The Amazon rainforest is at a crossroads.

Along one line, deforestation continues apace, pushing the iconic forest closer to a dangerous, self-destructive tipping point. On the other hand, the Brazilian government renews its efforts to protect the Amazon, protecting biodiversity and enormous amounts of carbon.

This weekend, Brazilian voters will help decide which direction the jungle takes. On Sunday, the country holds a presidential election and the two leading candidates – right-wing President Jair Bolsonaro and former leftist President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva – are expected to take very different approaches to the country’s most cherished ecosystem.

This week’s polls show “Lula,” as he is widely known, with a large lead. If neither Bolsonaro nor Lula gets at least 50 percent of the vote on Sunday, the election will be a runoff at the end of October.

Under President Bolsonaro, deforestation has increased in the Brazilian Amazon. Lula, meanwhile, has promised to crack down on illegal mining and help control deforestation, as he did a decade ago when he was president. An analysis by the climate website Carbon Brief found that if Bolsonaro loses to Lula, annual deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon could drop by nearly 90 percent by the end of the decade.

Amanda Northrop/Vox

“Everything that Lula has said, and his track record, would indicate that he is going to undo the brutal regressiveness of the Bolsonaro regime,” Christian Poirier, program director of the nonprofit advocacy group Amazon Watch, told Vox.

Few political issues matter more globally than conservation of the Amazon. Depleting rainforests not only destroys a critical carbon sink, which helps remove planet-warming gases from the atmosphere, but it also fuels climate change. Ongoing deforestation can also trigger a runaway reaction that can transform areas of rainforest into savanna-like ecosystems, losing many of the forest’s ecological benefits and natural wonders.

What Bolsonaro has done for the Amazon rainforest, briefly explained

Brazil was once the poster child for conservation. Over the past two decades, the nation has protected indigenous lands, curbed illegal logging, and begun to monitor forest loss more carefully, resulting in a rapid decline in deforestation — that is, less Loss of forest.

In 2004, the Amazon lost a whopping 28,000 square kilometers (roughly 7 million acres), but by 2012, that figure had dropped to just 4,600 square kilometers (1.1 million acres), according to Brazil’s National Space Research Institute, known as INPE. Destruction remained relatively low over the next few years (although it increased again after 2012, in part because Brazil weakened a law requiring private landowners to protect part of their land).

Then, Jair Bolsonaro came to power in 2019. They eliminated enforcement measures, cut spending for science and environmental agencies, fired environmental experts, and pushed to weaken local land rights, among other activities that supported the large-scale agribusiness industry.

“We are witnessing the heartbreaking unraveling of that success,” Frances Seymour, a senior fellow at the World Resources Institute, wrote in a blog post last year.

Between August 1, 2019, and July 31, 2021 — a period that largely overlapped Bolsonaro’s first three years in office — more than 34,000 square km (8.4 million acres) disappeared from the Amazon, not including losses from natural forest fires. This area is larger than the entire nation of Belgium and has grown by 52 percent over the previous three years.

Amanda Northrop/Vox

“The Brazilian government is fully committed to reducing deforestation rates, especially in the Amazon,” a government representative told Vox. The representative pointed out how the Ministry of Environment has increased the budget for enforcement over the past two years, adding that deforestation has reduced in areas where enforcement has been sustained.

Brenda Brito, a researcher at the Brazilian research group Amazon, said that although the ministry’s budget increased from 2020 to 2021, the government spent only a fraction of it. “The amount actually used is the lowest it’s been in 20 years,” she said. “If you have the funds, but don’t use them, this is another demonstration of the lack of capacity or political will to deal with environmental crimes.” International funding to combat deforestation was frozen in 2019 due to widespread deforestation under Bolsonaro’s watch, she added.

Bolsonaro’s The office referred Vox’s request for comment to the Ministry of Justice and Public Safety. The ministry pointed Vox to a government task force it launched last summer, called Guardians of the Biome. It was established to address illegal deforestation, forest fires and criminal activity in the Amazon, an agency representative said. The spokesperson also said that deforestation has decreased between August 2021 and July 2022 compared to the previous 12 months. (INPE has not yet released official deforestation data for that period.)

South American tapir, one of the many mammals of the Brazilian Amazon.
Artera/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

Regardless of these recent actions, the destruction has been massive and the consequences are dire: a 2021 report says that about 17 percent of the Amazon rainforest is now gone. Scientists estimate that if this number reaches 20 to 25 percent, tropical ecosystems could dry up and threaten the millions of people and animals that depend on them.

The largest rainforest on Earth, the Amazon is home to a truly remarkable assemblage of species, including 14 percent of the world’s birds and 18 percent of vascular plants. Many of them are found nowhere else.

Losing lives to deforestation destroys essential functions, including oxygen production and carbon storage, on which we all depend, and reduces scientific discovery. Many drugs are derived from Amazonian plants, yet only a fraction of wild species have been studied.

What it would mean for Amazon if Lula wins

Lula, who served time in prison on controversial corruption charges, recently pledged to protect Amazon. Critically, Marina Silva, a prominent environmental advocate and Lula’s former environment minister, has confirmed it. This makes Lula the “greenest” candidate in the field, according to Observatório do Clima, an environmental coalition in Brazil.

“It is a pity that [current] The government has neglected the preservation of the Amazon,” Lula said in a June radio interview. “We have to take care of the forest and the Amazonian people.”

To show that he can succeed, Lula often points to his track record. When he came to power in 2003, more than 25,000 square km (6.3 million acres) of deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon was at an eight-year high. 2004 was even worse. “He inherited an environmental disaster,” Poirier said.

On September 21, 2022, a fire broke out in the state of Amazonas.
Michael Dantas/AFP via Getty Images

A pile of illegally cut logs in a forest in the southern Amazonas of Brazil on September 17, 2022.
Michael Dantas/AFP via Getty Images

Then his administration — largely at the direction of Minister Silva — began enforcing existing laws to protect the Amazon, including enacting a law called the Forest Code and working cooperatively with various government agencies to prevent forest loss, Brito said.

According to the chart above, deforestation decreased dramatically between 2004 and 2012, and most of the time Lula was in power. “Let’s go back to what we were doing,” Lula said in a radio interview. “We have reduced deforestation in the Amazon by 80 percent.”

Based largely on Lula’s past performance, Brito and other environmental advocates say the election could be a turning point for Amazon. However, it is worth noting that even under Lula, deforestation will continue to some extent, partly because implementation will take some time to follow through.

The reality is that the bar is incredibly low – according to environmental advocates, nobody is likely to be better for the environment than President Bolsonaro. Although Bolsonaro has promised to end illegal deforestation for decades, he can’t be trusted and is likely to open the forest to farming businesses if re-elected, they say.

“What’s happened over the last few years has really been a tragedy,” Brito said. “We need change. Lula knows the importance of saving Amazon — because he did so when he was president.

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