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Can Brazil's Lula save the Amazon?

ANDREW LIMBONG, HOST:

Our planet's lungs could be on the verge of collapse. The Amazon rainforest is a lush ecosystem larger than half of the continental U.S., and it is in serious danger. Over the past four years, deforestation reached historic levels, and experts say we're near a tipping point that could have dire global consequences. Sixty percent of the Amazon lies in Brazil, and saving the rainforest is a top priority for Brazil's new president, Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, better known as Lula, who took office for the second time this week. Protecting the Amazon was a priority during his last presidency two decades ago, and he's pledged to revitalize those efforts this go-around.

Erika Berenguer is a senior research associate at the Ecosystems Lab at the University of Oxford and Lancaster University and has studied the impacts of deforestation in the Amazon. She joins us now from Oxford. Erika Berenguer, welcome to the program.

ERIKA BERENGUER: Thank you very much.

LIMBONG: All right. So, now, climate change and deforestation can be a pretty big subject to tackle, so I kind of just want to start with the basics. How dire is this situation, and how did we get here?

BERENGUER: The situation is extremely serious, maybe at one of its worst points in my lifetime, and that's because it's during the past four years we've seen a systematic increase in deforestation rates in the Amazon. And as you said, just that double whammy, because we are seeing climate change intensifying through the years.

LIMBONG: Was it the previous president - right? - who - Jair Bolsonaro? Was there, like, actions that he took to increase deforestation rates?

BERENGUER: Yes. So since his campaign trail, Bolsonaro has been pretty against the environment and against the forest and promoting the false dichotomy of you either have development or you have conservation. But that's not true. The Amazon has been developed for the past 50 years of the opening of roads, large-scale farming, and is still the poorest part of Brazil, with Human Development Indexes similar to those of several countries in Africa, as opposed to the rest of Brazil, which some areas have of their Human Development Index is similar to some countries in Europe. So that's the contrast of how the Amazon is more poor despite its so-called development. But he insisted on that idea, and he's been promoting deforestation during the past four years by completely weakening environmental legislation, regulation. And it's been quite dire for the forest.

LIMBONG: So Lula took office this week and has pledged to protect the Amazon, and it's not the first time he's done so. You know, he was president of Brazil from 2004 to 2011, and during that time, deforestation went down by nearly 75% thanks to his work with Environmental Minister Marina Silva. Right? And now that Lula's back in office and has reappointed Silva, what do their plans look like from here on out?

BERENGUER: The plans actually look really good and really strong, which is a welcome surprise. Lula has been putting the Amazon at the center of his government, saying even that maybe the Security Council of the U.N. should be shifted from wars to climate change, as this is the greatest threat that humanity faces in the 21st century. However, the scenario that he faces is really challenging. So during the Bolsonaro administration, we have seen him cutting budget off the environmental agency and off the environmental ministry. So he finds a government that has a very small budget for fighting deforestation. And as well, he faces a Congress that is quite conservative, quite pro the development of the Amazon.

LIMBONG: You know, you'd mentioned that Lula has made saving the Amazon a sort of political platform. How popular is that stance?

BERENGUER: There was a recent research that showed that 80% of Brazilians consider it a crucial part of their identity to have the Amazon within our country. So most people are going to say, yes, I'm pro the conservation of the Amazon. The problem is when we go to the nitty gritty on how that is done, then we face a backlash that comes especially from a very big lobbying Congress, which is what we've called agricultural lobby, which is done by politicians that have tight links to large farming, basically for export of both meat and soy in the Amazon. And most of those farms have expanded illegally, relying on illegal deforestation.

LIMBONG: Yeah. So what can he do to sort of gin up support for these efforts among the people?

BERENGUER: Brazil has been dominated by fake news, a tsunami of fake videos and photos and memes on WhatsApp constantly. So a strong communication on the importance of conserving the rainforest and what the government is doing for it, it's key, but also what Brazil needs is international help, and that is already happening. So that is actually a good sign. So Norway and Germany both have said that the funds that they have allocated for the Amazon fund, which Brazil has had since 2008 to help finance the combat of deforestation in the Amazon, that was suspended during the Bolsonaro government because deforestation was increasing, Germany and Norway already said, well, the money is active again, and that's because of the signs that your new government is giving that it will be strong in fighting deforestation. So that is actually really positive news, and something that is really necessary for Brazil to be able to fight deforestation - money.

LIMBONG: Hmm. What would you say to, like, good-faith arguments from people who are worried that conservation could have negative impacts on economic growth?

BERENGUER: I would say that that's a pretty 19th- and 20th-century economic view. The Amazon, it started to be developed in our traditional ways of development in the '70s, during the dictatorial government, and then large farms were allocated to the region. But what happened is that all those profits stayed in the hands of very few people, and that's why we don't see development in the region. So actually, this is not an argument that holds true in the Amazon. What we need is better distribution of wealth and to realize that in the 21st century, for the combined climate and biodiversity crisis, we need a new development strategy, one that involves keeping the forest healthy and keeping the forests extended.

LIMBONG: That was Erika Berenguer. She is a senior research associate at the University of Oxford and Lancaster University. Erika Berenguer, thanks so much for speaking with us today.

BERENGUER: Thank you for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.