For Indigenous defenders of Brazil’s rainforests, ‘Lula is our only hope’

For the past four years, Wenatoa Parakana has seen the rainforest her ancestors fiercely defended being cut down at breakneck speed.

In this remote part of the Brazilian Amazon, pristine jungle gives way to cattle pastures and loggers chop down thick trees that have stood for centuries. Hoping to get rich, wild miners head deep into the forest in search of gold.

“They are invading our country” said Wenatoa, a 32-year-old community leader, as she stood in front of the cooking hut in her village in the Apyterewa Reservation. “They knock down trees, plant soybeans.”

A child silhouetted in a river against an orange sky

An indigenous boy bathes in the Xingu River in the village of Piaracu, in the state of Mato Grosso, Brazil.

(Carl de Souza/AFP/Getty Images)

As deforestation progresses, hunting in the thinning jungle areas has become more difficult for the approximately 900 Parakana tribes who live in the 1.9 million hectare reserve. Illegal mining has polluted the Xingu River, leaving residents without clean water.

But for Wenatoa and other Amazonians, there is a glimmer of hope on the horizon: Brazil’s newly elected President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva has vowed to stop the destruction of rainforests and evict invaders from indigenous reserves like this one.

“Lula is our only hope,” she said. “He will help us.”

Deforestation in Brazil hit a multi-year high under outgoing President Jair Bolsonaro, who mocked international calls to stem the destruction while weakening environmental policing. He claimed that protecting forests was limiting economic growth and advocated opening protected areas to mining and ranching.

The results have been clear: land speculators have penetrated deep into the rainforests, and parts of the Brazilian Amazon are now emitting more carbon than they absorb. Scientists warn the forest is nearing a tipping point where it will transform into a savanna, with devastating consequences for global climate.

Lula, who is ready to take office on January 1 after narrowly beating Bolsonaro, has promised the government will turn over a leaf. He has made the environment a cornerstone of his agenda and has vowed to crack down on deforestation, punish those who trespass and make Brazil a leader in the global fight against climate change.

A bearded man in a suit kisses a woman on the forehead

Brazilian President-elect Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, right, with indigenous activist Puyr Tembe at the United Nations Climate Change Summit November 17, 2022 in Sharm el Sheikh, Egypt.

(Peter Dejong / Associated Press)

“I’m here to tell you all that Brazil is back,” Lula said at the United Nations climate summit in Egypt last month, as hundreds of attendees cheered and chanted his name. “You all know that we are going to fight a great fight against deforestation.”

Lula has already negotiated the relaunch of an international Amazon fund that once funded conservation projects until it was suspended in 2019 amid rapid deforestation, freezing more than $500 million in aid.

He’s also soliciting new donors, including the US and UK, to raise much-needed money to fund his ambitious goal of ending deforestation by 2030.

In a nod to those on the front lines of fighting to save the Amazon, Lula is also widely expected to quickly begin reclaiming indigenous lands, a process paralyzed by Bolsonaro and widely regarded as one of the most effective ways to conserve the Amazon forests is viewed.

“It would send a message, not just to the indigenous people, but to everyone who is concerned about the environment,” said Celia Xakriaba, a newly elected indigenous woman in Congress and a member of Lula’s transition team. “It’s a unique moment of opportunity, a chance to move forward and reverse the damage.”

Lula’s pledges have sparked hopes at home and abroad that he could save the Amazon, almost two-thirds of which is in Brazil. The rainforest is one of the world’s major carbon sinks, absorbing about 2 billion tons of atmosphere-warming gases annually, but it has lost 10% of its native vegetation over the past four decades, according to a new report.

During his two terms in office, from 2003 to 2010, Lula implemented a multi-year plan that reduced deforestation by 80% and transformed Brazil into a leading environmental company. Now he plans to repeat that success by again increasing the police force and offering incentives to communities to protect the forest.

“Lula needs to revisit this plan, looking at what has worked well in the past, but also looking at the present and the future,” said Mariana Mota, public policy expert at Greenpeace Brazil.

An aerial view of clusters of tree trunks in a clearing

An illegal logging in Humaita in the Brazilian state of Amazonas on September 17, 2022.

(Michael Dantas/AFP/Getty Images)

But reviving those policies, which were dismantled under Bolsonaro, this time may not be enough to stem the destruction. When Lula returns to office, he will face a hostile Congress that includes Bolsonaro allies like Ricardo Salles, a former environment minister who resigned last year after being linked to an illegal logging program.

And a powerful agricultural bloc in Congress could undermine Lula’s efforts to advance a green agenda by pushing proposals aimed at facilitating deforestation and land grabs.

“It is important that these bills are not advanced,” Mota said. “Because if they are approved, it will bury the possibility of Lula making good on his deforestation promises.”

As Brazil faces a gaping deficit amid a painful economic slowdown, Lula must also look abroad for new sources of cash to fund conservation efforts while convincing lawmakers to remove tax obstacles preventing it from overspending out of the country.

Experts say perhaps what Lula needs most urgently is to rebuild the state’s ability to fight deforestation and strengthen environmental agencies that were stripped of staff and resources under Bolsonaro.

“The government needs to show that things have changed, that Brazil is punishing environmental crimes again,” said Marcio Astrini, executive secretary of Brazil’s climate observatory, a coalition of environmental groups.

But deep in the Amazon, where many survive from the destruction of the rainforest, conservation remains a tough nut to crack. Illegal mining, land grabbing, and ranching have become engines of economic growth in some forest communities. Here, the pull of beef and gold — and the quick bucks they bring — far outweighs greener alternatives.

A huge herd of white cattle in a tree-strewn clearing

Cattle on a farm in Sao Felix do Xingu in the Brazilian state of Para in 2021.

(Jonne Roriz/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

“There will be resistance; these activities will not stop overnight,” Astrini said. “Because it’s a lot of money. There has been investment in environmental crime over the past four years.”

Lula has offered a different, albeit vague, vision. He says communities can generate income without cutting down trees, instead extracting exotic fruits and ingredients for new medicines and luxury cosmetics from the jungle.

In Triunfo do Xingu, some already harmful economic models are turning their backs.

For decades, Maria da Conceicao Alves Rodrigues, 71, raised cattle on a 30-hectare property in this reserve, which has become one of the most deforested parts of the Brazilian Amazon, despite being earmarked for sustainable development.

Now her family is planting cocoa trees, helping to reforest this piece of jungle.

“I didn’t want to mess with cattle anymore,” Rodrigues said in a shady patch in front of her farmhouse, flanked by acai palms and banana bushes that have replaced the cattle pasture.

Her son, Adivino Estelita Alves, 52, agreed: “We plant so that we can have an income in the future. Cocoa is a sustainable source.”

But her family’s cacao trees will take years to bear fruit and bring prosperity. And success is far from certain: this year, an intense drought killed hundreds of seedlings. Planes spraying pesticides over neighboring soybean fields pose another threat.

“We still can’t live off our crops,” said Alves. “But we keep planting more and more. We want to be successful.”

A young girl in a red dress holds three bright yellow oblong fruits

Mayza Rodrigues, 6, holds some cocoa pods from a tree on the plantation her parents own in Sao Felix do Xingu.

(Mauro Pimentel/AFP/Getty Images)

The agroforestry project, which aims to plant around 40,000 cocoa trees in this region, shows a way forward while highlighting the challenges ahead. Unlike soy plantations, which require vast stretches of bare land, cocoa farms can mimic natural forests, capturing carbon dioxide and providing habitat for animals. In Triunfo do Xingu, cocoa trees are planted along with dozens of other plant species, restoring the forest that once stood here.

It would probably be impossible without the help of Nature Conservancy, a global nonprofit funded by donations from companies like Amazon and Mondelez that guides farmers like Rodrigues.

“For a long time there was nothing here but cattle,” says Gustavo Mariano Rezende, a specialist in ecological restoration at the Conservancy. “And cocoa has come as this great alternative. But these families still need the know-how to take care of it.”

Back in Apyterewa, as night fell, Wenatoa and her family huddled in a roughly built wooden house. She settled into a hammock, pulled her toddler onto her lap, and curled up in front of a battered satellite TV to catch the nightly news.

A woman with dark hair and a green t-shirt is holding a young girl

Wenatoa Parakana and her daughter in Apyterewa Reserve in Para State.

(Ana Ionova / For the Time)

A shack-like house in a village with a large circular antenna nearby

A village in the Apyterewa Indigenous Reservation, home of the Parakana people. The reserve has come under pressure from deforestation and land grabs in recent years.

(Ana Ionova / For the Time)

A serious looking Lula was speaking from the UN climate summit more than 6,200 miles away. In an impassioned speech, he promised indigenous people a voice in his government.

Lula’s legacy in Apytereva is mixed. The Parakana credit him with demarcating their reservation in 2007, ending a decades-long struggle over land rights.

But his government was also the driving force behind the Belo Monte Hydroelectric Power Plant, which wiped out their traditional way of life and bitterly divided Parakana.

Still, Wenatoa and others here seem ready to welcome Lula back with open arms.

“We have hope,” she says. “Now that he’s back, things will be better for us.”

Ionova is a special correspondent. For Indigenous defenders of Brazil’s rainforests, ‘Lula is our only hope’

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