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For Lula and the World, the Tough Job of Saving the Amazon Begins

When Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva is sworn in as president of Brazil for an unprecedented third term on Sunday, one of his most pressing problems will be an Amazon at a dangerous tipping point.

Safeguarding Brazil’s rainforests, as Mr. Lula pledged to do in his campaign, may well be the defining issue of his presidency. But he will face an uphill battle. Mr. Lula will need the world’s help to rein in illegal loggers, miners and land grabbers. He will also have to build coalitions in a divided Congress and among rural elites who remain skeptical of Brazil’s environmental commitments.

In the world’s largest rainforest, the enemy no longer takes the form it did in the 1990s and 2000s, when ruthless pioneers cleared the jungle, bribed officials and forged deeds to claim land. Today, Mr. Lula will have to contend with sprawling violent criminal networks that resort to fraud to introduce products tainted by unlawful practices into global supply chains.

Once he took office in 2019, Mr. Bolsonaro scaled back or weakened environmental protections and pushed to open Indigenous lands to commercial exploitation. As a result, the annual average deforestation rates increased by 60 percent during his presidency, compared with the previous four years. Parts of the forest now emit more carbon dioxide than they absorb.

The incoming administration has signaled that the new president will repeal policies that expanded gold mining in the Amazon and obstructed the system for environmental fines, an important deterrent. It plans to bolster the federal agencies tasked with protecting the rainforest and to create a federal police unit to investigate the sophisticated criminal gangs behind the looting of the jungle.

It will also reactivate the Amazon Fund, a conservation program that has been central to curbing deforestation but was frozen in 2019. The fund has $600 million that can be used to finance the country’s main environmental protection agency, the Brazilian Institute of Environment and Renewable Natural Resources, and other agencies.

But it remains to be seen whether these measures will have a real impact.

Officials charged with leading anti-deforestation campaigns in Mr. Lula’s first and second term told me that it might take several years simply to lower deforestation rates to pre-Bolsonaro-era levels. That is mainly because the dynamics of environmental crime in the Amazon have changed in the last decade and the tactics used in the past by the federal agencies — satellite data and the deployment of federal agents — might provide limited results.

Deforestation is now being driven by criminal networks that conduct sophisticated schemes to hide the illegal origins of commodities like beef, gold and timber from the Amazon and sell them on international markets. A 2022 study by the Igarapé Institute, a Brazilian think tank, found that though the “cluster of converging crimes” varies in each Amazonian region, it often involves violence, corruption, financial crimes and fraud.

Some multinational companies have agreed to shun soy and beef produced in deforested areas, and the European Union is preparing to adopt a regulation that will force companies to prove that their goods have not led to deforestation and forest degradation. But China — a top buyer of Brazilian soy, beef and leather — has remained silent. To save the jungle, Mr. Lula must convince Beijing to set guidelines to ensure the traceability of products from soy and cattle suppliers in Brazil.

Another hurdle for the new government will be countering a pervasive mind-set that justifies the destruction of the rainforest as necessary for economic development. This narrative explains why, in the last election, Mr. Bolsonaro won the popular vote in five of the nine states that make up the Brazilian Amazon. Several Amazonian governors who support exploiting the forest were also re-elected.

After Mr. Lula’s election, truckers and other Bolsonaro supporters blocked BR-163, a road known as the “Soybean Highway,” which stretches from soybean fields to riverside export terminals in the Amazon. In what may be a sign of what is to come, federal officers trying to clear the road were attacked by mobs of demonstrators.

Indeed, violence in that region already made global headlines during Mr. Lula’s first two terms. Back in 2005, in response to a plan to protect millions of acres of forest, introduced by Marina Silva, a former environment minister, loggers and ranchers blockaded the highway, threatened to pollute waterways and even warned that “blood will flow,” leading the government to temporarily reverse course. Ultimately, Mrs. Silva succeeded in creating a string of reserves along the BR-163 that earned her global recognition; this week, she was named environment minister by Mr. Lula.

A critical arena in the fight against deforestation will be the AMACRO zone, a 180,000-square-mile region in northwestern Brazil (the name is taken from the states it covers: Amazonas, Acre and Rondônia). It was promoted as a “sustainable development zone” project for soy and beef production with the backing of Mr. Bolsonaro. According to data from the Institute for Space Research, the region, formerly one of the most preserved in the country, is now driving “the sharpest rise in deforestation.”

In this complex scenario, a central piece of Mr. Lula’s conservation strategy must involve the global market. Criminals must face severe punishment as a deterrent, but to achieve zero deforestation, the federal government must also reward those who follow the rules.

The international community can play a central role in that strategy and contribute financially, and generously, to Brazil’s push to save the rainforest. This could take the form of donations to the Amazon Fund, but also long-term investments in supply chains and industries that provide much-needed jobs to local populations and set the foundations of sustainable development. For example, China could invest, as it has been doing in Africa and Asia, in setting up factories that add value to natural resources before they are exported.

In his speech at the United Nations climate conference in Egypt last month, Mr. Lula said, “Let’s prove once again that it is possible to generate wealth without provoking climate change.” If he succeeds, he will prove to the average breadwinner and agribusiness elites in the Amazon that prosperity and preservation are both possible.

Heriberto Araujo, an investigative journalist, is the author of the forthcoming book “Masters of the Lost Land: The Untold Story of the Amazon and the Violent Fight for the World’s Last Frontier.”

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