In a study published in Summer 2021, it was revealed that for the first time in recorded history, the Amazon rainforest, traditionally hailed by environmentalists as the “earth’s lungs”, was emitting more CO2 than it could absorb. Our greatest natural asset in the battle to prevent the worst effects of climate change had been turned squarely against us, through mismanagement, corruption, and outright refutation of legitimate ecological concerns. President of Brazil at the time the report was published, Jair Bolsonaro, has gone on the record numerous times in defence of increased development in the rainforest, and makes climate change denialism a frighteningly approachable ideology for masses of Brazillians. However, the election to the presidency of former president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva (or simply “Lula”) in November last, promised a swift change in the fortunes of the Amazon. Within weeks of his election, while still president-elect, Lula told the massed delegates at the COP27 Climate Summit in Sharm el-Sheikh that “Brazil is back”. He also made clear his intention to apply to have the COP30 Climate Summit held in an Amazonian region, to make clear to delegates the immediacy of the threat. However, when it comes to environmental politics, rhetoric has often rung depressingly hollow. One might recall the vigour and sense of righteousness with which the Paris Accords were ratified in 2015, only for this same agreement to meet major challenges immediately afterwards, as a potent strain of populist climate change denialism began to encroach upon the workings of democracies around the world. Since the signing of this agreement, the Amazon rainforest has become more, not less endangered. And so, we are left to ponder; what can Lula realistically achieve as he attempts to build back the Earth’s most precious natural resource? Is it even advantageous to pursue a no-holds-barred reforestation strategy, as some would advocate, or is a more considered and slow-moving process required? It is an unfortunate truth that destruction is far easier than construction, and so, as Lula begins his term in office, there may be more than one hard pill for climate hawks to swallow.
Make no mistake, changing the nature of the conversation surrounding the Amazon is absolutely a welcome development. Bolsonaro’s tenure was characterised by an egregious disregard for climate concerns, with regulations being dismantled and military cronies being appointed to key environmental ministries. The New Scientist reported that under Bolsonaro, the rate of forest loss had jumped by 75%, reaching a 13-year high in 2021. Lula’s avowed aims are not just blank reforestation, but tackling the economic causes of deforestation, a notable departure from the black-and-white duologue that populists tend to characterise environmental concerns as being. This is going to be a considered approach, not a knee-jerk reversal of everything the bolsonaristas stand for. We must, however, balance our frustrations at a more lethargic response with the scientific understanding that it is indeed more effective. As reported by Sciencedirect.com, and a key tenet of realpolitik worldwide, proper dedication and devotion to large-scale reforestation will remain impossible, as long as the political and financial incentives for such action are not improved. Unfortunately, short-term gain often blinds industries to the long-term damage they invite upon the ecosystem. However, this flaw in our perception can indeed be used to our advantage, by changing the short-term gains environmental action can provide. The use of native species in reforestation, for instance, has been shown to be a key driver of short-term socioeconomic gain, as local providers reap obvious benefits. However, seed and seedling availability is a bottleneck for reforestation, with supply issues being the chief driver of a slower response. Indeed, the selection and management of these native species, key to properly tackling reforestation in a long-term and renewable way, is an arduous and long-winded process, requiring time on all fronts. But surely we can agree, that there is no point in building back our planet’s lungs, unless we are willing to devote the proper time and resources to do it right?
Now is a key moment for the future of the Amazonian rainforest. Lula has done well so far to get climate back on the policy agenda of the Brazilian government, however, sloganeering is going to be useless in confronting the mature, reflective and complex political solutions that will have to be found to tackle this crisis effectively. A strongly right-wing congress, and a large domestic contingent that seem to have forcefully bought into Bolsonaro’s rhetoric, as evidenced by the recent parliamentary riots, will provide stiff challenges. Nonetheless, there is cause for optimism. In environmental politics, it seems that it is necessary to run with rhetoric, before one can walk with considered, long-term policy.