Looking at Lula

Brazil’s Amazon Deforestation Worsens—Despite a "Green" President

Because no one can really picture just how vast 10,000 square miles is, those who talk about the Amazon region have found a handier way to illustrate the scale of rainforest destruction. The total area deforested over the years, for instance, was once described as being larger than France; the devastation now approximates Germany plus Poland. In 1991, an area slightly larger than Lebanon was lost. That was the least-destructive year in the last 15; the average annual toll since then has been about the size of Israel. Two years ago, an area the size of New Hampshire disappeared. Between 2003 and 2004, the damage was even worse: about 10,000 square miles gone—Massachusetts—the second-highest figure in recorded history.

The latest figures, released in May, aren’t surprising. The pace of deforestation has increased every year for the last decade. But what’s gravely disappointing to many Brazilian environmentalists is that the situation got worse—at least six percent worse—during the young presidency of Luiz Inãcio Lula da Silva.

Lula, as he is widely known, took office in 2003 as Brazil’s first left-leaning president in nearly four decades. Environmentalists were thrilled. Lula’s Workers Party had been a powerful friend in Brazil’s congress, and after his victory Lula appointed an internationally respected rainforest activist as his environment minister. But Lula has been on the job now for more than two and a half years and his onetime cheerleaders say his record has been mixed at best. A few have completely lost faith.

"They lost the battle in the Amazon, they broke promises about genetically modified organisms (GMOs) and nuclear policy, and—this is the most important thing—they broke the promise we have with the people in urban areas to solve the problem of sanitation," says Fernando Gabeira, a Green Party federal deputy.

Add to these complaints Lula’s hard push for the multibillion-dollar diversion of Brazil’s second-largest river—the São Francisco—and you have the small party’s rationale for quitting the president’s governing coalition in May. The news from the Amazon, says Gabeira, was merely the last straw.

Yet it will be the fate of the rainforest that likely determines Lula’s environmental legacy, and the latest news caught the administration off-guard. "We are disturbed by the numbers," said Ciro Gomes, minister of national integration, following their release. "But the government is adopting a package of preventive measures that is changing this picture." Chief among these measures has been the creation of giant parcels of federally protected Amazon rainforest. Taken together, the new reserves cover more than 50,000 square miles, an area larger than Louisiana.

While Brazilian environmentalists generally praise the reserve-creation strategy, they caution that it is not enough. Most rainforest clearance is illegal; farmers and loggers either cut down more than what they are permitted (generally speaking, 20 percent of their land) or they freely raid public land. The problem in the Amazon has never been the lack of laws, but the lack of resources liberated to enforce them.

"There are some protected areas in the Amazon that are the size of Belgium and have three [government] people working!" says Nurit Bensusan, coordinator of public policy for the World Wildlife Federation (WWF)-Brazil. "How can you control that? The point is that you don’t have control. In these areas you have the feeling that the Brazilian government never arrived there, that it just didn’t exist."

For the most part, say his critics, Lula’s policy, like leaders before him, has been reduced to reacting in times of crisis. The president announced the creation of five new reserves in the days after the murder in the Amazon of American missionary and environmentalist Dorothy Stang made international headlines. And it took the sting of the latest Amazon report for federal police to suddenly uncover a ring that allegedly sold fraudulent logging licenses. Within a few weeks, the government arrested more than 80 people in all, including top environmental officials in the state of Mato Grosso, where nearly half of last year’s Amazon deforestation occurred. It didn’t help Lula’s image that some of the most prominent arrestees belong to his Workers Party.

Before the election, Lula had articulated what was purported to be a different way of doing things. His environment minister, Marina Silva, would be responsible for spreading the gospel of sustainable growth to other ministries. Only with their help could the laws be enforced. Silva even had a nifty word for her pan-cabinet approach: "transversability."

"At the end of the day it didn’t work," says Bensusan, "because one, many of the actors were not interested, and two, it’s a very heavy plan, relying on a lot of little things that need to be done, by x and y and z ministries, so it’s not easy to implement."

With ideas of sustainability confined to the environment ministry, the government’s current positions on GMOs, nuclear power and the river-diversion project perpetuate what environmentalists say was the traditional growth-at-all costs philosophy of Lula’s predecessors. "This government in environmental issues is much more conservative than former governments, going back to 1988," alleges Frank Guggenheim, executive director of Greenpeace’s Brazil affiliate.

What environmentalists are encountering may be the divided soul of the Workers Party. While it was in the opposition, the party served as a sort of umbrella group for various causes traditionally associated with left-leaning politics, such as the land-rights movement and eco-activism. But its core of support—and much of its leadership—comes from the machine-shop floor, where Lula, a former lathe operator, rose to prominence as Brazil’s bare-knuckled unionist-in-chief. This core appears wary of sacrificing jobs in the short term for what may seem abstract environmental benefits over the long term.

"Lula gets pressure from the soy business and the cattle ranchers, who at the moment are destroying the Amazon more quickly than the loggers," says Guggenheim. "They have a lot of political clout. Lula is paying his bills with the export of soy and meat. So he is absolutely ready to compromise on everything."