When Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva took office as Brazil’s president in January, hopes were high that he would restore environmental-protection policies weakened by his predecessor, Jair Bolsonaro. Among Lula’s campaign promises were vows to crack down on deforestation, illegal mining activities and forest fires — especially in the Amazon rainforest.
Will Brazil’s President Lula keep his climate promises?
Seven months later, Nature has checked in with researchers and other specialists to see how they score Lula’s performance so far. On a scale of 1 to 5 — with 1 being poor, and 5 being excellent — the reviews skew positive, but are mixed. The respondents say that there are achievements to celebrate, but that Lula’s administration needs to negotiate more with both its allies and its opponents in Congress to make progress.
In May, the Brazilian Congress, which is controlled by a conservative majority that favours industry, voted to strip some power from both the environment ministry and the Indigenous peoples ministry. These agencies help to protect land — including the Amazon — that is rich in biodiversity and capable of storing vast amounts of carbon. Some felt that the administration did not make enough of an effort to avert the action. “The government was wrong in not standing against the move,” says Carlos Rittl, an environment and climate-change policy consultant based in Potsdam, Germany.
However, the Lula administration has reinstated the Action Plan for Preventing and Controlling Deforestation in the Legal Amazon (PPCDAm) — a programme that helped to reduce tree loss in the Amazon by more than 80% between 2004 and 2012, during Lula’s first two terms as president. PPCDAm, which supports remotely surveilling deforestation and upholding environmental-crime laws, was halted by the Bolsonaro administration, but has now been renewed and will run through the end of Lula’s term to 2027.
There are some early signs of success. Over the past year — from August 2022 to July 2023 — deforestation has fallen 7% compared with the same period the year before, according to Brazil’s National Institute for Space Research, which uses satellites to track tree cover. This week, Lula is among the leaders of countries sharing the Amazon basin who have gathered in Belém, Brazil, to discuss how to protect and sustainably develop the region — the first summit of its kind since 2009.
Some worry, however, that too much attention has been paid to the Amazon, to the detriment of other biomes in Brazil. Deforestation in the Cerrado, a biodiversity-rich savannah in the centre of the country increased by 16.5% over the past year — from August 2022 to July 2023 — compared with the same period the year before. “There’s a strong stance in relation to the Amazon, but not so much for the Cerrado,” says Paulo Moutinho, an ecologist at the Amazon Institute for Environmental Research in Brasília.
The following is a breakdown of the scores given by specialists, including their views on what the administration would need to do to bring its score up to 5.
LUIZ MARQUES: Clarify Brazil’s stance on fossil fuels
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Historian at the National Center for Research on Energy and Materials in Campinas, Brazil
Researchers who spoke to Nature, including Marques, criticized the Lula administration’s lack of clarity on energy policies — particularly whether they are aligned with environmental protection. For instance, the state-owned energy firm Petrobras, based in Rio de Janeiro, has proposed drilling exploratory oil wells near the mouth of the Amazon River. This has sparked concern about a nearby reef system and caused some to wonder why Lula would entertain tapping into new fossil-fuel reserves. Marques says that the administration should instead prioritize converting Petrobras into a low-carbon energy company. “It is important to know to what extent the Lula administration will inhibit and revert onshore and offshore extraction projects already in place,” he adds.
CARLOS RITTL: Fight internal efforts to delay environmental progress
Environment and climate-change policy consultant based in Potsdam, Germany
Rittl says that, for Lula to improve his score, he needs “to give a clear message to his allies in Congress that environmental protection and Indigenous rights are not negotiable”. To Rittl, Lula must lead by example. “Only then will the world see that Brazil is back in the [environmental leadership] discussion — and will be able to put pressure on other countries to be more ambitious in their goals.”
FABIANO TONI: Bolster personnel at the front lines of the environment ministry
Director of the Centre for Sustainable Development at the University of Brasília
Toni was happy to see the Lula administration respond swiftly to a health crisis among the Yanomami people earlier this year. It declared a public-health emergency in the Yanomami territory — the largest Indigenous territory in the country — in January, after a surge in infant deaths. Illegal gold mining in the region was scaring off game, leading to malnutrition; poisoning the water with mercury; and paving the way for violence. The government led a campaign to drive thousands of the miners away from the territory.
To score a 5, Toni says, the government should hire more officers in agencies in the environment ministry, such as the Institute of Environment and Renewable Natural Resources (Ibama), which has an environmental-protection role; the National Indian Foundation (Funai), which protects the rights of Indigenous people; and the Chico Mendes Institute for Biodiversity Conservation (ICMBio), an institution that manages protected areas. “Careers in these agencies are currently unattractive, and personnel are unprotected,” Toni says. “They need to be well-paid, because roles in these agencies demand specific expertise and have strategic importance.”
PAULO MOUTINHO: Give untitled lands a ‘legal status’
Senior deforestation researcher at the Amazon Institute for Environmental Research in Brasília
Moutinho says that, to score a 5, the Lula administration needs to enable more effective surveillance and control of deforestation in all biomes. The government should also act quickly to give a ‘legal status’ to untitled public lands, especially in the Amazon and Cerrado, he says. “They should be listed as protected areas, Indigenous property or areas of sustainable use. There are 56 million hectares of land currently in limbo, without any defined status, making them vulnerable to deforestation.”