This past Sunday, leftist politician Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva narrowly beat out incumbent Jair Bolsonaro in the Brazilian presidential election. The results are being celebrated in public health and climate justice circles all over the world. In a race Lula da Silva won 50.9 percent to 49.1 percent, his presidency is expected to bring a welcome 180 degree turn to Brazil’s handling of the climate crisis. President Bolsonaro has only been in power since 2019, yet under his pandemic-denying autocratic rule, Brazil saw nearly 700,000 citizens perish to the coronavirus. He also enabled the destruction of over 8.4 million acres of the Amazon. During his term, he instituted an alt-right agenda of questioning the media, fired top environmental scientists, opened up more pristine wilderness to agribusiness, stripped Indigenous peoples of their rights, presided over increasing poverty and illiteracy rates, and in true Trumpian style, questioned the legitimacy of Brazil’s election system.
Looking at the political climate in Brazil, what we see in the mirror is a reflection of the political upheavals that have taken root not just in the United States, but also in the U.K. and around the world. In Sunday’s election, Bolsonaro attempted to suppress voting in regions where Lula had stronger levels of support,increasing traffic stops and roadblocks en route to polling places. Some political commentators think he will reemploy his earlier claims of voter fraud to rile up supporters when the next election occurs. In some quarters, there is a fear that an insurrection, not unlike that which occurred in the U.S. on January 6th, could erupt before Bolsonaro leaves office on January 1st. Popular social media and messaging sites are full of conspiracy theories that Lula stole the election and will transform Brazil’s democracy into a dictatorship. Growing political polarization is evident in Brazil as seen in the actions of hundreds of Bolsonaro’s supporters that took to the streets after the election to block traffic in protest of the results.
After observing the deepening social rifts created by the Trump presidency in the U.S., some Brazilians are not optimistic that the country can be united under Lula. With a Brazilian Congress dominated by conservatives and, since the early October elections, even greater representation from the Far Right, finding support to implement his agenda will be difficult. Nevertheless, Lula will have a mandate to dramatically change the political and economic course of the country.
Lula’s win represents more than a return to Left politics in Brazil. It shows a strong desire for an alternative to the deepening immiseration of working people, one that would address fundamental issues of justice, sustainability, and prosperity for the popular classes. Currently, 33 million Brazilians are facing acute hunger while 100 million live in poverty. Lula’s priorities include an ambitious list of proposals to seek equal pay, build affordable housing, increase the minimum wage, and bring electricity and other services to rural areas. Lula previously served as Brazil’s president from 2003 to 2010. During his term, his policies helped lift 10 percent of the Brazilian population out of poverty while halting 80 percent of rainforest destruction.
During this most recent campaign, Lula has promised to rectify the high levels of deforestation that have occurred under Bolsonaro’s watch with a goal of reaching zero deforestation during his presidency. The Amazon is at risk of becoming one of a number of critical environmental “tipping points.” The desertification of major regions in the Southern Amazon is already converting previously forested areas of rich biological diversity into net emitters of carbon dioxide. Deforestation and habitat destruction are the leading causes of the global biodiversity crisis - often referred to as the Sixth Mass Extinction.
And Lula is ready to push this cause internationally. Even before his election win, his team had begun coordinating a Rainforest Alliance with leaders from Indonesia and the Democratic Republic of the Congo to exert greater pressure on wealthy nations for more climate funding at COP27 later this month. To keep the momentum, he plans to host a regional Amazon rainforest summit in 2023 to revisit and strengthen the Amazon Cooperation Treaty Organization. In his previous term as president, Brazil set up the Amazon Fund, which became one of the most important mechanisms for funding environmental protection agencies in the country.
Lula’s insistence on creating the conditions now for a better future is a lesson for us all. The brief and chaotic term of Liz Truss as the Prime Minister of the U.K. is indicative of the folly and uselessness of short-termism. All our decisions have ripple effects; the leaders we elect and policies they create should be able to outlast a head of lettuce. We live in a deeply interconnected global system. And as recent political upheaval around the world has made abundantly clear, we cannot afford to think short term and pay the IOU when it comes due later – whether in the form of climate disasters, political instability, toxic polarization, or allowing the overconcentration of power.
As U.S. citizens head to the polls to vote in the midterms next week, keep in mind that Lula’s win was made possible by a popular mobilization. The majority of Brazilians knew that four more years of Bolsonaro would spell disaster for the country and the planet. In the tense hours after the election, military and political leaders that were staunch supporters of Bolsonaro understood the possibility of violence and accepted the election results. Street blockades of his supporters were cleared by police and ultimately, Bolsonaro himself begrudgingly conceded. Democracy and climate justice are not ideals, they are practices. We should keep that in mind as we vote, too. Political participation does not begin, nor does it end, at the ballot box.
Nina Schlegel and Ashley Katchmar
Global Center for Climate Justice