Lula offers ray of hope for Brazilian Amazon after 4 years of devastation

By Maria Angelica Troncoso

Rio de Janeiro, Dec 23 (EFE).- Average annual deforestation of the Brazilian Amazon rose by nearly 60 percent during the administration of rightist President Jair Bolsonaro, a devastating legacy that incoming head of state Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva will seek to undo to avoid a global catastrophe.

During the 2019-2022 tenure of Bolsonaro, an advocate of expanded resource extraction in the Amazon, even in protected indigenous reserves, 11,396 square kilometers (4,400 square miles) of forest cover was destroyed per year, up 59.5 percent from the previous four-year period.

Deforestation had already been on the rise in Brazil, but under Bolsonaro it soared to levels not seen in 15 years and was more than twice as high as in 2012, when it fell to 4,571 sq. km, the lowest level since record-keeping began in 1988, according to the National Institute for Space Research.

Experts consulted by Efe agree that budget cuts at environmental protection agencies and the scaling-back of efforts to fight illegal mining and logging were mainly to blame for the large-scale destruction of that globally important carbon sink over the past four years.

More than 97 percent of all illegal mining (mostly of gold) in Brazil occurs in the Amazon.

Of the 103 tons of gold that Brazil exported in 2021, over half came from illegal mines, according to the Escolhas Institute. That non-profit civil organization said mineral extraction primarily occurred on indigenous territories, where output skyrocketed 442 percent between 2020 and 2021.

“The situation is serious … import markets have to demand traceability of origin or they’ll run the risk of buying gold stained with indigenous blood,” Larissa Rodrigues, that institute’s portfolio manager, said.

Illegal logging also has an adverse impact on the rainforest.

While most of that activity occurs on private properties, it is also now being seen at indigenous and environmental reserves, according to a study by Simex, a network of entities that track illegal logging using satellite images and other resources.

Of the total amount of timber illegally extracted from the Brazilian Amazon between August 2020 and July 2021 (an area of 142,428 hectares, or 550 sq. miles), 72 percent occurred on authorized properties (which are required to preserve 40 percent of the total area), 15 percent on indigenous and environmental reserves and the remaining 13 percent on unregistered lands.

The western state of Mato Grosso, which is partially covered by the Amazon rainforest, is Brazil’s leading producer of soy, corn, cotton and cattle. Nearly three-fourths of the timber illegally extracted from the Amazon comes from that state.

Experts say the situation in the Amazon is now “critical” but they are hopeful that Lula will put a halt to the environmental destruction.

The former labor leader, who was president from 2003 to 2010 and will be inaugurated for a third term on Jan. 1, reduced deforestation by nearly 70 percent at the end of his second term.

“If Bolsonaro had remained in power, we would’ve run the risk of losing the Amazon as we know it today,” said Marcio Astrini, the director of a network – the Climate Observatory – that comprises around 70 Brazilian environmental organizations.

A continuation of the outgoing president’s policies would have accelerated the Amazon’s collapse, according to Raul do Valle, a public policy expert at the World Wide Fund for Nature, who said the current deforestation level is around 18 percent but that a further rise to more than 20 percent would lead to hotter and longer dry seasons and mark an “irreversible” tipping point.

Both he and Astrini expect Lula to adopt a series of actions that will start to yield positive results in 2024.

“He’s going to have to revoke a series of measures, including one that halted the collection of environmental fines”; reactivate the Amazon Fund, an international fund to protect the Amazon rainforest that was frozen when Bolsonaro took office and weakened environmental protection measures; restaff the Brazilian government’s environmental organizations; and remove the benefits now enjoyed by loggers and land invaders, Astrini said.

Do Valle, for his part, expects the new government will put Brazil back on the path to the sustainable development of the Amazon and fortify conservation areas.

Those communities need the state’s presence and a better quality of life, as well as opportunities for the new generations. EFE

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