The significance of the Amazon, a region that occupies about 40 per cent of South America’s land mass and contains a third of the world’s trees, in the fight against climate change can hardly be overstated.

The Brazilian Amazon recorded more fires in the first week of September alone than in the whole of the same month last year, according to Brazil Institute for Space Research. Fires are a common way to clear land for crops and grazing.Credit:AP

When healthy, the rainforest’s annual carbon uptake is similar to Germany’s total greenhouse gas emissions. The landscape also plays a crucial role in regulating weather patterns. Its trees release huge amounts of moisture into the air, generating a river of rain that can affect precipitation half a continent away.

The rainforest spreads across nine nations, but some 60 per cent is in Brazil. Under Bolsonaro, who campaigned promised to open up the Amazon to business, rates of deforestation in the Amazon have reached record highs. Satellite images reveal the ecosystem has shrunk by about 17 per cent and parts of the forest now emit more carbon dioxide than they absorb.

More than 2 billion trees in the Amazon have been cut down or burnt on Bolsonaro’s watch, according to Imazon and MapBiomas, two of Brazil’s most renowned environmental research groups.

A billboard supporting Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro at the entrance of a farm in the municipality of Humaita, Amazonas state, Brazil, where deforestation is rife.Credit:AP

A study published in the journal Nature Climate Change in March showed the Amazon could soon approach a “tipping point”, at which swaths of the rainforest convert irreversibly to drier, more open grasslands. This would release millions of tonnes of carbon stored in the rainforest’s soils and trees, making it almost impossible for the world to achieve its most ambitious climate goals and averting catastrophic warming, scientists have warned.

A recent analysis published by the website Carbon Brief found that if Lula follows through on a pledge to enforce Brazil’s Forest Code, a law that requires private landowners to preserve native vegetation on a certain fraction of their property, he could reduce deforestation by 89 per cent by the end of the decade.

“This is a key element of stabilising global climate, second to stopping fossil fuel use,” tweeted climatologist Stefan Rahmstorf, head of Earth systems analysis at the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research in Germany. The morning after Lula’s win, he wrote, was “a day of hope for the world”.

The victory was inspiring for Manoela Machado, an ecologist at the Woodwell Climate Research Center who studies fire prevention in the Amazon.

“The promise or the hope now is the government won’t be so permissive” of illegal logging and land clearing, she said. “It means I’m more energetic to fight than ever before.”

The government of Norway said on Monday it would resume financial aid to Brazil to reduce deforestation through a global protection fund, Brazilian media reported.

Norwegian Environmental Minister Espen Barth Eide told the news agency NTB that his government would contact Lula’s team to resume the aid that was halted in 2019.

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But Lula faces a tremendous challenge, given the scope and impact of policies passed under Bolsonaro and the accumulated damage, analysts and activists say.

“It will be very difficult to reverse the environmental policy overnight,” said Marcio Astrini, executive secretary of the advocacy network Climate Observatory. “Bolsonaro has sabotaged the institutions that fight environmental crimes. It will take time to restructure these public agencies.”

Brazil has long struggled to bring order to the Amazon, but conditions have worsened significantly under Bolsonaro.

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Environmentalists say he has emboldened criminals by siding with those who want to exploit resources for economic gain, assailing the institutions charged with protecting the rainforest and its Indigenous communities and permitting illegal mining.

Some analysts warn that a bloc of lawmakers with ties to agriculture could try to block Lula’s environmental policies and pass legislation to facilitate land-grabbing and illegal mining.

Lula, who has spoken of turning Brazil into a “climate champion”, said his administration would be open to “international cooperation to preserve the Amazon” through investment or scientific research.

“What is new about this time is that he sees climate and the Amazon as an economic asset, and as a vehicle to put Brazil back in the international scenario, after Bolsonaro’s years of isolation,” said Pedro Abramovay, executive director for Latin America and the Caribbean at Open Society.

In Colombia, 42 per cent of which is considered part of the Amazon, President Gustavo Petro has pledged to work with Lula and other South American leaders to combat deforestation.

But those plans are already proving difficult to implement for Petro, and have exposed differences in vision between the two leftist leaders. While Petro suggested building an anti-oil bloc in the region, Lula has rejected the idea for Brazil.

“When governments change, it doesn’t automatically change what happens to the forest,” said Federal University of Minas Gerais professor Raoni Rajão, one of Brazil’s leading researchers on deforestation. He said it was unclear how Lula would bring new infrastructure projects in the Amazon without causing more damage.

Any substantial change will take time, Rajão said. The budgets of the environmental control agencies have already been allocated for 2023.

The Washington Post