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LATIN AMERICA | 10-04-2023 12:46

Bold talk, slow walk as Brazil's Lula sets out to save Amazon

Environmentalists call for Lula to put his money where his mouth is by ramping up funding to protect the Amazon

When it comes to what some call his most important job — saving the Amazon rainforest — President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva has been talking the talk, vowing "Brazil is back" in the fight against climate change.

Now, environmentalists say it is time for him to walk the walk — and for the international community to put its money where its mouth is by ramping up funding to protect the Amazon, a vital resource in the race to kerb global warming.

Lula, who marks his 100th day in office Monday, has made a radical break with the environmental policies of far-right predecessor Jair Bolsonaro, vowing to fight for zero deforestation in the Amazon after a surge of destruction the past four years.

The 77-year-old leftist got down to business on day one, signing a flurry of decrees to undo Bolsonaro's environmental legacy, create an inter-ministerial anti-deforestation task force and revive the suspended Amazon Fund, an internationally financed initiative to protect the rainforest.

But environmentalists say they are still waiting for the next step from him and respected Environment Minister Marina Silva: concrete actions to stop the destruction of the Amazon by land-grabbers, cattle ranches and illegal gold mines.

"We're finally back to having a quote-unquote 'normal' government," said Cristiane Mazzetti of Greenpeace Brasil.

"Now we're just waiting for it to enter the implementation phase," she told AFP. "We need to see results."

 

Show me the money

Despite receiving a warm welcome on the world stage, Lula has struggled to get wealthy countries to fund the fight to protect the Amazon.

He came away from a high-profile White House visit with Joe Biden in February with a vague promise of US "intent" to support the Amazon Fund — but with no date or amount specified.

In January, Germany pledged 200 million euros (US$219 million) for the rainforest, including 35 million euros for the Amazon Fund, which was launched in 2008 with a US$1-billion commitment from Norway.

But Brazil's efforts to get the European Union, Britain, France and Spain to contribute have yet to pan out.

Environmentalists say Lula's cash-strapped government is in a bind: it needs more money to reduce deforestation, but needs to reduce deforestation to attract more money.

"There are so many fronts where the government simply can't do anything because it doesn't have the resources," said Rodrigo Castro of environmental group Solidaridad.

One notable exception: a massive police and army operation launched in February to wrest back control of Brazil's biggest indigenous reservation, the Yanomami territory, from thousands of illegal gold miners who had invaded it, triggering a humanitarian crisis.

 

'No time to spare'

Years of impunity for destroying the forest mean the problem's roots run too deep for an instant fix, environmentalists say.

That became clear when Lula's second month in office set a new record for February deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon.

Activists say Lula's government needs to fight all-out on multiple fronts: massively upscale "command and control" operations; bust organised crime groups that profit from destroying the forest; invest big in the "green economy"; and keep its promise to resume creating new indigenous reservations.

They describe it as a government with good intentions, but overwhelmed by the magnitude of the mess it faces.

"The administration's main mission so far has been just disarming the traps left by the Bolsonaro government," said Raul do Valle of the World Wildlife Fund-Brazil.

But the issue is urgent, with a slate of recent studies showing the Amazon's ability to absorb humans' carbon emissions is flagging.

"There's no time to spare," said Mazzetti.

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by Joshua Howat Berger, AFP

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