Under a new government that won elections on the promise of reinstating the country’s international leadership in the fight against climate change, Brazil has begun the arduous task of reversing the environmental destruction of a far-right climate-denying administration. Some key steps have been taken in rebuilding the government’s environmental monitoring and policy implementation agencies, bringing encouraging results towards the goal of achieving zero deforestation by 2030. But much remains to be done and backlash is guaranteed, embodied in a congress with strong agribusiness representation. Civil society must remain vigilant to sustain environmental policies and resist regressive attempts.

At a meeting with European and Latin American leaders in Brussels this July, Brazil’s President Lula da Silva reiterated a bold commitment: bringing Amazon deforestation down to zero by 2030.

Lula started working towards this goal upon taking office on 1 January, having won the presidency on a promise to reverse the environmental destruction enabled by his far-right climate-denier predecessor Jair Bolsonaro. He still faces major challenges, including hollowed-out environmental agencies and a hostile Congress in which right-wing lawmakers, including several prominent ex-ministers of the Bolsonaro administration, occupy over 60 per cent of seats.

Efforts to enforce environmental legislation seem to be paying off: official data shows that the pace of Amazon deforestation has slowed down in the first half of 2023. Success is by no means guaranteed: much remains to be done and backlash is fierce. But it’s a big step in the right direction.

Back on the global stage

Lula made the promise to end deforestation in his first international speech following his victory, when he attended the COP27 climate summit as president-elect in November 2022. This was a signal to the world that Brazil was back in the global governance system and willing to become the climate champion it needs to be.

Achieving the ambitious zero-deforestation goal will require efforts on a much bigger scale than those of the past. And such efforts will further antagonise very powerful people.

As soon as Lula’s presence at COP27 was confirmed, a national civil society coalition – the Brazilian Forum of NGOs and Social Movements for Environment and Development – asked that he offer to host the 2025 climate summit in Brazil. He did, and it has just been confirmed: in 2025, COP30 will be held in Belém, gateway to the Amazon River.

At COP27 Lula also said he intended to revive and modernise the 45-year old Amazon Cooperation Treaty Organisation, a socio-environmental intergovernmental body bringing together the eight Amazonian countries – Bolivia, Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador, Guyana, Peru, Suriname and Venezuela – to take concerted steps to protect the Amazon rainforest.

What’s holding up Escazú?

The Escazú Agreement – the Regional Agreement on Access to Information, Public Participation and Justice in Environmental Matters in Latin America and the Caribbean – represents hope in the world’s deadliest region for environmental activists. It’s the only binding agreement stemming from the Rio+20 United Nations (UN) Conference on Sustainable Development, the first regional environmental agreement for Latin America and the Caribbean and the first in the world containing specific provisions on environmental human rights defenders.

But since coming into effect in April 2021, only 15 of 33 states have ratified it. Major absentees include several countries in Global Witness’s list of the 10 countries with the world’s highest numbers of killings of land and environmental defenders – including Brazil.

When the agreement was concluded in March 2018, then-president Michel Temer signed it, but neither he nor his successor, Bolsonaro, sent it to Congress for ratification. This was expected to change once a new progressive government took office, as happened in Chile. But in Brazil, it’s taking longer than expected.

In February 2023, at a UN meeting in Geneva, Brazil’s Minister of Human Rights assured participants that the government was committed to ratification and would work with civil society to put together a national protection plan for human rights defenders.

But continuing pressure has been needed from civil society. In March, more than 140 Brazilian and international civil society organisations sent an open letter to Brazil’s Minister of Foreign Affairs urging the government to submit the treaty to Congress for approval. Finally in May, the minister announced that the treaty had been submitted to Congress, saying this would serve to strengthen the links between human rights policies and environmental protection.

Civil society will keep pushing for the ratification and implementation of Escazú. A dedicated movement, Movimento Escazú Brasil, formed by citizens, social movements and civil society groups, networks and coalitions, is working to create awareness about Escazú, advocating with the Federal Executive and National Congress for ratification and implementation, and promoting the participation of Brazilian civil society in the Escazú Agreement summits. It will fall on civil society to ensure the agreement makes a real difference.

Four years of regression

In his four years in office, Bolsonaro dismantled environmental protections and paralysed key environmental agencies by cutting their funding and staff. He denied the reality of climate change and publicly vilified civil society, criminalised activists and discredited the media. His government allowed deforestation to proceed at an astonishing pace and emboldened businesses to grab land, clear it for agriculture by setting the forest on fire and carry out illegal logging and mining.

Upon taking office, the Lula administration denounced the existence of 840 clandestine airstrips in the Amazon that were impossible to miss – proof of both intensive exploitation and a systematic policy of looking the other way. A September 2022 study found that if deforestation continued at the pace of the Bolsonaro years, Brazil would exceed its 2030 carbon emissions target by 137 per cent.

Under Bolsonaro, already embattled Indigenous communities and activists became even more vulnerable to attacks. By encouraging environmental plunder, including in protected and Indigenous land, the government also enabled violence against environmental and Indigenous peoples’ rights defenders.

A blatant example was the murder of Brazilian Indigenous expert Bruno Pereira and British journalist Dom Phillips in June 2022. The two were ambushed and killed during a boat trip along the Itaguaí River in the Javari Valley, the second-largest Indigenous area in Brazil. Pereira was there to meet local fishers and Indigenous communities so they could work together to monitor the area, badly affected by criminal activities, and Phillips was documenting the trip. They were killed on the orders of the leader of an illegal transnational fishing network spanning Brazil, Colombia and Peru. Both the material and intellectual authors of the crimes have now been charged and are awaiting trial.

Reversing the regression

The new administration has sought to restructure and resource control and monitoring institutions, with the aim of fighting illegal activities linked to environmental degradation and preserving Indigenous peoples’ rights and enhancing their role in environmental conservation. It strengthened the Brazilian Institute for the Environment and Renewable Natural Resources (IBAMA), the federal agency in charge of enforcing environmental policy, and the National Foundation of Indigenous Peoples (FUNAI), which for the first time since its creation in 1967 is headed by an Indigenous person, Joenia Wapichana.

FUNAI had been thoroughly dismantled by Bolsonaro, who transferred it to the Ministry of Agriculture, run by a leader of the congressional agribusiness caucus. Instead of protecting Indigenous land, it enabled deforestation and fostered the expansion of agribusiness.

In contrast, Lula’s first political gestures were to create a new ministry for Indigenous peoples’ affairs, appointing Indigenous leader Sonia Guajajara to lead it, and to appoint Marina Silva, a leader of the environmentalist party Rede Sustentabilidade, as Minister for the Environment. Silva held this post between 2003 and 2008, stepping up measures against deforestation and strengthening environmental inspections.

Right after taking office in January, Lula also restored the Action Plan for the Prevention and Control of Deforestation in the Amazon, launched in 2004 and implemented until Bolsonaro took over. In February, the government set up a Permanent Inter-Ministerial Commission for the Prevention and Control of Deforestation and Fires in Brazil to coordinate actions across 19 ministries and develop zero deforestation policies.

This strategy establishes a permanent federal government presence in vulnerable areas with the aim of eliminating illegal activities. It goes beyond the usual seasonal measures to confiscate or destroy illegal miners’ equipment, forcing their temporary retreat. It involves setting up bases operated by IBAMA alongside the Federal Police, Ministry of Defence and FUNAI, and using intelligence and satellite imagery to track criminal activity.

The newly appointed Federal Police’s Director for the Amazon and the Environment, Humberto Freire, launched a campaign to rid protected Indigenous land of illegal miners, and this appears to be paying off: in July he announced that around 90 per cent of the 20,000 miners operating in Yanomami territory, Brazil’s largest protected Indigenous land, had been expelled. According to police sources, there were 19 mine-related deforestation alerts in April 2023 – compared to 444 in April 2022.

But Freire warned the fight wasn’t over. There are still a couple of thousand miners active and the criminal enterprises employing them remain very much alive. The key task of recovering damaged land and rivers can only begin once they’re all driven away for good. And an issue that cries out for international cooperation remains unresolved: violence and environmental degradation continue to be a daily experience for Yanomami communities across the border in Venezuela, and they keep growing as illegal miners jump jurisdictions.

Achieving the ambitious zero-deforestation goal will require efforts on a much bigger scale than those of the past. And such efforts will further antagonise very powerful people.

Obstacles ahead

With the environmental agenda back on track, the pace of Amazon deforestation slowed down in the first six months of 2023, falling by 34 per cent compared to the same period in 2022. However, numbers still remain high and reductions are uneven, with two states – Roraima and Tocantins – showing increases. Deforestation is also still rising in another important part of Brazil’s environment, the Cerrado, where preservation areas are few and most deforestation happens on private properties.

Even in the Amazon it may be too early to confirm a downward trend. A crucial test will come in the second half of the year, when temperatures are higher. A stronger El Niño phase, with warming waters in the Pacific Ocean, will make the weather even drier and hotter than usual, helping fires spread fast. Anticipating this, IBAMA has scaled up its recruitment of firefighters to expand brigades in Indigenous and Black communities and conduct inspections and impose fines and embargoes. To discourage people from starting fires to clear land for agriculture, the agency prevents them putting those lands to agricultural use.

But in the meantime, Brazil’s Congress has gone on the offensive. In June, the Senate made radical amendments to the bill on ministries sent by Lula, diluting the powers of the Ministries of Indigenous Peoples and Environment and limiting demarcation of Indigenous lands to those already occupied by communities by 1998, when the current constitution was enacted.

Indigenous leaders have complained that many communities weren’t on their land in 1998 because they’d been expelled over the course of centuries, and particularly during the military dictatorship between 1964 and 1985. They denounced the new law as ‘legal genocide’ and urged the president to veto it. Civil society has taken to the streets and social media to support the government’s environmental policies.

They face a formidable enemy. A recent report by the Brazilian Intelligence Agency exposed the political connections of illegal mining companies. Two business leaders directly associated with this criminal activity are active congressional lobbyists and maintain strong links with local politicians. They also stand accused of financing an attempted insurrection on 8 January, shortly after Lula’s inauguration, that challenged the election result.

Against these shady elites, civil society wields the most effective weapon at its disposal, shining a light on their dealings and letting them know that Brazil and the world are watching, and will remain vigilant for as long as it takes. The stakes are too high to drop the guard.


  • Civil society must remain vigilant and sustain networks to protect socio-environmental policies and prevent further regressions.
  • Brazil’s government must work together with its counterparts in other Amazonian states to establish common protection policies and prevent the movement of illegal actors across borders.
  • Brazil must ratify the Escazú Agreement as soon as possible and start implementing consultation and protection mechanisms under the provisions of the treaty.

Cover photo by Mauro Pimentel/AFP via Getty Images