Brazil Has A New President. What’s Next for the Amazon?

Brazil Has A New President. What’s Next for the Amazon?

Since 2004, the Indigenous people of Brazil have gathered in the streets as part of the Acampamento Terra Livre, or Freedom Land Camp. Documentarian Alice Aedy of Earthrise Studio and Indigenous journalist and filmmaker Eric Terena collaborated to photograph the Indigenous people who gathered in Brasilia this year.

 

WORDS BY MÉLISSA GODIN

PHOTOGRAPHS BY ALICE AEDY AND ERIC TERENA

The Frontline travels to Brazil during the presidential election to meet with scientists, politicians, and land defenders protecting the Amazon Rainforest. They highlight the many ways to save a forest.

I watched the Amazon wake up from a lookout tower some 93 miles north of Manaus, the capital of the Brazilian state of Amazonas. As the sun slowly rose, the light brought into focus the forest’s canopy, where trees of all shapes and sizes stood at various heights, a sign of a healthy forest.

 

“Try to find two trees that are the same,” said Mario Cohn-Haft, a researcher from the federally funded National Institute of Amazonian Research (INPA), as he handed me the binoculars he typically uses to study birds from afar. “I bet you won’t be able to.”

 

As I traveled through Amazonas in October to report on Brazil’s presidential election, I learned about the importance of diversity. About the way a Brazil nut tree, threatened with extinction, relies on the agouti, a native rodent, to plant its seeds. Or the way urban activists protesting against right-wing President Jair Bolsonaro depend on the research of scientists living in the jungle. 

 

After I met with tropical biologists, writers, politicians, and activists united in their quest to save the Amazon, I realized how diversity is not only key to maintaining a healthy forest, but also a resilient climate movement—one that is able to withstand the turbulence of Brazil’s nascent and fragile democracy. 

 

To the relief of many, former leftist leader Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva won the presidential election on Sunday—a historic victory set against a backdrop of political polarization, corruption, and economic destitution. As Brazilians headed to the polls on Oct. 30, they were not just casting their vote for Brazil’s next president: they were determining the fate of the Amazon

 

“We are going to restart the monitoring and surveillance of the Amazon and combat any kind of illegal activity,” Lula said in his victory speech. “We will fight for zero deforestation in the Amazon … Brazil and the planet need the Amazon alive.”

Diversity is not only key to maintaining a healthy forest, but also a resilient climate movement—one that is able to withstand the turbulence of Brazil’s nascent and fragile democracy.

The Amazon is the world’s largest rainforest and plays an essential role in global climate, regulating oxygen and carbon cycles. As a major carbon sink, the Amazon is crucial in the fight against climate change—but the rainforest is also extremely vulnerable to its impacts. 

 

Years of deforestation have degraded 34% of the Brazilian Amazon, resulting in the region now emitting more carbon dioxide than it absorbs. Scientists say the rainforest is now approaching a tipping point where irreversible damage to the region and global climate patterns may occur. 

 

Under the rule of Bolsonaro—who has slashed environmental regulations and encouraged illegal takeovers of Indigenous land—deforestation rates have soared. In the past year alone, at least 2.2 million acres of rainforest have been burned and cleared mostly for cattle ranches and soybean farms. The vast majority of deforestation has been done illegally, too. Violence in the region, particularly against Indigenous people, has also significantly increased since Bolsonaro came into office in 2019. A year later, the Amazon region had the highest murder rate in Brazil, a fact that received renewed global attention this past June when British journalist Dom Phillips and Indigenous rights defender Bruno Pereira were murdered

 

“If you want Amazonia preserved, Bolsonaro must lose the election,” Izabella Teixeira, Brazil’s former minister of the environment, told me days before the election. “He is a man against environmental policies. He is a man against the future.” 

 

Lula, on the other hand, has made protecting the Amazon a priority throughout his campaign. He has pledged to improve Brazil’s climate plans by cracking down on illegal land grabbers. His victory may cut deforestation by 89% by 2030. 

 

Though Lula’s win has many breathing a collective sigh of relief for the Amazon, they are not waiting around for the new president. Across Amazonas, people are finding creative ways to protect the forest, its species, and its people. Using every tool at their disposal—from binoculars to pens to megaphones—they are finding different ways to save the Amazon. 

 

“Each unique species offers a solution that we need for survival,” Cohn-Haft said. “Likewise, the more people we encourage to communicate, to do science and art, to be creative, the more we exploit humanity’s best characteristics—and the more chances we have of saving this incredible place.”

 

Atmos spoke with a few of the many Brazilians protecting the Amazon to learn about their solutions and what Lula’s victory means for their work. 

Speaking Science to Power

When Rita Mesquita left her home in the city of Belo Horizonte in the country’s southeast at the young age of 22, she didn’t realize she would spend the rest of her life roaming around the forest’s floors, conducting experiments about its resilience. 

 

But for the past 37 years, Mesquita has been part of a team researching what the minimum size of a forest must be to maintain its biodiversity and health. The research, published in the Journal of Mammology in 2002, examined the growing fragmentation the Brazilian Amazon faced due to deforestation. Her team discovered then that large swaths of forest are more resilient than fragmented forests whose ecosystems eventually deteriorate or collapse. 

 

That’s exactly what Mesquita has watched happen in the Amazon, though. Her frustration is compounded by the fact that 36% of all the forest that has historically been cut in the Amazon is now abandoned. “Why are we abandoning cut forest and still justifying clear cutting?” she said. “That doesn’t make any sense.”

 

Since her youth, Mesquita has been acutely aware that politics rarely follow the logic of science. What happens politically, however, completely affects her work. “In Brazil, scientists cannot ignore policy,” she said. She hopes to influence policy by connecting with urban Amazonians who remain disconnected from the forest. 

 

She wants them to vote in a way that ensures nature’s protection. The majority of residents in the city of Manaus, for instance, voted for Bolsonaro in the first round of elections this year. In the runoff Sunday, they voted for him again.

 

“These people are not connected to the forest,” she said. “They don’t get it.” 

 

Now, as manager of the Bosque da Ciência, an outdoor park in Manaus run by the National Institute for Amazonian Research, Mesquita is reconnecting city people to the forest by building green spaces in the heart of Manaus that resemble the wild forest, filling them with native trees species. 

“We need to provide more spaces like this so people can feel reconnected to their forest and their culture.”

Rita Mesquita
Forest Researcher

“We need to provide more spaces like this so people can feel reconnected to their forest and their culture,” she tells me as we walk through Bosque da Ciência on its grand re-opening day since the pandemic started. “That’s why I work here.”

 

Though Mesquita feels excited about Lula’s win, she is not placing her hopes on him. During his last term, Lula invested in hydroelectric dams that were environmentally harmful. “I don’t want to see plans on paper because we don’t have the time,” she said. “The Amazon does not have the time.”

 

What gives Mesquita the most hope is the forest itself. “The restoration mechanisms are all here,” she said, marveling at the forest around us. “If we maintain them, we stand a chance of being able to restore what was already degraded.”

Changing the Face of Politics

When the COVID-19 pandemic hit Indigenous advocate Vanda Witoto’s community, she was under no illusions that the federal government would be sending help. Her community—Parque das Tribos, which is located in the urban sprawl of Manaus—is home to some 700 Indigenous families from 35 different ethnic groups that speak 14 languages. And yet her community is often forgotten by the state. 

 

“We don’t have clean water,” she said. “How are people supposed to wash their hands to protect themselves from COVID-19?”

 

As Bolsonaro made global headlines for deliberately delaying vaccine purchases and referring to COVID-19 as “a bit of a cold,” per the Guardian, the virus spread rapidly throughout Manaus. As much as three-quarters of the population were infected within the first seven months of the pandemic. Indigenous people were particularly affected.

 

Witoto, who is trained as a nurse, decided to take matters into her own hands, conducting local home visits. As she went door to door, Witoto was constantly confronting all the problems Indigenous people in Brazil face: racist attacks, poverty, and a suicide rate that is six times higher than the national average. 

 

Witoto watched as urban Indigenous people, understandably, felt disenfranchised by the political process. She wanted to be a face that represented her people, one that wouldn’t be bought out by corporate interest. That’s why Witoto decided to run as a candidate for Brazil’s congress during the October election. Though she did not win, Witoto traveled all around the state of Amazonas throughout her campaign, learning more about land grabs and the impact of Bolsonaro’s presidency. 

 

“Indigenous people have become the target of President Bolsonaro,” she said. “Since he was elected, we feel we’ve gone back to the 1970s in our rights. It’s war.” 

“Indigenous people have become the target of President Bolsonaro. Since he was elected, we feel we’ve gone back to the 1970s in our rights. It’s war.”

Vanda Witoto
Indigenous advocate
The photography project is aptly titled “O futuro é indígena,” or “The Future Is Indigenous,” in English.

For Witoto, as for many Indigenous people, the Bolsonaro presidency has been exhausting. “There is not a single day we don’t fight. I dream of not fighting,” she said. With Lula elected, Witoto is hopeful that “maybe we can change that.” 

 

But Witoto knows that real, transformative change does not simply happen when power is transferred from one man to another. From a young age, Witoto has been taught the importance of working collaboratively with others: her Indigenous name, Derequine, means wild ant, a reference to an insect that, in her culture, is synonymous with cooperation and community life.

 

Moving forward, Witoto is focused on ensuring the next generation of Indigenous youth is equipped not only with resources, but also the confidence to become leaders in their community and participants in the democratic process. 

 

“I don’t want our children to be ashamed to be who they are,” she said, noting that many Indigenous youth do not wear their traditional clothes for fear of being attacked in the streets. “They need to feel proud if they are going to defend the Amazon.”

Defending the Land

When Phillips and Pereira were murdered last June in Javari Valley, one of the largest Indigenous territories in the country, Carlos Travassos did not just lose an ally in the fight against illegal land grabbing. 

 

“[Bruno] was also my personal, very close friend,” he said, noting the two worked together at Brazil’s National Indian Foundation (FUNAI). But Travassos did what many others would be scared to do: he volunteered to step up and continue Pereira’s work. “I’m not going to back down.”

 

Travassos has been working with isolated Indigenous people and land defenders for 14 years. During this time, he has lost five friends to violence associated with land grabbing. Now, he will work in Atalaia do Norte, a town close to the Javari Valley, where he will help monitor Indigenous land, protect isolated Indigenous people, and stop illegal land grabbers from pursuing their activities. In short, he’ll be taking over the work Pereira was doing before his murder, which involved burning the boats of invaders or using drones to surveil the land. 

 

“It’s not a fight that I’m going to back down from,” Travassos said. 

 

Land grabbing increased exponentially under Bolsonaro, who cut funding to institutions that exist to protect the Amazon. For instance, the Bolsonaro administration removed Pereira, who worked with uncontacted tribes, from his role at FUNAI in 2019. The firing was understood to be politically motivated following Pereira’s successful attempt to halt work in one of the Amazon’s largest illegal mines. 

 

Bolsonaro has also actively perpetuated illegal activity in the region. As recently exposed by The Intercept, Brazilian military members under Bolsonaro have been caught on audio admitting they support the work of private miners and loggers, including on Indigenous lands. Military personnel in the Amazon has cost the government over $100 million—yet its presence hasn’t stopped deforestation. In the absence of state protection, Indigenous land defenders have stood up—and paid the price. In 2021, Brazil was one of the deadliest countries for land defenders.

“Soon enough, we are going to have an army of forest guardians.”

Carlos Travassos
Land Defender in the Amazon

Though there is some hope that a new president could lead to greater protection of the Amazon and safer conditions for those who protect it, many working in the region are still wary: criminal activity happens in remote places, often beyond the state’s reach. Yet Travassos is hopeful that civic society will step up. 

 

“We’re going to have more and more people joining this cause,” he said. “Soon enough, we are going to have an army of forest guardians.”

 

These forest guardians do not all look the same. Some wear suits and attend scientific conferences; others spend their days stomping around the forest in rubber boots, looking out for land grabbers or rare birds. Together, their diversity makes the climate movement more resilient. 

 

Without the courage of people like Travassos fighting off land-grabbers, so much more of the Amazon could be lost. Without researchers like Mesquita, aspiring politicians like Witoto may not have the scientific backing to push for policies the Amazon needs. Without Witoto’s campaign across the rainforest, perhaps fewer Indigenous people would have boated across the tributaries of the Amazon River to vote for Lula. 

 

As I looked out at the forest canopy those days ahead of the election, I knew the challenge was not just the search for two trees that look alike—but for two forest guardians who do, too.

Reporting for this story was supported by the United Nations Foundation.


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