Alongside dragging his country back from the brink of fascism and reversing its social crisis, newly elected Brazilian president Lula da Silva has placed the environment at the centre of his concerns. What are the prospects for Brazil’s promised green turn and what will it mean for the country’s international relations?

Green European Journal: What are the priorities of the new Lula administration as it enters office?

José Henrique Bortoluci: Similar to his first government in 2003, Lula is taking power at a time of great social and economic crisis. Hunger among the poorest is at a record high, with the Yanomami people in the north some of the hardest hit. His government will have to address this crisis immediately and it is significant that Lula chose to visit the Yanomami as soon as he entered office in January. In the medium term, Lula has to show that his government can deal with economic crises. The economy will also need some reorganisation so it can grow. The environment is a new priority for the Workers’ Party and Lula’s administration. Lula has not only campaigned on the environment but made it a key aspect of his administration.

What’s different this time around is that Lula’s administration comes after the violent authoritarian government of Jair Bolsonaro and the barely legitimate government of Michel Temer. The January 8 storming of congress was the latest example of an authoritarian tendency within the police forces, the armed forces, and large sections of the population. Lula’s government will have to take on the challenging task of restoring respect for democratic values and the rule of law.

The social, economic, environmental, and democratic crises in Brazil are inextricable from one another. You cannot deal with the deforestation in the Amazon without looking at the disregard for rules and weakened enforcement of them. The humanitarian crisis the Yanomamis are experiencing is also environmental and social because all of that suffering is connected with the destruction of the forest and illegal mining. There are deep roots that connect these crises and we are seeing that unfold. 

In Europe at least, the Brazilian election was seen primarily through the lens of the Amazon and the impact of deforestation on the climate. Bolsonaro was aggressively committed to clearing more land for agroindustry. What is the environmental agenda of the new Lula government?

The priority is going to be curbing deforestation in many different areas in Brazil but especially the Amazon where the situation is quite dramatic. Deforestation is not only an environmental problem but is also connected to illegal activities and crime.

The government must begin with a law and order approach by increasing the capacity of law enforcement to apply rules on illegal mining, illegal deforestation, land grabbing, and the attacks on indigenous populations. 

New social and economic policies are also needed to provide alternatives for the populations employed in these activities. Local populations do not control these illegal activities but their employment and livelihoods are dependent on them. This workforce will need jobs in the bio-economy. New, more developed sectors of the economy should replace those jobs associated with environmental damage.

The social, economic, environmental, and democratic crises in Brazil are inextricable from one another.

Lula’s administration also has an urban agenda for the environment. In many regions, especially coastal regions in the east, hundreds of people are displaced every year by landslides.

Environmental issues were not at the centre of Lula’s agenda and the Workers’ Party in the past. Lula has always been associated with developmentalism which, in its more aggressive forms, can justify certain forms of deforestation and large construcion projects that deeply affect the environment. At the same time, when you look at the first Lula government and Marina Silva’s first tenure as environment minister, you find government programmes contributed to a significant decline in deforestation, especially in the Amazon. That then stalled during Dilma Rousseff’s first and second governments (2011 to 2016) before deforestation increased dramatically under Temer and especially Bolsonaro.

Brazil’s economy is dependent on commodity production with a massive domestic meat industry, a large mining sector and an offshore oil industry. Can the new government reconcile the environmental and economic crisis? Aren’t they contradictory objectives for Brazil?

This question will be one of Lula’s biggest political challenges. The government must reconcile the importance of commodities to Brazilian economy, exports and employment in the centre-west regions of the country and at the southern border of the Amazon especially, with the aim of curbing illegal activities associated with deforestation. 

The agricultural sector in Brazil is not monolithic. Agribusiness is generally associated with a very conservative outlook in politics. It provided strong support to Bolsonaro and other conservative candidates throughout Brazil. Regions with higher levels of deforestation, associated with the meat industry, tend to vote more conservative. However, certain sectors of the agroindustry are trying to update their practices. It’s not black and white. New companies, but also old ones, are using new technologies to promote sustainable forms of agriculture. This sector is very slowly adapting to these new practices. There’s a large political battle to be fought here not just by the new government but by progressive forces as well.

International pressure can also have an effect in the near future. It hasn’t had the effect that we would expect so far. The agricultural sector is still hostile to an international, cosmopolitan influence. It is very inward-looking, but with international media coverage and possible sanctions, Brazil is going to have the world’s eyes on it once again. Sanctions are a major concern. If the agroindustry does not adapt good practices for meat production coming from, for example, the Mercosur-EU agreement then risks sanctions.

The European Union, the United States and China are competing to control the green industries of the future. Can Brazil develop its own green industrial sector?

Brazil will certainly have to adapt to the new demands of the international market which will include higher standards for goods and new requirements for exports. I also believe that Brazil has the opportunity to be at the forefront of the green transition and set itself apart from other countries. It can, for example, combine traditional practices with its very advanced environmental sciences to develop a green economy.

Presently, there are constraints of many kinds. Illegal groups controlling land and terrorising local populations in the cerrados (Brazilian savannahs) make it hard to scale a green bio-economy. Brazil needs both the rule of law and new forms of financing to be able to scale up its green economy

Lula’s speeches and those of environment minister Marina Silva, suggest that investing in research and addressing illegal activities are on the cards. This administration understands that Brazil’s environmental issues have captured international interest and if they don’t act soon, Brazil will soon become irrelevant. 

In the Bolsonaro years, civil society spent its energy opposing the authoritarian government, meaning that its attention was not on the international agenda. Now, a new generation of activists is much more concerned about environmental issues. Civil society has never talked more about the environment than it does now. This renewed attention and greater international pressure might combine to push the government to accomplish the goals that it has set for itself. 

Lula’s government will have to take on the challenging task of restoring respect for democratic values and the rule of law.

Lula enters office supported by a broad bloc that stood in opposition to Bolsonaro. To what extent is the need for Brazil to take a different social and environmental course recognised beyond the Workers’ Party in different parts of his coalition?

Lula is a negotiator before anything else. In terms of the national coalition, the most complicated piece of his puzzle is the agribusiness lobby. The agribusiness caucus in congress will defend current laws that enable deforestation on private property. The forest code in Brazil limits felling trees on private property in forests to 20 per cent. There are ongoing discussions on restricting this to 10 per cent, and 0 per cent in some regions. Negotiating this reform in Congress will be very difficult.

But already applying and enforcing the 20 per cent deforestation rule would be a huge accomplishment. The decline seen in deforestation from 2005 to 2013 is an encouraging sign for enforcing the rules.

The social crisis that we see with the Yanomani will also play a part. Brazilians are concerned about the surge in crime and the humanitarian crisis in the north. The government is working in a complex political context with leaders at the local level who have an opposing vision. The governor of Roraima, the state with the large indigenous reserve of the Yanomami, is a hardcore, hyper-conservative Bolsonarista. Other governors are also pushing pro-mining, pro-deforestation agendas in regions such as Rondônia and Amazonia. But the crisis situation and public alarm will provide space for the federal government to oppose the majors, governors, and local political powers who contribute to the problem.

There’s good news about Pará, which is a large, important state. Pará is more aligned with the federal government than it has been in the past. Its governor is trying to curb deforestation and is also portraying Pará at the national and international levels as a poster child for good environmental policies. His ambition is for Brazil to host COP30 in the state capital Belem. 

There’s a lot of synergy between him and Lula’s government. One of his brothers is Lula’s minister of infrastructure. He’s not a leftist by any means – he’s from a traditional, conservative Pará family – but those alliances are taking place now.

It is a sign that it will be hard for a hardcore anti-environmental agenda to take hold but it will remain a battle throughout Lula’s government.

The prospective EU-Mercosur trade deal was frozen in 2019 because of Bolsonaro’s Amazon policy but is now back on the table. Environmentalists, farmers, and leftists in Europe are very concerned about its impacts on the environment and workers’ rights in Brazil as well as its impact on European farming. How important is it to Lula’s economic agenda? What is your perspective on these concerns?

An explicit foreign policy aim of the Bolsonaro government was to retreat from the international spotlight. Bolsonaro and his foreign minister were proud to turn their back on the world. But that position started to crumble when Trump lost the election in the US. 

Now Brazil is coming back and the southern hemisphere is going to be the most important focus of Lula’s foreign policy. He has been in Buenos Aires recently and signed a joint statement with Argentina’s president proposing a unified currency in Mercosur and stronger participation. There are going to be more conversations with regional partners so bigger partnerships such as the EU Mercosur can be jointly negotiated.

The EU-Mercosur agreement got more attention in the EU than in Mercosur. It hasn’t been part of the conversation, even among very well-informed people in Brazil. It is also unclear how progressive forces evaluate the deal. But all this could change as the agreement advances in Europe.

In Brazil, the trade deal could be very divisive. The split will likely be between the anti-imperialist perspective of the traditional Left and the New Left which is more cosmopolitan and less institutional. This New Left might welcome international pressure for the reorganisation of economic practices in Brazil regarding, for example, the protection of workers or even deforestation. However, the traditional Left would likely oppose intervention in Brazilian issues, whether in terms of sanctions or economic regulations. In discussions about the war in Ukraine, some sections of the Left embrace a pro-Russian perspective and an anti-NATO view of the world, while the more cosmopolitan sections of the Left support Ukraine and view the war from a democracy and self-determination lens.

As well as Brazil, Argentina, Chile, and Columbia all have left-wing governments. Do they share a green agenda as well as a progressive one?

I think some very significant similarities and differences make these countries interesting to compare. In Brazil, Lula is in his third term as president. He is a guy from the old Left who is learning the new language of environmentalism and combining it with his old ideas. 

That’s different than in, for example, Chile where environmental issues were at the centre of the formation of Boric’s government from the very beginning. The environment was very important for the estallidos sociales – social upheaval – that took place in the country in 2019 and the new groups of activists. They are a new generation have entered government on a platform focused on gender and environment. 

From what I know about Petro’s coalition in Colombia, the protection of the environment and traditional populations were key issues from the very beginning. His vice-president is a Black woman from the north of the country. She was a social and environmental activist doing fantastic work before becoming vice-president. 

If you look at the agenda of the old red wave in Latin America in the early 2000s, the environment was not in the top five priorities. Now it is and it has to be. For the first time in history, environmental and climate issues might be at the centre of the coalitions of southern countries of the world. 

Petro has been giving lots of signs that the protection of the Amazon is a priority and so has Lula. There’s a lot of space for putting climate and environment at the centre of trade negotiations, technical cooperation, and policing the Amazon. A partnership between Brazil and Columbia could be crucial to the future of the Amazon. There’s an ongoing conversation about an alliance between countries that have large tropical forests. Brazil has around 65 per cent of the Amazon rainforest and the other 35 per cent is spread across several countries in the north of South America, with Colombia having the second largest share. If such thematic alliances form in Latin America, there’s more hope that it could happen globally too with countries such as Congo and Indonesia.

Global politics is seeing deepening tensions: trade wars between China and the US, the war in Ukraine, and talk of deglobalisation and retreating into blocs. What global role does Lula see for Brazil?

One thing that hasn’t changed between Lula’s first administration in the early 2000s and today is the “Global South first” policy. Alliances with Argentina, Chile, Colombia, other southern countries in Latin America, and also African countries are very important to Brazilian foreign policy. Constructive dialogue with China is also very important, along with critical and constructive dialogues with the EU and US. 

But global politics looks different to 20 years ago and the Lula administration is speaking differently. Not only has the environment risen on the global agenda, but Brazil’s closest partners also occupy a different position. Global concern for the environment means that the old development paradigm that supports large construction projects and production while ignoring their environmental costs will need to change. China is much more powerful in the international arena now and receives a larger share of Brazilian exports. Strengthening relations with China will therefore be a very important aspect of the government’s foreign policy.

Besides the policy work, the government has a huge task of reorganising the ministry of foreign affairs. It will need to appoint undervalued civil servants to the right position. It will also have to reopen embassies that have closed down and open new ones around the world. Brazil used to be one of the countries with the largest number of embassies around the world. Brazilian diplomacy was a source of pride and it must be re-established.

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