Trees lie in an area of recent deforestation identified by agents of the Chico Mendes Institute in the Chico Mendes Extractive Reserve, Acre state, Brazil, Thursday, Dec. 8, 2022. Brazil’s incoming president, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, has promised to eliminate all deforestation by 2030, which would be a complete change of course for Brazil compared to the last four years. (AP Photo/Eraldo Peres)
President Joe Biden and Brazilian President Luis Inácio Lula da Silva (known simply as Lula) are scheduled to meet in Washington, D.C., next week at a time of great political polarization in both the United States and Brazil. But those profound divides are not the only existential threat to their nations and the wider world in which they are both among the most important leaders.
Both presidents must do their utmost to slow and ultimately halt and reverse the global climate and biodiversity crises that threaten and are already damaging the security and well-being of their citizens. These two leaders are uniquely positioned to address these crises in the Amazon region.
No one should underestimate the size of this challenge. Former Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro’s government dismantled environmental law enforcement capacities in the Amazon. As a result, organized crime has grown in numbers and in local political influence, and it is more linked to international criminal organizations and better equipped for violence — including against government forces — than ever before.
Addressing these challenges in the Amazon is critical — locally and globally. Healthy Amazonian forests form an essential part of the natural infrastructure that helps regulate the global climate and are the basis for a thriving biodiversity-based economy. They are also the native habitat of millions of species and home to a diverse cultural landscape of Indigenous peoples and afro-descendant and riverine communities.
While navigating these challenges in the Amazon is complex, success is achievable. This is Lula’s second tenure as president, and the last time he was in office (2003 to 2010), the Brazilian government’s program for the prevention and control of deforestation in the Amazon drove an 83 percent decrease in forest loss, from 2004 to 2012. That’s the lowest rate since the surge of deforestation by the military dictatorship in the 1970s. This was the single most effective government program to combat tropical deforestation in world history.
To deliver these results, Lula’s government imposed serious sanctions on municipalities where deforestation was highest, created new conservation areas and reduced the backlog of Indigenous Territory demarcations required under Brazil’s Constitution. Critically, the government also prioritized effective enforcement of existing laws and regulations that rendered most deforestation illegal.
Sadly, since then, rates of deforestation and forest degradation have increased, accelerating during Bolsonaro’s tenure — especially on land that is actually owned by Brazil’s national government. Most of the southern Amazon forest, covering an area the size of Mexico and stretching from the Atlantic Ocean to Bolivia, is close to a tipping point. If exceeded, more than 50 percent of the rainforest would be converted into open-canopy degraded ecosystems.
The dry season in the southern Amazon is now a month longer than it was in the 1980s. Along with extensive deforestation and degradation in this region, widespread mortality of wet-climate tree species that cannot resist the lengthened dry season has shifted the region’s forests from net absorption of carbon dioxide, to net emission.
In other words, a region that previously helped to cool the planet now contributes to its accelerated warming. Degradation and climate change reinforce each other because the impoverishment of forests renders them far more vulnerable to fires.
In a 2020 U.S. presidential debate, then-candidate Biden, promised to raise $20 billion to protect the Amazon. Then-president Bolsonaro roundly rejected the offer. Lula would not. In fact, his government now actively seeks partners to help finance and implement a set of priority interventions to protect and restore healthy Amazonian forests and the benefits they provide, as well as the heavily impacted Indigenous peoples and local communities.
Biden should commit and raise resources commensurate with his campaign promise. The U.S. government should be asking Lula and his Environment Minister Marina Silva to specify their priorities for U.S. support. And Biden should respond with ambition and urgency to help the current Brazilian leadership to do what’s needed to reclaim effective governance and halt and reverse the destruction in the Amazon.
In recent years that has included illegal mining, illegal logging, illegal hunting, as well as illegal deforestation for public land grabbing, land speculation and agricultural expansion — with nearly complete impunity for this criminality and related violence against Indigenous peoples and local communities.
The territory in question lies indisputably within Brazil’s sovereign borders, although the crisis within it is existential not only for Brazilians — but for the rest of world as well. Biden should continue to support Lula as a proven good-faith partner to help turn this crisis into an opportunity for global leadership. The world depends on it.
Carlos Nobre is an earth systems scientist with the Institute for Advanced Studies, University of São Paulo, a member of the Brazilian Academy of Science and a foreign member of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences. He is also co-chair of the Science Panel for the Amazon, an initiative created by UN’s Sustainable Development Solutions Network. He was one of the authors of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report that shared the Nobel Peace Prize with Al Gore in 2007.
Daniel Zarin is executive director of forests and climate change at the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS).