenous concerns off from other policy fields.

Brazil’s Congress could be a major barrier to whatever the next administration might want to do. Bolsonaro’s party will now be the largest in both chambers of Congress, having increased its share in the Chamber of Deputies by 30 percent. Fifty-six percent of members from the agribusiness caucus, Bancada Ruralista, won reelection there. Bolsonaro’s former environment minister, Ricardo Salles—who resigned last year amid investigations of his involvement in aiding illegal logging—won a lower house seat with one of the highest vote totals in the country, Monga Bay reports. Tereza Cristina, the former head of the Parliamentary Agricultural Front, or FPA, will represent the Southern agricultural heartland Mato Grosso do Sul in the Senate. During her time serving as Bolsonaro’s agricultural minister, she deregulated 1,654 pesticides, earning her the nickname “poison muse.” It’s also now possible that she could serve as Senate president.

The left saw congressional wins too, though. The P.T. now has 68 members in the Chamber of Deputies, up from its previous 56. Indigenous leaders Sônia Guajajara and Célia Xakriabá were both elected, running with the left-wing Socialism and Liberty Party, or PSOL, which increased its presence in the Chamber of Deputies from eight to 12 seats. Guajajara and Xakriabá will follow Joenia Wapixana, a lawyer who became the first Indigenous woman elected to Brazil’s Congress in 2018 but lost her seat this year. Another PSOL candidate, housing organizer Guilherme Boulos, received more votes than any candidate in the country to represent São Paulo. Congress will also now have its first trans members, PSOL’s Erika Hilton and Duda Salabert of the Democratic Labour Party, or PDT. Lula’s former environment minister Marina de Silva—credited with rolling back deforestation during his government—was elected to the Senate after endorsing her former boss in the weeks leading up to the first round.

Results were less inspiring in the places most under threat from deforestation. Like other environmentalists, Marina de Silva won in part by running for a seat in São Paulo, outside of the Amazon, where she’s from. Bolsonaro won in the areas most affected by deforestation. Eight of the 10 Amazon municipalities with the worst environmental degradation voted for Bolsonaro, according to the Brazilian Institute for Environmental Protection.

This suggests that tackling the underlying causes of rapid Amazon deforestation could be tricky. It’s not something the international community should ignore, experts warn, just because someone pledging to do better is in charge. “We know that it’s going to take years to undo the damage from Bolsonaro,” said Christian Poirer, the Oakland-based head of the Brazil program for AmazonWatch, which works with Indigenous communities and environmental defenders in the region. The increasingly close connection between land grabs, illegal mining, and organized crime, he explained, may continue to be a problem. “Rooting out these actors will require far higher levels of enforcement.”

All told, parties aligned with a prospective Lula government will have 108 seats in the lower house, or 21 percent. “What we can expect, no matter what happens with Lula, is that it won’t be easy. Congress will be a challenge,” says Charbel.

As it has before, then, Lula’s legislative agenda—should he win—will depend on alliances with the center-right Centrão caucus. There’s reason to believe that a center-right loyal to the more internationally oriented arms of agribusiness will be willing to work with a Lula government on climate. But whatever legislative action on climate does happen is “not going to be as radical as what was in the program,” Fernandes told me. “The program’s quite good. We’ll be fighting all the time to go back to the program and say, ‘We want this and we want that.’ What we’re going to hear is that Lula is doing the best that he can but he won’t have full support in Congress.”

Of course, there’s one way Lula could effect change that wouldn’t rely as much on legislative politics: Internationally, Lula coming to power raises the prospect for greater cooperation between Latin American and broader global south governments, including on climate. “Lula winning would act sort of like a glue connecting a lot of these governments together,” Fernandes said. Lula’s reputation and association with the last Pink Tide wave of left governments has raised expectations for a similar cohesion among a new era of progressive leaders, but, she says, “this Pink Tide might look a little bit more diffuse in terms of centers of power and who the big leaders are going to be.”

Of particular interest will be the relationship between Lula and Colombian President Gustavo Petro, who, along with vice president and environmental defender Francia Marquez, has articulated a more ambitious agenda around phasing out fossil fuels. A new Lula presidency could see the revival of UNASUR, an alliance of the continent’s left-wing governments. Those ties could also give left-leaning governments the upper hand in setting favorable terms in negotiations over a trade agreement between MERCOSUR—a bloc of six Latin American governments—and the European Union.

All signs point to the October 30 runoff being a crucial hurdle for Brazilian democracy—and indeed for global climate hopes. The task for Brazil’s leftist alliance won’t be easy. But even should Lula prevail, there’s a long road ahead to undo the damage wrought by four years of fascist environmental destruction.