By Carlos Meneses
Manaus, Brazil, Sep 1 (EFE).- Former President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva’s campaign to return to Brazil’s highest office continued Thursday in Amazonia, where the center-left candidate pledges to promote development without rightist incumbent Jair Bolsonaro’s emphasis on mining and agri-business.
As the Oct. 2 elections draw nearer, the future of the world’s largest tropical rainforest is an issue that looms large for the international community, alarmed by a surge in deforestation and wildfires under Bolsonaro, who took office in January 2019.
The 33,116 blazes in Amazonia last month represent the highest total for August – winter in the Southern Hemisphere – since 2010.
A majority of the eligible voters among the nearly 30 million inhabitants of the territory supported Bolsonaro in 2018.
Lula, who leads Bolsonaro by at least 10 percentage points in every poll, began his campaign swing through the region with a visit to Manaus, the largest city in Brazilian Amazonia, and traveled Thursday to the second-largest, Belem.
The former two-term head of state has promised that if he wins, he will be “very tough” on deforestation, “end illegal mining,” create a ministry for indigenous affairs and resume the demarcation of indigenous reserves, a process halted by Bolsonaro.
At the same time, Lula said he had no intention of turning Amazonia into an untouchable “sanctuary,” pledging to invite scientists from around the world to help Brazil “exploit” the region’s biodiversity in responsible ways.
He also said that as president, he would commission feasibility studies of building highways to connect Amazonia to the rest of the giant South American nation without neglecting the “environmental question.”
“Millions of people live there and we need to give those people the right to live well, to come and go,” he told a radio station in Manaus.
Lula’s 2003-2011 tenure as president was not without controversy regarding environmental policy, as his administration had a role in the construction of two enormous hydroelectric dams in the heart of Amazonia.
The Belo Monte project, which had a negative impact on indigenous communities living on the banks of the Xingu River, sparked protests and litigation.
Bolsonaro, meanwhile, is offering more of the same in terms of the approach to the Amazon region and continues to insist that the nearly 12 percent of the country’s territory reserved for indigenous peoples is excessive.
“Our Brazil can’t bear more indigenous lands,” he said in a recent interview.
And though Bolsonaro never passes up a chance to portray himself as strong on law and order, he has yet to make any proposals to address growing crime in Amazonia, where British journalist Dom Phillips and indigenous guide Bruno Pereira were murdered in June by members of a poaching ring.
The president has mentioned plans to expand wheat-growing in the Amazonian state of Roraima with the aim of making Brazil self-sufficient in that grain within a decade.
“There is something more important than Amazonia at this moment and it is agri-business, which is food security for the world,” he said.
Bolsonaro is likewise determined to press forward with a bill, now being considered by Congress, that would open indigenous reserves to mining.
“The Indian cannot continue being poor on a rich land,” the president says, using a slogan coined by Brazil’s 1964-1985 military regime to justify a brutal development strategy in Amazonia that saw thousands of indigenous people forcibly displaced. EFE cms/dr