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Will the elections in Brazil help save the Amazon rainforest?

Will the elections in Brazil help save the Amazon rainforest?

The presidential elections in Brazil are keeping me on tenterhooks as voting on 2nd October failed to avoid a second round at the end of the month.

The result of the first round was closer than expected, with frontrunner “Lula” (Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva) winning 48% against Bolsonaro’s 43%. Lula needed to win 50% to avoid a second round of voting.

The ‘Amazon’ election

In addition to being of huge importance to the people of Brazil, this election also feels like an election for the future of the Amazon rainforest and its vital role in our defence against climate change and in the protection of biodiversity. Home to more plants and animals than any other terrestrial ecosystem on the planet, deforestation has reached record highs during the four years President Jair Bolsonaro has been in power. “Lula” has been President of Brazil before between 2003 and 2010 and during his term deforestation declined dramatically.

More than 1 billion acres of forest have been lost to deforestation worldwide since 1990, with 96% taking place in tropical forests and nearly half occurring in Indonesia and Brazil, which is one reason why this election is so important. Lula has pledged to address illegal deforestation in the Amazon following devastating forest losses under a Bolsonaro government, aided by the weakening of environmental protections.

Deforestation has soared under Bolsonaro

Deforestation in the Amazon reached a 15 year high in 2021 and a new all-time sixth month high in July 2022, despite Brazil signing a pledge at COP27 to halt and reverse deforestation and land degradation. More than 13,000 square miles of Amazon rainforest have been cleared since Bolsonaro entered power in 2019.

Large-scale, industrial farming, including the clearing of land for soybean production to feed livestock overseas is one of the biggest human causes of deforestation and land degradation in the Brazilian Amazon and other important ecosystems such as the Cerrado and the Atlantic Forest, which has been reduced to 12.4% of its original size. This has had devastating impacts on indigenous communities.

International concerns have focused on the Amazon as the world’s largest rainforest, where an estimated 30% of the world’s species are found. Deforestation and climate change are having a major impact, with parts of the ecosystem already transitioning to a drier, savannah-like environment, particularly in the south and east, according to conservation news outlet, Mongabay. Forest die offs could contribute further to climate change and affect essential rainfall.

Lula is historically a protector of forests

Lula has historically lowered deforestation. When he entered power in 2004, he set up a programme to create financial incentives not to deforest, introduced the world’s leading deforestation monitoring programme and increased law enforcement, reducing deforestation by three-quarters during his time in office. The situation has been very different under Bolsonaro, with amnesties granted for illegal deforestation, enforcement budgets slashed and an anti-science, anti-indigenous rights and anti-environmentalist rhetoric pervading his policies. He has given strong support to farming and mining activities in the Amazon rainforest. He also brought forward a draft bill to weaken the current regulatory framework on pesticides, widely known as the “poison package”, that alarmed UN human rights experts into stating their opposition to the bill.

Production systems benefitting from the removal of forest and other natural ecosystems to make way for farmland include soya, a high protein bean used in a range of products like tofu and soya milk but especially feed for livestock in intensive systems. Increasing demand for animal feed has driven soya production in Brazil, where it has increased almost sixfold since 1990. Businesses importing soya from Brazil, including those in the UK, are therefore complicit in the environmental harms associated with soya production. We have welcomed efforts by retailers and others to address this situation, including through collaborative action such as the UK Soy Manifesto, which commits signatories to ensuring soya imports to the UK are deforestation and land conversion-free by 2025.

Stop Poison Poultry

The Soil Association is also concerned about the existing use of highly hazardous pesticides on crops such as soya in Brazil. In May 2022, we launched Stop Poison Poultry, a citizen engagement campaign calling on the UK’s top 10 supermarkets to remove wildlife-killing pesticides from soya supply chains, largely fuelling intensive chicken production. More than 30,000 people signed our petition, demonstrating clear public concern and bolstering our conversations with supermarkets about reducing the environmental impact of their supply chains.

Public health authorities in Brazil also want to see pesticide regulations tightened not loosened, to avoid the 70,000 pesticide-related poisonings documented every year in the country. Wildlife and ecosystems are also suffering, with bees, birds, fish, bats and other mammals like tapirs under threat. Many of the pesticides sprayed on soya crops in Brazil, crops that are imported to the UK for poultry feed, are banned for use in the UK and EU because of the risk they pose to human health, pollinators and natural ecosystems. We hope for change if Lula is elected President. He has proposed to support soya farming on open pasture rather than forest land and the use of greener, bio-pesticides.

The destruction of vital ecosystems for climate stability and biodiversity, like the Amazon, harms us all but especially people working tirelessly to defend the forest or living quietly alongside its incredible resources.

Let us hope that the result of these presidential elections bolsters a future for the Amazon and Brazil’s other vital ecosystems that is one of respect and protection and not of destruction.