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Brazilian Lula is working to reverse deforestation in the Amazon

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RIO DE JANEIRO (AP) — Shaking a traditional rattle, Brazil’s new head of indigenous affairs recently walked through every corner of the agency’s headquarters — even her cafe — as she invoked the help of ancestors during a ritual cleansing.

The ritual held additional significance for Joenia Wapichana, Brazil’s first indigenous woman to command the agency tasked with protecting the Amazon rainforest and its inhabitants. Once sworn in next month under new president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, Wapichana promises to clean up an agency that critics say has allowed the exploitation of Amazon resources to the detriment of the environment. .

As Wapichana performed the ritual, indigenous peoples and government officials enthusiastically chanted “Yoohoo!” Funai is ours!’ — a reference to the agency she will lead.

Environmentalists, indigenous peoples and voters sympathetic to their causes played an important role in Lula’s narrow victory over former President Jair Bolsonaro. Now Lula is seeking to deliver on campaign promises he made to them on a wide range of issues, from expanding indigenous territories to halting a wave of illegal deforestation.

To achieve these goals, Lula is appointing well-known environmentalists and indigenous peoples to key positions at Funai and other agencies that Bolsonaro had filled with agribusiness allies and military officers.

During Lula’s previous two terms as president, he had a mixed record on environmental and indigenous issues. And he is certain to face obstacles from pro-Bolsonaro state governors who still control swathes of the Amazon. But experts say Lula is taking the right first steps.

Federal officials whom Lula has already appointed to key positions “have the national and international prestige to reverse all the environmental destruction we have suffered during these four years of Bolsonaro’s government,” said Ibama analyst George Porto Ferreira. Brazilian environmental law. -executing agency.

Bolsonaro supporters, meanwhile, fear that Lula’s promise to strengthen environmental protections will hurt the economy by reducing the amount of land open to development and punish people for activities that were previously allowed. Some agribusiness-linked supporters have been accused of providing financial and logistical aid to rioters who stormed Brazil’s presidential palace, Congress and Supreme Court earlier this month.

When Bolsonaro was president, he disgraced Funai and other environmental watchdog agencies. This has allowed deforestation to reach its highest level since 2006, as developers and miners who took land from indigenous peoples suffered little consequence.

Between 2019 and 2022, the number of fines imposed for illegal activities in the Amazon decreased by 38% compared to the previous four years, according to an analysis of Brazilian government data by the Climate Observatory, a network of environmental groups with a non-profit.

One of the strongest signs to date of Lula’s intentions to reverse these trends was his decision to fire Marina Silva as head of the country’s environment ministry. Silva held the position between 2003 and 2008, a period when deforestation decreased by 53%. A former Acre state rubber harvester, Silva quit after clashing with government and agribusiness leaders over environmental policies she deemed too lenient.

Silva contrasts sharply with Bolsonaro’s prime environment minister, Ricardo Salles, who had never set foot in the Amazon when he took office in 2019 and resigned two years later following allegations the which it allegedly facilitated the export of illegally felled timber.

Other actions Lula has taken to support the Amazon and its people include:

— The signing of an executive order that would rejuvenate the most important international effort to preserve the rainforest — the Amazon Fund. The fund, which Bolsonaro had drained, received more than $1.2 billion, mostly from Norway, to help fund sustainable development in the Amazon.

— Revoke a decree by Bolsonaro that authorized mining in indigenous and environmental protection zones.

— Create a Ministry of Indigenous Peoples, which will oversee everything from territorial boundaries to education. This ministry will be led by Sônia Guajajara, the first indigenous woman in the country to hold such a high government position.

“It will not be easy to overcome 504 years in just four years. But we are ready to use this moment to promote a revival of Brazil’s spiritual strength,” Guajajara said during his enthronement ceremony, which was delayed by damage to the presidential palace from pro-Bolsonaro rioters.

The Amazon rainforest, which covers an area twice the size of India, acts as a buffer against climate change by absorbing large amounts of carbon dioxide. But Bolsonaro viewed the management of the Amazon as an internal affair, which dealt a blow to Brazil’s global reputation. Lula tries to repair this damage.

At the UN climate summit in Egypt in November, Lula pledged to end all deforestation by 2030 and announced his country’s intention to host the COP30 climate conference in 2025. Brazil was supposed to host the event in 2019, but Bolsonaro canceled it in 2018 after his election.

While Lula has ambitious environmental goals, the fight to protect the Amazon faces complex obstacles. For example, obtaining the cooperation of local authorities will not be easy.

Six of the nine Amazon states are run by Bolsonaro allies. These include Rondonia, where European-born settlers control local power and have dismantled environmental legislation through the state assembly; and Acre, where a lack of economic opportunity is pushing rubber tappers who have long fought to preserve the rainforest to embrace cattle grazing instead.

The Amazon has also been plagued for decades by illegal gold mining, which employs tens of thousands of people in Brazil and other countries, such as Peru and Venezuela. Illegal mining leads to mercury contamination of the rivers that indigenous peoples depend on for fishing and drinking.

“Its main cause is the absence of the state,” says Gustavo Geiser, a federal police forensic expert who has worked in the Amazon for more than 15 years.

One area where Lula has more control is the designation of indigenous territories, which are the best-preserved regions of the Amazon.

Lula is under pressure to create 13 new indigenous territories – a process that had bogged down under Bolsonaro, who kept his promise not to grant “one more inch” of land to indigenous peoples.

A major step will be to expand the size of Uneiuxi, which is part of one of the most remote and culturally diverse regions in the world that is home to 23 peoples. Uneiuxi’s boundary expansion process began four decades ago, and the only remaining step is a presidential signature, which will increase its size by 37% to 551,000 hectares (2,100 square miles).

“Lula has already indicated that he would have no problem doing this,” said Kleber Karipuna, a close aide to Guajajara.

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