Six weeks before taking power, Brazilian President-elect Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva on Wednesday told a packed crowd at the U.N. climate summit in Egypt that his administration would crack down on illegal deforestation and thrust Latin America’s largest and most populous nation to the forefront of climate leadership.
As da Silva arrived in a pavilion, hundreds of people gathered, with many cheering and chanting in Portuguese, “Lula,” the name widely used by Brazilians to refer to him. The appearance of da Silva, who in the last year made an extraordinary political comeback after being convicted of corruption and jailed a few years ago, was easily one of the events that brought the most energy at the conference known as COP27. That’s because da Silva, who as president between 2003 and 2010 oversaw a large reduction in deforestation of the Brazilian rainforest, has promised to do so again.
After meeting with several Brazilian governors, including from important rainforest states like Amazonia and Para, da Silva addressed the crowd in a short speech.
“You all know that we are going to undertake a big fight against deforestation,” said da Silva to cheers.
Da Silva said he would recommend that the U.N. put the 2025 climate conference in the Amazon, adding it was time that “people who defend the Amazon and defend the climate get to know the region close up.”
During his speech, da Silva took several swipes at President Jair Bolsonaro, who pushed development of the Amazon, both in his pro-business rhetoric and how his administration managed the forests. Da Silva beat Bolsonaro in October’s elections and will assume power Jan. 1.
“Brazil can’t remain isolated like it was these last four years. (Officials from Brazil) didn’t travel to any other countries, and no other countries traveled to Brazil,” said da Silva.
Da Silva has several other meetings planned with ministers from various countries over the next days.
On Tuesday night, da Silva met with U.S. Climate Envoy John Kerry, who on Wednesday told reporters he was pleased that da Silva “talked about for once and for all getting it right, pulling people together in order to preserve the Amazon.”
Under Bolsonaro, elected in 2018, environmental agencies that regulate the Amazon were weakened. The former Army captain also appointed forest managers from the agribusiness sector, which opposes the creation of protected areas such as Indigenous territories and pushes for the legalization of land robbing. The deforested area in Brazil’s Amazon reached a 15-year high from August 2020 to July 2021, according to official figures. Satellite monitoring shows the trend this year is on track to surpass last year.
The Amazon rainforest, which overlaps with several nations in South America, is seen as crucial to combatting climate change because of the large amounts of carbon dioxide that it absorbs.
Da Silva did not address news reports in Brazil that have focused on a possible alliance between Brazil, the Congo and Indonesia, home to the largest tropical forests in the world. Given the moniker “OPEC of the Forests,” in reference to the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries and the way they regulate oil production, the general idea would be for these three countries to coordinate their negotiating positions and practices on forest management and biodiversity protection. The proposal was initially floated during last year’s climate summit in Glasgow, Scotland, according to the reports.
Despite da Silva’s lofty promises, the task in front of his incoming administration is huge. While many people, particularly environmentalists and officials at a climate conference like this one celebrate promises to protect the Amazon, Brazilian leaders have traditionally faced huge pressures to develop. Those pressures come from sectors like agriculture and mining, along with many people who live in the Amazon and feel that it’s for them to decide how the vast area is managed.
There is also the reality that da Silva’s environmental record as president was mixed. Deforestation dropped dramatically during the decade after da Silva took power, with Marina Silva, former childhood rubber-tapper who worked closely with murdered environmentalist Chico Mendes, as environmental minister. But in his second term, da Silva began catering to agribusiness interests, and in 2008 Marina Silva resigned. Marina Silva is also attending COP27 and is a contender for the top environmental job again.
Simone Karipuna, an activist from the Amazon who traveled to COP27 and attended da Silva’s speech, was one of several Indigenous women who traveled to Egypt to participate in the summit. Between chants with several other women, Karipuna talked about her hope that challenges could be overcome because Indigenous communities living in the forest could work with the incoming administration.
“We had no dialogue at all with the current administration,” she said.