The upcoming Brazilian election will decide the fate of the Amazon rainforest, ecologists have warned, as the country looks set to choose between re-electing current president Jair Bolsonaro or his rival and former president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva.
A victory for the former president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, who oversaw a sharp decline in deforestation when in power, could lead to a decrease in forests falling by 90%, scientists estimate.
The Amazon rainforest plays a vital role in the global climate as a vast store of carbon dioxide, but recent research has shown that fires and tree felling have left the Brazilian region emitting more CO2 than it absorbs. Researchers showed in March that the Amazon was approaching a tipping point, after which the forest’s ability to sequester carbon dioxide would be lost, with profound implications for the global climate and biodiversity.
Since Bolsonaro took office in 2019, deforestation records have repeatedly been broken as his administration pursued a policy of environmental deregulation. Now, ahead of the latest poll, the Amazon is under increased threat as land-grabbers are exploiting what could be their final opportunity to clear trees without retribution, says Philip Fearnside at the National Institute for Research in Amazonia.
The number of fires in the Brazilian Amazon usually increases in June, when ranchers take advantage of less rainfall to clear land. But the level of blazes in the Amazon this year has shocked conservationists: 31,513 fires were detected by Brazil’s national space agency in August, the highest number in 12 years and almost half the number seen in the entirety of 2018.
The increase may be because of those illegally destroying the forest taking a final opportunity to grab land before the election, according to Amazon researchers.
“Bolsonaro has dragged Brazil back to the wild west days we thought we’d left behind,” said Adriana Ramos, at Brazil’s Instituto Socioambiental, which works to protect Indigenous peoples and their forest homes. “It’s no exaggeration, then, to say that Amazon’s fate rests on the outcome of our election on 2 October. If Bolsonaro wins another term in office, the world’s biggest rainforest could pass its tipping point. If he loses, we have the chance to bring it – and Brazil – back from the brink.”
Dr Erika Berenguer, an Amazon deforestation expert at the University of Oxford, UK said: “I don’t say this lightly as a scientist, but this is the most important election ever in Brazil for the Amazon and its survival.”
“The Amazon is getting dangerously close to a crucial tipping point, which could see large areas transform from a resilient, moist rainforest into a dry, fire-ravaged, and irreversibly degraded state,” said Mike Barrett at WWF.
“What we are witnessing is the end of the Amazon,” said Angela Kuczach, director of Rede Pro UC – National Network for Protected Areas in Brazil. “Right here in the heart of the southern Amazon, we are exchanging forest for desert, and biodiversity for ashes. We can no longer say we’re going to lose the Amazon in 20 or 30 years; we are losing it right now.”
Bolsonaro declared at the UN General Assembly in September that Brazil was a “reference to the world” for environment and sustainable development. “Two-thirds of the Brazilian territory remains covered by native vegetation, which is found exactly as it was when Brazil was discovered in 1500 (by Spanish colonists),” he said. “In the Brazilian Amazon, more than 80% of the forest remains untouched, contrary to what is reported by the mainstream national and international media.”
Brazil’s justice ministry claims to have been conducting a police operation since 2021 to fight illegal forest destruction and to safeguard Indigenous areas.
If elected, Lula has said he will reverse Bolsonaro’s legal changes, reform environmental agencies and drive illegal miners out of indigenous lands. Under the presidency of Lula and his Workers’ party successor, Dilma Rousseff, deforestation fell by 72% from 2004 to 2016.
Nevertheless, reversing the impact of Bolsonaro will be challenging, according to Izabella Teixeira, Lula’s environment adviser and Brazil’s environment minister from 2010 to 2016. “This is a huge challenge and is completely different than it was in the past,” she told New Scientist.
Experts have argued that ending deforestation is vital in order to limit a temperature increase to 1.5 °C above pre-industrial levels (1850-1900) and avoid the devastating effects of global warming.
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