MS Risk Blog

Brazil: Political leadership and challenges in the Amazon

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At the start of Lula Da Silva’s term in office, observers feared that there would be great political instability due to the fracturing of society between the left and the right, which proved to be the case. However, the ousting of Jair Bolsonaro at the end of June has weakened the right, which is now forced to find a new leader to lead the opposition. Among the left-wing president’s domestic challenges is the protection of the Amazon, which includes both environmental protection and indigenous populations, as well as the fight against crime. This aspect has been taken seriously by the government, and the first results are being felt. It is highly likely that Brazil will maintain these efforts over the next 6 months.

On 1 January 2023, Lula Da Silva, figurehead of the Workers’ Party (PT), was sworn in as President of the Republic of Brazil for the 3rd time, after having served two consecutive terms from 2003 to 2011. These presidential elections were won against the outgoing president of the Social Liberal Party (PSL), Jair Bolsonaro, with just 50.90% of the vote, in what was the closest presidential election in Brazil’s history. The electoral campaign had been marked by a polarisation of debates between the left, represented by the current President, and the right coalescing around Jair Bolsonaro. Shortly after taking office, President Lula Da Silva was confronted with spectacular rioting in the capital on 8 January, reminiscent of the US Capitol storming 2 years earlier. The pro-Bolsonaro demonstrators stormed the National Congress, the Planalto presidential palace and the Federal Supreme Court, located in the capital’s Three Powers Square. Amid suspicions of collusion between certain members of the security forces and the rioters, the authorities reacted by making major arrests (more than 1,500 were arrested and questioned at the time) and sacking senior members of the armed forces and the police, who were deemed to be too close to the far-right former president. While in Florida, US, Jair Bolsonaro did little to condemn the rioters and was even accused of seeking to stage a coup. Still popular with right-wing voters, the former soldier finally returned to Brasilia on 30 March to resume political life. However, Jair Bolsonaro had to deal with 16 different cases, including that of wanting to foment a coup d’état, attempting to illegally bring back jewelry from Arabia while he was travelling in the region, and later falsifying the health data of certain relatives to allow them to travel to the US, while anti-Covid measures were in place, to name but a few. Although all these affairs undermined some of his credibility, the former president remained surprisingly popular on the right. As a result, the first 6 months of Lula Da Silva’s term were marked, domestically, by struggles against the right-wing coalition that was being organised around Jair Bolsonaro. But on 30 June, the far-right politician was sentenced to 8 years ineligibility for spreading false information about the electoral system. The court’s decision prevents him de jure from standing in the next presidential election, and de facto reduces his political weight in the country. Since then, several politicians have sought to emerge and present themselves as credible leaders, including the wife of the former president, Michelle Reinaldo, but no single politician has been able to assert himself. This sidelining has created a vacuum in the opposition, giving some breathing space to Lula Da Silva’s government, even though institutions such as Congress are still tilted to the right.

One of the points of divergence between Left and Right concerns the treatment of Amazonia. This immense territory, which is difficult to control, covers an area of 5,500,000 sq km and is home to 40% of the world’s remaining tropical rainforest. It is vital for biodiversity and the global climate balance thanks to its great capacity to absorb CO2. Several indigenous peoples also live in the region, perpetuating their own cultures and ways of life. On 8 August, following a census carried out by the Brazilian authorities, their number was estimated at 1,693,535. One of Brazil’s largest communities, the Yanomami, has been the regular target of attacks by criminal groups, whose activities had intensified in the Amazon due to a lack of concern on the part of the government of Jair Bolsonaro, in power from 2019 to the end of 2022. This lack of protective policy had enabled criminal groups to develop illegal activities linked to deforestation, timber trafficking, illegal gold panning and cattle farming, to name but a few. On 29 April, the left-wing president decreed six new indigenous reserves, covering an area of nearly 620,000 hectares, prohibiting mining and restricting commercial agriculture. However, on the same day, an attack by armed criminals aimed at driving out the Yanomami to take over their land and exploit it, resulted in the death of 3 natives. The government responded by launching special operations. Since then, nearly 80% of the 20,000 gold miners who invaded the reserve have reportedly already been evicted, and 300 mining camps have been dismantled as well as 20 planes and a helicopter destroyed. On 10 July, the number of criminals to be expelled was estimated at between 1,500 and 2,000 out of the 20,000 present in the Yanomami reserve, according to Humberto Freire, Brazil’s federal police chief for the Amazon. These encouraging results should not mask the difficulties. On 1 June, Alexandre Saraiva, former head of the federal police, said that the Amazon could become a backyard for heavily armed criminal insurgents, noting a resurgence of mafias and illegal timber, gold and drug trafficking in the region during his tenure from 2011 to 2021. Attacks remain frequent. On 17 May, the Brazilian Environmental Institute (Ibama) recorded an increase of almost 90% in environmental offences since 1 January. On 9 June, the Articulation of Indigenous Peoples of Brazil (APIB), the country’s largest coalition of indigenous groups, asked the authorities for help in protecting them from criminals. In addition to these difficulties, the Brazilian Congress, which is predominantly right-wing, is complicating the government’s maneuvers. For example, on 24 May, the Congress approved a bill that would strip the Ministry of the Environment of control of the Rural Environment Register, a key tool in the fight against illegal deforestation, land grabbing and water resources. But despite these problems, the authorities continue to fight against illegal activities and to protect the environment. According to data collected by the Brazilian National Institute for Space Research (INPE) and published on 3 August, deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon fell by almost 66% in July. According to the same institute, deforestation has fallen by a third since Lula Da Silva took office in January, raising hopes that these improvements will continue in the medium term. As proof of his political commitment, on 13 June, Lula Da Silva met European President Ursula von der Leyen to sign a number of investment projects, including forest protection, including $21.5 million to Brazil’s Amazon Fund. On 8 July, the Brazilian President met his Colombian counterpart Gustavo Petro in Leticia, near the Brazil-Colombia-Peru triple border, to discuss the Amazon and the fight against the illegal activities that have intensified there in recent years. On 4 August, Flávio Dino, Minister of Security and Justice, stated that the government intends to increase the strength of the security forces in the region with the opening of a Command Centre in Manaus, in the north of the country. In addition, Brazil hosted the Amazon Cooperation Treaty Organisation (ACTO) summit in Belem from 8 to 9 August, bringing together senior officials from countries that share a border with the Amazon or have an interest in preserving it, raising hopes that measures will be launched. The stakes are high for the Brazilian population itself.

Protecting the Amazon is a major issue for Brazil, both for its environmental aspects and its medium- and long-term security. The authorities, under the impetus of President Lula Da Silva, have decided to reinvest in a field that had been abandoned by former right-wing President Jair Bolsonaro when he was in power. It would appear, from the data recorded over the last 6 months, that this new policy is already bearing fruit.