The hopeful outlook in Amazon dwindles as Lula shifts away from environmental concerns.
What a transformation a year has brought to the Brazilian Amazon. In the beginning of 2023, I discussed the emergence of vegetation during the rainy season and the optimistic outlook due to the new president, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, who pledged to protect Indigenous rights and work towards eliminating deforestation. However, after twelve months, both the plant life and political hope are withering away.
The worst drought in recent memory has finally ended, but the rain is delayed and weaker compared to previous years. The Xingu River’s water level is significantly lower than usual for January. The rate of forest growth is also lower – the new plants are not spreading as far as they did last January. The nearby cattle pasture is also struggling. The grass used for foraging, called capim, was so badly burned that it has not grown back, leaving the hillsides brown and the cows malnourished. Some of the thin and weak cows have escaped their fields and wandered towards our community in search of food. Local residents report that more than twelve cows have died from starvation at this particular ranch, with many others suffering the same fate elsewhere.
Not as noticeable, but perhaps more concerning, is the lack of leafcutter ants. These insects with large mandibles are typically found everywhere, cutting and transporting plant matter in organized lines to cultivate fungal gardens in their nests. These nests can span over a large area, resembling Gaudi’s iconic structures. Scientists who study insects claim that leafcutter ants have the second most intricate social structure on the planet, second only to humans. They also play a crucial role as the primary herbivores in the South American tropics, consuming around one-sixth of all the leaves produced in the forest. This contributes to new plant growth and adds nutrients to the soil. It’s no surprise that these ants are known as ecosystem engineers.
Every day during my regular walk with my dogs, I encounter three large nests of leafcutter ants. About a year ago, I got too close during their annual revoada, when the female ants take flight for their mating rituals and are followed by a swarm of male ants. During this sensitive time, the soldier ants were fiercely protective and I was forced to retreat with a bloody foot and howls of pain. Despite this encounter, I have always been in awe of these small yet mighty creatures. However, I was disheartened to find that all four nests now seem lifeless. The mounds are deflated, there is no fresh soil around the entrances, and not a single leafcutter ant in sight. This is unusual because a healthy colony can have millions of members and they have never stopped working before. Entomologists have suggested that they may have relocated or been wiped out by the prolonged dry season. This serves as a concerning reminder that the weakening of forest resilience can take many forms and the effects of the drought are immeasurable.
The Amazon rainforest is experiencing increased heat and dryness, leading to a longer dry season compared to 50 years ago. This change is causing the death of trees and other species, pushing them beyond their ability to survive. This could potentially result in a widespread collapse of the ecosystem, transforming the Amazon into a savanna.
Lula knows this. In a speech at Cop28 in Dubai last November he told the world he was shocked that the region’s rivers, which are the greatest freshwater source in the world, are at their lowest level for more than 120 years. He said this was a global climate problem and called on other countries to make a greater effort. “Even if we do not cut down any more trees, the Amazon could reach its point of no return if other countries do not do their part.”
However, the actions taken by his own government to safeguard the forest and its inhabitants have been a combination of success and failure. An initial evaluation of Lula’s performance would indicate improvements in comparison to the inadequate standards set by the previous far-right leadership of Jair Bolsonaro. However, it also reveals unfulfilled commitments, vulnerabilities in political power, and concerning indications of regression.
The initial and crucial update is positive – the rate of deforestation in the Amazon has decreased by approximately 50% in the last year. This is the first instance since 2018 where the rate of land clearance was under 10,000 square kilometers in the 12-month period ending on July 31st. Additionally, there was a significant decrease of 73% in the loss of tree coverage in Indigenous territories.
Unfortunately, despite the slowing rate, nearly 1 million trees continue to be cut down or burned every day in the Amazon. Additionally, many more have perished due to drought, further contributing to the decline of the forest. Overall, it is clear that the Amazon ended 2023 in a more dire state than it began, a trend that has unfortunately persisted for the last 50 years.
There are additional reasons for worry. The Cerrado savanna, located south of the Amazon, has experienced significant destruction since 2016 due to the growth of soy farms and cattle ranches. This mirrors the deceptive tactics used by previous Lula administrations, where deforestation in the highly publicized Amazon region was reduced, but destruction in the lesser-known, yet still crucial, Cerrado was allowed to continue.
For Indigenous rights, the situation is similar. Lula was a trailblazer in establishing a separate ministry for this cause and his administration has acknowledged six additional territories. Studies have demonstrated that this is the most efficient method for preserving forests and storing carbon.
However, he has been outmaneuvered by an unfriendly congress, which has enacted a new regulation, referred to as Marco Temporal, in order to restrict the authorization of Indigenous land.
There are other challenges to the president’s authority besides this one. One year ago, Lula faced an attempted coup by Bolsonaro supporters, including some members of the police. The army remained neutral, which did not inspire confidence. Since then, the military has not supported the government’s efforts to remove illegal gold miners from Yanomami territory. As a result, the Lula administration has lost control over these lands and has been unable to address a humanitarian crisis. Despite spending $200m and deploying 2,000 healthcare workers to the region, 308 Yanomami people died from preventable diseases between January and November, which is similar to the death toll during Bolsonaro’s final year in office.
At present, a new and even more significant danger is on the horizon in the form of a paved road cutting through the heart of the western Amazon. The proposed expansion of BR-319 from Manaus to Porto Velho would have devastating consequences for one of the few remaining untouched areas of the rainforest, as roads have historically been a precursor to illegal activities such as logging, mining, and encroachment on Indigenous lands. Despite opposition from experts and scientific advice, the project has been persistently resisted for many years. However, last month, lawmakers passed a bill with the support of construction and agribusiness groups, which would weaken environmental licensing requirements for the road and label it as a “priority infrastructure” essential for national security. Lula has given the green light by forming a BR-319 task force and disregarding the involvement of the environment ministry in the decision-making process.
The transportation minister, Renan Filho, claims that the project will create the “most environmentally friendly and sustainable highway in the world,” which is a clear example of Orwellian language. He is also seeking funding for the project from the $1.2bn Amazon fund, established by Norway and with additional contributions from Britain, Germany, and the US, to combat deforestation and promote sustainability. However, the BR-319 highway directly contradicts these goals. This request undermines the credibility of both the international fund and the Brazilian government’s environmental efforts. It is a disappointing move, especially since one of the main purposes of the new highway is to facilitate oil and gas exploration deep within the Amazon rainforest, in addition to existing exploration near the mouth of the river. This shows the same short-sighted pursuit of profit from petroleum found in countries such as the US, UK, Canada, Russia, Norway, and other oil-producing nations.
Lula appears to be struggling to determine his desired style of leadership. When addressing an international audience, he advocates for the importance of taking action against climate change and pledges to stop deforestation. However, when appealing to his local supporters, he maintains a traditional approach focused on developing infrastructure and exploiting natural resources. In comparison to previous years, it is evident that he is moving – whether by choice or pressure – away from supporting science and Indigenous rights and towards prioritizing business and capitalist practices. This shift can be attributed to Lula’s vulnerable political position and personal beliefs. However, in light of severe droughts and increasingly devastating weather disasters, it seems more like a surrender than a compromise.
The Amazon is experiencing the harsh effects of the climate crisis. While the decrease in deforestation is a positive development, it is not sufficient and may be jeopardized by the construction of new roads and oil ventures. If the current political trend persists, it won’t just be the trees, cows, and ants that will suffer and perish.