Brazil’s Lula picks Amazon defender to run environment ministry

The Lula government has promised to tackle deforestation, which reached record highs under the Bolsonaro administration.

Lula with Marina Silva
Brazil's President-elect Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva poses in September with Marina Silva, an Amazon defender primed to become the country's next environment minister [File: Andre Penner/AP Photo]

Brazil’s President-elect Luiz Inacio Lula Da Silva has said that he will appoint an advocate against Amazon deforestation as the head of the country’s environment ministry, marking a sharp departure from the outgoing government of Jair Bolsonaro.

Lula announced his final batch of cabinet appointments in a press conference on Thursday, ahead of his January 1 inauguration. One of the most prominent names was Marina Silva, who will join the cabinet as environment minister.

Born in the Amazon rainforest, Silva was a child worker in the rubber industry who overcame illiteracy to become a Goldman Prize-winning environmental organiser. Her appointment indicates that Lula’s administration plans to crack down on the illegal development and resource extraction that has devastated large swaths of the forest.

“Brazil will return to the protagonist role it previously had when it comes to climate, to biodiversity,” Silva told reporters at the United Nations Climate Change Conference, or COP27, in Egypt, which she attended alongside Lula.

The pair have promised to make the protection of the Amazon rainforest a priority, even if it means clashing with Brazil’s powerful agribusiness sector. Under the tenure of far-right President Jair Bolsonaro, deforestation reached record highs.

Speaking at the climate conference in November, Lula promised that there would be “zero” deforestation, saying that – if the Amazon is not protected – “there will be no climate security”.

Lula was elected in October, defeating Bolsonaro and completing a remarkable political comeback that ended with him ascending to the Brazilian presidency for a third term.

During Lula’s previous two terms in office, starting in 2003, Silva also served as environment minister, where she gained a reputation as a thorn in the side of the agribusiness sector that has driven much of the deforestation.

Under her leadership, the ministry created dozens of conservation areas, launched an effort to target environmental criminals and used a new system of satellite surveillance to monitor the forest. Deforestation dropped substantially, but Silva resigned in 2008 as Lula began to court farming interests.

In the years since, Lula’s political ambitions were stymied as corruption charges sent the former president to jail. But Brazil’s Supreme Court annulled the convictions in 2021, allowing Lula to resume his political career.

Lula’s return as a 2022 presidential candidate has coincided with his renewed calls for greater environmental preservation. Silva joined his most recent presidential campaign and said his administration would take on a front-and-centre role in the global fight against climate change.

Their position comes as a relief to environmental advocates, who criticised Bolsonaro for pushing to open the Amazon to business interests and turning a blind eye to deforestation.

Indigenous people and environmental activists have also faced high levels of violence as powerful business interests sought to clear large swathes of the forests. On Thursday, Lula also named Sonia Guajajara as Brazil’s first minister of Indigenous peoples.

However, the new administration is likely to face strong resistance from Congress, where lawmakers aligned with the agribusiness and farming sectors will make up about one-third of the Lower House and Senate.

“At the time, Marina Silva was perhaps a little too extremist, but people from the agro sector also had some extremists,” said Neri Geller, a lawmaker of the agribusiness caucus. “I think she matured and we matured. We can make progress on important agenda items for the sector while preserving [the environment] at the same time.”

Lula’s cabinet picks indicate that he will seek to navigate the reality of a powerful conservative opposition while working to make good on his promises to pursue environmental and economic justice.

Last week, Lula announced that Vice President-elect Geraldo Alckmin would serve as the minister of development, industry and trade, and business-friendly Congressman Alexandre Padilha was appointed institutional affairs minister.

“We know that the challenge ahead is great,” Lula wrote on Twitter before the announcements. “But we will work together to rebuild the country.”

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies