Politics of the Amazon

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Is there a political solution for the Amazon crisis?

Latin America’s Amazon region is in trouble. Sometimes described as the ‘lungs of the world’ it plays a key role as a powerful cleanser of the global atmosphere, by absorbing global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. Something like half a billion tonnes of CO2 are sequestered in the rainforest every year. With nearly 400bn trees, the forest releases and re-absorbs water vapour creating a system of rainclouds known as ‘flying rivers’ which recycle moisture and create nearly half the region’s rainfall. The issue is that this complex and critically important eco-system is fragile and vulnerable to the damage caused by humans: deforestation, large scale commercial farming and cattle ranching, illegal mining, and the exploitation and trafficking of rare flora and fauna. As new roads open up previously isolated areas, deforestation is accelerating, causing the Amazon to shrink and begin to dry out, thereby contributing to global warming and water scarcity.

What makes this a big problem is the critical issue of size. The Amazon is home to the world’s largest tropical forest. Measured by water volume, the Amazon is also the world’s largest river. The Amazon basin itself is vast, over three-fifths of the size of the United States, covering about 7m sq kms, of which 5.5m is rainforest. The forest spreads across nine different countries. Most of it (58.4%) is in Brazil, followed by segments in Peru (12.8%), Bolivia (7.7%), Colombia (7.1%%), and Venezuela (6.1%), and then by smaller footprints in Ecuador, French Guiana, Guyana, and Suriname.

On its own the Amazon accounts for around half the world’s remaining rainforests. It is considered one of the world’s largest and most biodiverse habitats. Around 40,000 different plant species, 2,200 fish species, 1,294 bird species, 427 mammals, 428 amphibians, and 378 reptiles have been scientifically classified in the rainforest. One in ten of the world’s known animal species can be found in the Amazon region. Rare species from the area include caimans, jaguars, anaconda snakes, electric eels, piranha fish, poison dart frogs, and vampire bats. According to a 2001 study, a sq km of Ecuadorean forest supports more than 1,100 tree species.

Over 30m people live in the Amazon. Over a third of them are living in poverty. The majority are based in urban areas but around 9% of that total are indigenous peoples living in the rainforest with varying degrees of contact with modern urban lifestyles. Human settlements in the Amazon dates back some 11,200 years. There are around 400 different indigenous ethnic groups. Sixty of them are considered to be isolated. There are still thought to be some indigenous tribes that have never had any type of contact with the outside work. The different Amazon region governments have formally recognised a total of 3,344 indigenous territories or reserves. However, these are not always properly protected, and many have suffered invasions by incomers, including landless rural workers, loggers, and illegal miners.

Rate of deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon

Source: J.S. Albert et al/Science 2023

Brazil is the world’s fifth largest emitter of GHGs, responsible for around 3% of global emissions. Almost half of those come from deforestation. As a result, if the country’s current and immediately future governments can reduce and eventually stop deforestation, they will be making a significant contribution to reducing global warning. There are also significant benefits to be captured by protecting the rainforest in neighbouring countries, particularly in Peru and Colombia. Much will depend on whether all these countries can muster the political will necessary to jointly implement sound environmental policies. Because of that, this report will investigate the politics of protecting the Amazon. It will look at the political parties and coalitions that may form to support - or to roll back - what could be called a green agenda.

One major indicator of the health of the Amazon is the amount of rainforest that is lost every year. Deforestation has multiple causes. Trees are cut down for logging or to make way for commercial farming and cattle mining. In the dry season farmers use slash-and-burn techniques to open up new land for planting. Typically, the construction of highways provides transport routes for incomers to push back the forest, developing an associated network of dirt roads and small settlements. It is estimated that in the last 50 years the Brazilian Amazon has lost around one-fifth (20%) of its forest cover, a total of 480,000 sq kms. As discussed below, some believe this puts it close to a dangerous tipping point which could lead to a complete collapse of the rainforest eco-system.

Since the beginning of this century rates of deforestation in the Brazilian portion of the Amazon have surged, fallen back, and then begun to climb again. Between 2005 and 2012 the Brazilian deforestation rate fell by an encouraging 80%. This has been attributed to better monitoring of the forest, improved law enforcement, more efficient farming practices, and initiatives to halt the sale of goods on illegally deforested land. Some of the improvements were attributed to the policies of left-wing president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva (2003-2011), and his funding and support for indigenous reserves, government agencies such as IBAMA (the environmental regulator), and FUNAI (the national indigenous peoples’ foundation).

However, in subsequent years this level of support was reduced, particularly during the far-right presidency of Jair Bolsonaro (2019-2023). Bolsonaro allied himself with farming, logging, cattle ranching, and mining lobbies that favoured rapid and unregulated development of the rainforest. The new president also slashed the budgets of the relevant agencies creating a situation where there were no effective restrictions on illegal activity, such as the mass incursion of small-scale gold miners into the Yanomani indigenous reserve. The spread of forest fires, used as we have seen by farmers to clear land during the dry season, triggered widespread criticism of Bolsonaro’s policies and contributed to the country’s international diplomatic isolation.

After a narrow win over Bolsonaro in presidential elections in October/November 2022, Lula took office again in January 2023, at the start of his third four-year term. He rapidly announced plans to restore previous protections of indigenous people, sending in army and police to evict illegal miners from the main Yanomani reserve. A wider package of measures was also announced in June, including the registration of more indigenous reserves and protected territories, alongside measures to strengthen the security response to criminal activity.

Initial results were mixed, but there were some signs that the new approach was having a positive effect. According to satellite monitoring by space agency INPE, deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon fell by 31% in the first five months of 2023, to 1,986 sq kms, down from 2,867 sq kms in the same period in 2022. However, environmental experts said the real test would come at the start of the dry season in July, which usually sees a peak in both deforestation and forest fires.

Other countries in the Amazon basin have also been struggling to control deforestation. In a first estimate made in May 2023, the Colombian ministry of the environment calculated that total deforestation fell by between 15% and 25% in 2022, relative to the year before. A more precise number was promised when more satellite images had been processed. Deforestation in Colombia peaked in 2016, the year in which the government signed a peace agreement with the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (Farc) rebels which included environmental protection clauses. Current environment minister Susana Muhamad said that under the government’s national development plan it is committed to tackling 28 deforestation hot spots, of which 22 are located in Amazonia, Colombia’s Amazon region. This is part of the Colombian ‘Amazon arc’ which sweeps across the departments of Meta, Caquetá, Guaviare, and Putumayo. Muhamad said that the previous conservative government had turned to the courts in an attempt to evict settlers from the hot spots in national parks. In contrast she claimed her centre-left government was getting better results through a process of dialogue as part of its ‘total peace’ campaign.

One attempt to get an overview of deforestation across the nine Amazon basin countries has been made by a network of scientists in MAAP, Monitoring of the Andean Amazon Project. By its calculations, in 2021 nearly 2m hectares (ha) of primary rainforest were destroyed, a slight decrease on the 2.3m ha lost the preceding year. Another research coalition, Global Forest Watch, said that relatively speaking Bolivia had experienced the most intense process of forest destruction, with the loss of over 6m ha between 2001 and 2021, equivalent to 10% of its total forested area. This ranked it as number three in the world by intensity of deforestation. Losses had been concentrated in the Chiquitanía region of the Bolivian Amazon in the south-eastern department of Santa Cruz.

In the same 2001-2021 period Global Forest Watch calculated that Venezuela lost 2.29m ha of primary rainforest, concentrated along the Orinoco River at the very north of the Amazon region. Over the same two decades, Ecuador lost nearly 1m ha in the eastern Amazon, taking its total cumulative loss to around 15%. Guyana by contrast has experienced much lower levels of forest loss (around 0.1% of the total), which may reflect the relative lack of economic development in the interior of the country (something which may also change over time as a result of the current coast-based oil-led economic boom).

The factors driving deforestation vary from country to country. In Bolivia the top cause is the spread of forest fires, ignited to clear land for general farming. Slash-and-burn is also important in Ecuador, but there the prime aim is to make way for palm oil cultivation. In both those countries, the forest is also being destroyed to create open pastures for cattle ranching. In Venezuela, Suriname, and Guyana deforestation is largely caused by illegal gold mining. However, across the Amazon basin as a whole, cattle ranching and general agriculture are responsible for 84% of total deforestation. In the two decades since the turn of the century, the area of land dedicated to farming and livestock rose by 81.5% to 1.45m sq kms, reflecting surging global demand for soya, other cereals, beef, and palm oil. According to Marcelo Coppola, a journalist with environmental publication Mongabay, “Where there is cattle ranching and soybean farming, there is fire”. Around 169,000 sq kms of Amazon rainforest are burnt every year.

Future deforestation trends are hard to predict. Tougher government policies may help reduce the annual cycle of slashing and burning, but powerful commercial pressures are working in the opposite direction. Research group Rede Amazónica de Informação Socioambiental Georreferenciada (RAISG), has extrapolated from existing trends in 2001-20 to come up with three possible scenarios for 2021-2025. In an optimistic scenario the rainforest will lose just over a further 94,000 sq kms, while in the pessimist scenario the loss could be two and a half times greater at nearly 240,000 sq kms. The third scenario is a midway point between the first two. A range of environmental analysts say the outcome is more likely to be closer to the pessimistic end of the spectrum.

Deforestation in the Amazon

Source: RAISG

In a speech in early June Brazil’s President Lula set out ambitious updates to his environmental policies, including a commitment to achieve zero deforestation by 2030 and a warning that the state could expropriate up to 50% of land involved in illicit activities. Perhaps the most significant aspect of the speech however was the president’s admission that criminal activity is deeply embedded in the Amazon region, remains difficult to control, and presents a major obstacle for any government trying to protect the rainforest. As part of a strategy paper called Plano de Segurança e Soberanía da Amazonia (Amazon Security and Sovereignty Plan) the president said his government would take steps to counteract the growing power of criminal cartels in the vast rainforest area. This would require tackling a “true criminal eco-system” including “drug trafficking, arms trafficking, human trafficking, money laundering, slave labour, contract killings and the sexual exploitation of children and adolescents”. Lula also paid tribute to British journalist Dom Phillips and Brazilian indigenous expert Bruno Pereira, murdered a year earlier when investigating illegal fishing gangs in rivers within the Yanomani indigenous reserve. In January-February this year security forces evicted illegal gold miners operating on Yanomani lands

Criminal Groups in the Brazilian Amazon in 2021

The plan calls for the creation of a dedicated environmental operations unit within the National Public Security Force (police and military). It also announces the establishment of integrated land and river-bank security bases, and the creation of an international police cooperation centre to work against trans-Amazon crime with neighbouring countries.

Also proposed is the formation of integrated command-and-control centres with more intelligence sharing. There will be upgrades to river patrol boats and border posts, and the acquisition and modernisation of aerospace systems. The strategy requires increased use of satellite imagery to identify illegal logging, ranching, and mining operations. The government also proposes to increase its technological capacity by the creation of a system able to certify the origins of wood, agricultural products, and minerals, and to establish whether they are associated with illegal deforestation or mining activity.

A dramatic warning over security issues in the Brazilian Amazon was delivered earlier this year by Alexandre Saraiva, a former senior Federal Police officer who worked for a number of years in the region. He said that the rapid spread of organised crime groups could turn the Amazon into a vast conflict-stricken hinterland plagued by Colombian style criminal insurgents (armed groups motivated by a mix of ideological and criminal aspirations). Saraiva also suggested an alternative scenario where drug-trafficking mafias might spawn a decades-long conflict like the one currently in progress in the city of Rio de Janeiro where criminal groups repeatedly clash with police-backed vigilantes in poor shanty towns. “I experienced how the state lost control of public security in Rio de Janeiro” Saraiva said, adding: “And in the Amazon today – if nothing is done in terms of public security – we are facing a continent-sized Rio de Janeiro, with the aggravating factor of borders with major drug producers and an extraordinarily difficult jungle setting.” He suggested that criminal leaders could control territory in parts of the Amazon and develop their own private armies, in a manner similar to the Colombian insurgents. There would be “areas of conflagration” with groups trying to control logging and illegal gold mining, while victimising indigenous communities and taking advantage of the security forces’ major logistical difficulties across vast and isolated areas.

According to research by lobby group Brazilian Forum on Public Security FBSP, there were over 8,000 intentional homicides in Brazil’s nine Amazon region states in 2022, roughly 50% higher in relation to population than in the rest of Brazil. In Amazonas state the rate was 74% above the national average. The number of people killed in encounters with civil and military police in 2016-2021 rose by 71% in the Amazon, reaching roughly double the 35.1% rate in the rest of the country during the same period. The Amazon states also had much larger and more overcrowded prison populations than the rest of the country. Brazil’s two main criminal gangs, the Primeiro Comando da Capital (PCC), which originated in São Paulo, and the Comando Vermelho (CV), from Rio de Janeiro, now have a presence throughout the nine Amazon states. There are at least 15 other regional crime groups in operation.

FBSP says the Amazon region now contains 10 of Brazil’s most violent municipalities, some of which are key mining and drug-smuggling hubs. Environment minister Marina Silva has expressed her concern over the “overlapping of multiple forms of criminality” in the region and high levels of violence which she describes as “a hallmark of the predatory occupation of the Amazon”. She has called for a stronger presence of the state throughout the region.

Another warning over growing security challenges in the Amazon came in December last year from Supreme Court Justice Luis Roberto Barroso, who said the country is running the risk of losing control of the region. Barroso suggested that environmental experts, investors, and local governments should come together to agree plans for sustainable development for the benefit of the region’s 25m population. He said: “There is a real risk of losing the sovereignty of the Amazon not to any other country, but to organised crime.” Barroso added that the government would need to confront environmental crimes including illegal logging, mining, deforestation, land grabs, and the murder of “defenders of the forest”.  He wanted the “best minds in the world” to discuss alternative approaches such as developing a “bioeconomy” that would create livelihoods capable of preserving, rather than destroying the forest. 

A major concern is that years of intense deforestation are bringing the Amazon region close to, or even past, a major tipping point after which many existing environmental changes will become irreversible. The nature of the tipping point, how it might manifest itself, and what the area currently occupied by rainforest might look like in future are all still being debated by scientists and environmental experts.  

According to an October 2022 report by the Rede Amazónica de Informação Socioambiental Georreferenciada (RAISG), a civil society research group, something like 26% of existing Amazon rainforests have already been destroyed or degraded. It suggested 20% have suffered irreversible loss and 6% should be classed as “highly degraded”. In 2007 academic studies by scientists Thomas E Lovejoy and Carlos Nobre said the tipping point occurs when the combination of deforestation and degradation reaches a 20%-26% range. On some numbers Brazil may therefore in fact be well beyond that point with 25% deforestation and 9% degradation. Of the nine Amazon region countries, Brazil and Bolivia have experienced the greatest destruction. RAISG argued that the rainforest is receding and will be replaced by dry shrublands, a process known as savannisation.

The report warned that the Amazon as we know it today will “not reach 2025”. Over the last 20 years at least 50m hectares of the Amazon basin have been transformed, equivalent to a territory larger than Spain. In Bolivia, rainfall has fallen by 17% and the temperature has increased by over 1ᵒ Celsius. José Gregorio Díaz Mirabal of Coordinadora de las Organizaciones Indígenas de la Cuenca Amazónica (COICA), who was also involved in preparing the RAISG report, said: “We are destroying water, biodiversity, food. Humans, extractive industry companies and governments continue to pursue a fossil fuel economy, destroying both our present and our future.“

There is no detailed consensus on what life beyond the tipping point might be like. However, most analysts say the Amazon will be impaired in its role as one of the world’s most important carbon sinks. Rather than sequestering carbon from the atmosphere, forest fires and the destruction of trees will turn the region into a net carbon emitter, something that has already begun to happen in various areas. Temperatures will be higher, the surviving shrublands will be dryer, and the area will become more vulnerable to extreme weather and periodic droughts

Many scientists say it is still too early to make hard and fast predictions. Their computer models struggle to capture the complexity of the Amazon eco-system. There may be no single tipping point but many smaller changes with cumulative effects. Nobre’s theory about the savannisation of the former rainforests has been questioned. It suggests that the border between the rainforest and the existing savannah known as Brazil’s cerrado region should be moving south, but there is as yet no consistent evidence showing that it is doing so. The full impact of different types of rainforests is also unclear – these include várzeas (dense forests often flooded with nutrient rich waters) and igapós (swamp forests that are flooded with nutrient-poor waters).

What is clear however is that a failure to protect the Amazon from deforestation, from unregulated farming and cattle ranching, and from illegal mining and wider criminal activity will have a highly negative effect on the countries involved and on the wider world. It is not an exaggeration to say the Amazon could suffer an unprecedented environmental catastrophe within the next 10 years. Averting that possibility will require political will. The question then becomes whether political parties and other social and economic groups have the capacity and foresight to unite around an effective climate change/energy transition agenda.

In theory at least there is a simple solution. The last decades have seen the growth of green parties and environmental movements across Europe and the Americas. If saving the Amazon is acknowledged as one of the world’s top challenges, then why not look to a green party or coalition to win power in democratic elections, achieve a mandate for radical change, and begin rapidly implementing environmentally responsible policies? Answering that question will require a small detour to look at the history of the green movement.

Green parties emerged mainly in Europe in the early 1970s, initially as single-issue organisations focused on the environment. They have since moved from the political fringes into the mainstream. This was evident when the Green Party won parliamentary representation in Germany the 1980s. In the late 1990s they became junior partners in the ‘red-green’ ruling coalition with the Social Democrats (SPD). Their leader at the time, Joschka Fischer, played a key role in phasing out nuclear power and opposing the US-led invasion of Iraq. The party became divided, however, between the ‘fundis’ (radicals) and the ‘realos’ (moderates). Traditionally green parties were pacifist in outlook and opposed to nuclear power as well as critical of the militarism represented by the defence industry. However, as current members of the German government, and in response to the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the Greens have supported increasing German military spending and sending heavy weaponry (including Leopard tanks) to assist the Ukrainian armed forces.

It is estimated that globally there are around 80 functioning green parties. Most of them say they seek ecological sustainability, grassroots democracy, social justice, and non-violence. They are seen as organisations of the left (although some conservative parties have developed their own pro-environmental policies).  Amid economic uncertainty following the 2008 financial crisis there has been a rise in authoritarian populism in the US and parts of Europe. In that context the greens have profited from dissatisfaction with traditional parties. To attract more voters they have in some cases moved towards the political centre and even towards the right. In a surprising move the Austrian greens formed a coalition with the right-wing Peoples’ Party combining anti-immigration and tax cutting policies with the pursuit of ambitious environmental protection targets.

In policy terms the greens have a long-standing opposition to nuclear power, but this is beginning to be questioned. The Green Party in Finland has been reconsidering its policy on nuclear power, given the urgent need to reduce carbon emissions. On the economy, some parties support ‘green growth’ – which relies on technology to reduce carbon intensity, while other are more radical, calling for degrowth – a sharp reduction in output down to sustainable levels.

Green parties have had a mixed performance in the Americas. In the United States their electoral high point came in the year 2000 when veteran consumer rights activist Ralf Nader, leading the Association of State Green Parties, came third in the presidential elections with 2.7% of the popular vote. Despite this lack of top-level success, green movements have however exerted considerable political influence, helping for example to shape proposals for a Democratic Party Green New Deal – a series of major climate change and clean energy investment initiatives.

In Latin America the pattern has been similar with green parties lacking the necessary strength to win presidential and congressional elections under their own steam, but nevertheless playing an important role as influencers and coalition partners. Green parties have achieved congressional representation in a number of countries. In Mexico, the Partido Verde Ecologista de Mexico (PVEM) is a junior partner in the ruling Movimiento Nacional de Renovación (Morena) government, holding 42 out of 500 seats in the lower house, and six out of 128 in the Senate. However, some critics question whether the PVEM is really a green party at all, accusing it of being no more than opportunistically pro-government. The PVEM has failed to challenge the government’s heavy reliance on fossil fuels, while aligning itself with conservative social policies such as supporting the death penalty and opposing same-sex marriage.

In Brazil the main green party is Rede Sustentabilidade (REDE) which is led by high-profile environmental activist Marina Silva (currently minister for the environment as part of the ruling coalition led by President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva). However, rather like Mexico there is also a conservative green presence in the country though the Partido Ecológico Nacional, recently renamed as ‘Patriota’ which is in fact a far-right religious party that has supported privatisations and pro-market economic policies. Colombia also has a long history of green political parties, which have gained seats in Congress. Mayors of important cities including Bogotá and Medellín have identified with the green cause to varying degrees.

It does, however, appear that prospects of a single green party winning elections, gaining a comfortable majority in congress, and implementing unambiguous policies to save the Amazon in any of the nine Amazon countries are low, certainly for the next 5-10 years. In part, this reflects the global reality of green parties. As we have seen, in Europe and elsewhere the greens have lacked the strength to go it alone and instead have advanced through coalition-building. It was not until 2004 that any national government was led by a green party member (Indulsis Emsis, who became prime minister of Latvia). A future wave of majority green governments looks unlikely, although it cannot be entirely ruled out.

In Latin America the future does seem to be one of coalitions in which green parties are represented, most likely as junior partners. A number of political analysts have sought to place the handling of green issues within the context of a region that is seen swinging periodically between the political right and left. Many analysts described the spread of left-wing governments in the period between 2003 and 2014 as the continent’s first ‘pink tide’. Its leaders were Hugo Chávez (Venezuela), Evo Morales (Bolivia), Rafael Correa (Ecuador), Néstor and Cristina Kirchner (Argentina), and Luis Inácio Lula da Silva (Lula) and Dilma Rousseff in Brazil. During that period, helped by an extended commodities boom, many leftist governments were able to redistribute income and reduce poverty, enjoying as a result significant electoral popularity.

However, tougher times came with the end of the commodities and export boom. At that point many of these left-wing governments faced economic recession, rising crime rates, and significant allegations of corruption. As a result, the tide ebbed: the political pendulum swung back again to the right during the latter part of the 2010s and into the early 2020s. By last year, however, as left-wing political leaders began a comeback in countries like Chile, Colombia, and Brazil, commentators began to talk of a second pink wave. This time they highlighted an important novelty: they believed the second wave would actually be pink, but with streaks of green. The regional mood music, they argued, was now putting environmental issues much closer to the centre of the political debate. In the first pink wave, governments had been less interested in the environment. This was because the commodities boom, including ‘dirty’ activities such as oil and gas extraction, coal and metals mining, and commercial farming and livestock seemed to be successfully funding a vote-winning formula for growth, poverty alleviation, and new job creation.

It is worth looking at the claim that that left wing governments tend to be greener in some detail. Matías Franchini, an academic at Universidad del Rosario in Colombia, says “the first question we must ask ourselves is whether it is correct to correlate progressive governments with the regional struggle against climate change”. He goes on to point out a number of exceptions to the rule. The recent conservative governments of Ivan Duque in Colombia and Sebastían Piñera in Chile (both in office from 2018-2022) made considerable progress in promoting renewable energy and on adopting Paris Agreement de-carbonisation pledges.  

Another conservative, Mexican President Felipe Calderón (2006-2012), was also something of an activist on climate change issues, promoting a major tree-planting programme and encouraging the adoption of green technology. After stepping down from the presidency he went on to serve as chair of the Global Commission for the Economy and Climate. By direct contrast however, Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO – in office since 2018) represents a form of traditional left-wing resource nationalism, dating back to the 1970s, which is decidedly non-green as it prioritises fossil fuels. This political school of thinking remains largely unenthusiastic about renewable energy sources. The long-standing tradition of developmentalist economic policies has clearly valued economic growth above environmental protection.

Where Green Parties Hold Power

Source: CFR Research

Tatiana Roque of Universidad Federal de Rio de Janeiro says AMLO’s approach is outdated. “We must be careful not to reproduce the same old vision, a sharply developmentalist outlook which fails to engage with the future and with the need for an urgent dialogue on climate change”, she says. The problem in her view is that Latin America has become too dependent on commodity exports, which get in the way of a necessary energy transition to renewables.

Somewhat paradoxically, Mathias Alencastro of CEBRAP (Centro Brasileiro de Análise e Planejamento) says the absence of a massive commodity boom during the second pink wave may turn out to be a good thing. He argues that in the first wave the surge in growth helped consolidate the move away from military rule towards democracy, as well as reducing economic dependence on the United States (since China was then emerging as a major new trading partner). Now, with a second and extended commodities boom looking unlikely, he says “the left will be forced to become more daring”. Others who share that optimism say there is an opportunity to develop new, more sustainable, economic activities, such as expanding the bioeconomy in the Amazon. This includes supporting small-scale sustainable farming and forestry, eco-tourism, and the production of nuts, medicines, cosmetics, and oils.

The environmental critique of the old left has come from a number of sources. Speaking in May 2022, before she took office as vice president alongside Colombia’s President Gustavo Petro, Afro-Colombian environmental activist Francia Márquez said: “The problem is that both the right and the left are fomenting a policy of extractivism when humanity faces the challenge today of transitioning from this extractivist economy to a sustainable economy. Life isn’t possible without our planet.”

Green concerns are sometimes dismissed in the region as little more than an urban middle class fad along with healthy eating and superfoods. It is clear that progress on decarbonisation will ultimately come up short if voters of most backgrounds fail to back the idea and see its benefits. There has been little systematic polling on attitudes to the environment, but the evidence suggests that voters do largely understand and support the need for environmental protection.  A poll by Brazilian market research agency Ipec, published in June 2023 in collaboration with Yale University, found that an overwhelming majority – 94% of respondents – believed that climate change is real and is happening now. Three out of four said global warming was the result of human activity. 70% of respondents believed climate change would have a negative impact on themselves and on their families. And 74% felt it was more important to protect the environment even if that might mean less economic growth and fewer jobs. Only 17% took the opposing view, prioritising growth and jobs over the environment.

What do you consider most important?

Source: Instituto de Tecnologia e Sociedade do Rio de Janeiro (ITS)

Crucially, although levels of concern have dropped a little since 2021, project member Anthony Leiserowitz of Yale says the latest results show “there is much more political wind” than had been imagined for any political party or candidate to assert that fighting climate change is an issue that their voters care about. Roughly half of all respondents (up from 42% in 2020) said they have chosen candidates for election considering where they stood on environmental protection issues. More than half (54%) said they thought the return of Lula to the presidency would be better for the environment.

The poll suggests that green sentiment remains strong among Brazilian voters in general, but it is also true that there are important regional variations and pockets of resistance. For example, after the October 2022 elections the right and far-right did particularly well in the gubernatorial races in all of the nine Amazon region states. There, settlers and urban residents tend to value rapid economic development over and above environmental protection. Despite national sentiment captured in the Ipec poll, this right-wing local and regional alignment will act as a limiting factor to the greener policies sought nationally by the Lula government. Creomar de Souza of Brasília-based consultancy Dharma Political Risk and Strategy says “the right has successfully painted environmentalism as the enemy of the people”. However, he notes that the federal government has instruments that it can use to fight back, such as offering subsidised farm credits to those who can show they are not involved in illegal deforestation.   

The beginning of Lula’s third term in Brazil – his first six months in office in January-June 2023 - provides an interesting glimpse of the complexities of building and trying to maintain a pink-green ruling coalition. The returning president had a strong start. He promised to reverse his predecessor’s lack of concern for Amazon deforestation. Lula announced a 37-strong ministerial team (up from 23 under his predecessor). Signalling a change in approach as part of this restructuring, he created a new ministry for indigenous people, appointing Sonia Guajajara, an indigenous rights campaigner, as its new head. He also appointed the well-known climate change campaigner Marina Silva as the new environment minister. Lula and Silva have history. As a prominent green in a pink government, she had held the post before in an earlier Lula presidency but resigned after clashing with the president over the Belo Monte hydroelectric project, which he supported on developmentalist grounds, but she opposed, on environmental grounds. Her re-appointment was therefore interpreted as a sign that the new government would take environmental issues more seriously than it had done in the past.

Also in January, the new government declared a health emergency in the main Amazon reserve occupied by the Yanomani people. This was in response to reports that more than half of that 27,000 strong indigenous community were suffering a cocktail of diseases caused by large-scale incursions of illegal gold miners known as garimpeiros. The impact on the Yanomami included mercury and water poisoning, malaria, and malnutrion. The president ordered the security forces to evict up to 20,000 garimpeiros who had invaded the Yanomami’s protected lands.  

At this early stage however, potential tensions were already making themselves felt within the ruling coalition. One of the issues facing it was whether or not to authorise Petrobras, the state oil company, to drill 16 exploratory oil and gas wells in the Equatorial Margin Area near the mouth of the Amazon. An earlier request to do so had been turned down by Ibama, the environmental regulator, on the grounds that the state-owned company had failed to complete a wider environmental impact study, nor presented adequate measures to communicate with indigenous communities and coordinate with neighbouring countries to deal with any eventual oil spills or other forms of contamination.

The offshore block in question is part of a long strip facing 2,200 kms of Brazil’s north Atlantic coastline, which is also close to Guyana, a country now enjoying an economic boom after an Exxon-led consortium made major deep-sea oil finds in 2015. Developing oil and gas exploration and production in the Equatorial Margin could offset falling output by the end of this decade in some of the country’s other fields such as Tupi and Búzios in the southeast. Mining minister Alexandre Silveira has described exploration in the region as a “passport to the future”.  Estimates suggest that the block could add some 1.1m barrels per day of output – highly significant since current production levels are around 3.1m barrels. Since the north-eastern states are among the poorest in Brazil, local politicians are also enthusiastic over the prospects for job creation in offshore support services, along with using royalty payments for public works.

Against that, environmentalists point out that the wider area contains sensitive marine ecosystems, including mangroves, extended coral reefs, sea sponges, and unique and diverse fauna such as whales and dolphins which could be placed at risk. Some analysts say that an unregulated combination of onshore and offshore development could accelerate deforestation. Certainly, a decision to allow rapid fossil fuel development in the mouth of the Amazon would sit uncomfortably with the government’s pursuit of green credentials.

While Marina Silva seems to have fended off drilling – for the moment at least – she has suffered some political difficulties with a senator from REDE, her own green party, defecting and saying he now supports drilling because of the investment and employment it could bring to his home state of Amapá. With further ecological impact studies likely, Lula has so far avoided coming down on either side of the debate. He has however always been upbeat about increasing domestic oil output and commented that he finds it “difficult to believe” that offshore drilling 500kms from the rainforest might contribute to deforestation. Some journalists believe there is still a possibility that Lula and Marina Silva could end up on opposite sides of the Equatorial Margin debate, just as they did years earlier on the Belo Monte debate.

On other fronts, by May 2023 it looked as if the Lula administration might be facing a major pushback from supporters of the developmentalist school of thought. The problem is that the centre-left government lacks a majority in congress, which is controlled by often opportunist parties of the centre and far right. These parties and associated lobbies were able to deal the new government a series of blows. For example, they updated and passed a law known as the marco temporal which restricts indigenous land rights.

Under the 1988 constitution ancestral land rights are recognised and governments are required to assess claims and designate indigenous reserves. To date some 487 reserves, covering 14% of national territory, have been so designated. A further 200 are in the pipeline. But the marco temporal subverts this by restricting the process only to lands that were physically occupied on 5 October 1988, the day the constitution was approved. This effectively excludes indigenous communities who say they had been evicted from their traditional lands during the 1964-85 military regime. The marco temporal also creates loopholes permitting mining, farming, and public infrastructure construction on indigenous reserves.

In a second move, the opposition challenged a presidential decree creating his new 37-strong ministerial team and specifying the responsibilities and powers of each ministry. These decrees are known as medidas provisorias (MPs). They come into force immediately but are set to lapse automatically if not ratified by congress within 120 days. Under custom and practice, congress has almost always quickly approved a new president’s MP detailing how the executive power will function. But in this case opposition members of congress threatened to vote it down, demanding changes to the workings of the cabinet.

As part of these changes, control of the rural land registry – a key unit in the battle to reduce deforestation – was taken away from the environment ministry and awarded instead to the ministry for management and innovation. Responsibility for indigenous land demarcation passed from the indigenous affairs ministry to the ministry of justice. Both the ministries that suffered a loss of jurisdiction are led by the greenest members of government (Marina Silva and Sonia Guajajara) so the move can be seen as designed to weaken policies to protect the environment as well as promoting tensions within the ministerial team. Silva said the weakening of her ministry was a “setback”. Guajajara admitted to feeling “a certain degree of frustration” with Lula’s response.        

In short, the Lula government will face an ongoing challenge to manage a pink-green coalition where there are both internal differences over specific policy issues and external threats from opposition political parties. This will require a high degree of political skill, as well as a communications strategy that challenges established stereotypes. For example, it is often assumed that commercial farming and livestock ranching maximises export revenues and therefore must be protected from environmental regulation and restrictions which do nothing more than add on costs. This is certainly an argument used by farmers allied to bolsonarismo – the movement led by former president Jair Bolsonaro. Yet there are at least two major reasons to question this profit maximisation approach. The first is that consumer sentiment in Europe and other key export markets has been changing. Lobby groups have called for boycotts of supermarket sales of Brazilian products linked to deforestation. In the long term, therefore, it may be in the interest of agro-industrial exporters to promote a cleaner and greener image, with transparent rules of origin.

The second factor is that if fears of a deforestation tipping point prove to be well-based, the deterioration of the Amazon will incur massive real-world financial losses. A rational commercial approach therefore would be to try and avoid them by investing in a campaign to stop deforestation. A World Bank report published in May 2023 attempted to quantify some of the losses that might be involved. It found that the degradation of the Amazon would jeopardise agricultural production, water supply, and the ability to generate hydroelectric energy. It estimated that the savannisation of the Amazon would cost the Brazilian economy US$184.1bn, or 9.7% of GDP, by 2050.    

Gustavo Petro took office in Colombia at the beginning of a four-year presidential term in August 2022. He was the country’s first left-winger to take office, and the first to assemble a ruling coalition including his own Pacto Histórico (PH) and an environmentalist party, the Alianza Verde, respectively with 28 and 15 seats in the 188-strong Chamber of Deputies. However, as in the case of the Lula government in Brazil, the balance of power in the Colombian congress is held by a range of smaller right and centre-right parties.

Petro’s policies on the protection of the Colombian Amazon and on a transition to renewable energy have to be seen in the context of a wider package of tax, health, pension, and educational reforms, as well as the highly ambitious total peace programme which calls for parallel negotiations on a peace settlement with all of the country’s armed rebel and criminal groups. As Petro approached the end of his first year in office, the initially feverish pace of reform was beginning to wane, with allegations of corruption eroding government popularity and the congressional opposition beginning to block or delay proposed new laws.

Petro set out his vision for the Colombian Amazon while attending the COP27 global climate conference in Egypt in November 2022. In a key part of his speech the president said that “saving the Amazon rainforest means life, it means building a multilateral fund that is capable, over 20 years, of financing the social forces, peasants, farmers, humble people, who are today the agents of destruction of the rainforest. The aim is to transform them into a positive force, which means paying them monthly for environmental services, for protecting the Amazon rainforest and allowing it to grow."

However, many details and budget allocations have yet to be fixed. Amazon policies are intended to form part of the four-year Plan Nacional de Desarrollo (PND), for which investment projects are still being finalised. In the meantime, there have been complaints that staffing levels in the system of national parks continue to be overstretched. Pending progress on total peace, many parts of the Amazon remain under the direct control of armed groups and vulnerable to the environmental depredation caused by illegal gold and rare-earth metals mining.

Petro has also run into some significant political trouble over his plans to reduce Colombia’s dependence on fossil fuels, switching instead at a rapid rate to renewables. Together with energy and mining minister Irene Vélez-Torres, he has promised to stop new oil and gas exploration as well as banning fracking. In January 2023 at the World Economic Forum (WEF) Petro said: “We are convinced that strong investment in tourism and clean energies will allow us on the short term to fill gaps left by the fossil fuel industry.”

But a range of critics have said a very rapid transition is difficult and that the plan has not been properly thought through. Colombian oil and gas production accounts for nearly half of exports and one-fifth of government revenue, while current reserves stand at only 7-8 years’ worth of consumption. The Centro Regional de Estudios Energéticos (CREE), a think-tank, says that meeting Colombia’s commitment to become a net-zero emitter by 2050 while reducing fossil fuel dependence, will require an extraordinary five-fold increase in electricity supply, some of which will have to be gas-fired at a time when Colombia’s gas reserves are also dwindling.

Meanwhile, as part of the tax reform that was approved by congress, the government has actually increased taxes on wind and solar generation while putting a major new wind farm project on hold in La Guajira department, pending completion of a lengthy consultation process with the local indigenous community. Finance Minister Ricardo Bonilla, trying to reassure the fossil fuel industry, has said that “the energy transition is going to take 15 to 20 years and we are going to continue exporting oil and coal for much longer”. Bonilla also said the government was considering launching carbon credits to combat deforestation as well as green bonds to fund projects that restore the environment and recover water resources.

Just as the Brazilian ministerial team has experienced internal disagreements over oil drilling in the mouth of the Amazon, the Colombian authorities are somewhat split over whether or not to ban all new oil and gas exploration. In both countries the pink-green coalition may therefore find itself under pressure, and the two presidents will need to use their political skills to reconcile opposing positions. It is also interesting to note that in his speeches Petro takes the more radical and abrupt position of favouring renewables instead of fossil fuels, while Lula in Brazil is following the more pragmatic rule of pursuing renewable energy as well as fossil fuels, at least for the medium-term future.

In the last 2-3 years Latin American countries have had mixed political results in their attempts to balance economic recovery and environmental protection. Chile is not an Amazon region country, but President Gabriel Boric, who took office in March 2022, leads a left-wing coalition which includes a small green party, the Federación Regionalista Verde Social (FREVS), which is committed to decarbonisation.

However, in political terms Chile’s ‘green tide’ may have peaked. During the course of 2022, an elected Constitutional Council prepared a new draft constitution which recognised nature as an entity in its own right requiring special protection. The draft also expanded indigenous rights to ancestral lands, protected glaciers, reformed water rights, and limited extractive mining. The text if approved would have been considered one of the greenest constitutions in the world, but its supporters over-reached and fell out of step with public opinion. The draft was convincingly rejected in a referendum in September 2022. A new constitutional reform process is underway this year: the text however is likely to be significantly less green and less radical. More generally, the political pendulum has swung back towards the right in Chile. While green issues remain important, public opinion is now more focused on the Mapuche indigenous conflict in the south of the country, on immigration in the north, and on rising crime rates.

Peru’s green agenda on the other hand, has been basically put on hold by a grinding political crisis that has undermined policymaking since 2016. The country has had five presidents in the last six years as the legislature and executive power struggle through a deep political deadlock. The last stage of that ongoing crisis came in December 2022 when left-wing President Pedro Castillo, who was facing multiple accusations of corruption, tried to close down the legislature but was instead impeached, imprisoned, and replaced by his vice president, Dina Boluarte, who formed a de fact alliance with conservative parties.

The absence of clear policies to protect the Peruvian Amazon and to pursue a rapid energy transition from fossil fuels to renewable energy sources is particularly damaging since Peru is the second largest Amazon country after Brazil. The Peruvian Amazon, stretching from the Andes mountain range to tropical forested plains in the east, is about the size of Ukraine. Despite over-ambitious government promises to stop deforestation by 2021, research by Monitoreo de la Amazonía Andina (MAAP) published in 2023 showed that deforestation records had been broken in six of the last ten years.

At least three major protagonists are driving the process in Peru. They are, first, big commercial companies involved in agriculture including palm oil; second, criminal cartels involved in logging and drug cultivation and trafficking; and, third, impoverished settlers who try to earn a living cutting down trees and tending coca plantations. Unlike Brazil, Peru also has significant oil and gas production in parts of the Amazon; oil spills have also had negative impacts on indigenous communities. According to a MAAP report: “The Peruvian government continues prioritising economic development as more important than protecting the rainforest.”

A key issue in Venezuela is that an authoritarian and nominally left-wing government which pays occasional lip service to environmental issues is in reality seeking to maximise revenues from illegal, forest-destroying, mining activities. Around 60% of Venezuelan territory lies within the Amazon biome. The country also includes around one fifth of a unique and ancient geological formation known as the Guiana Shield which is heavily forested and intensely biodiverse.  Although less covered by the international media, Venezuela has at times experienced the fastest rates of deforestation in the tropical regions of the Western Hemisphere. According to lobby group Global Forest Watch (GFW), between 2002 and 2022 the country lost 576,000 ha of humid primary forest, or 26% of its total tree cover.

The economic environment makes Venezuela a unique case. The country has traditionally been almost totally dependent on oil and gas exports, accounting for over 90% of total revenues. Under the leftist Partido Unido Socialista de Venezuela (PSUV) since 1999, a combination of catastrophic economic mismanagement, oil price volatility, and (from 2019) tightened US sanctions has destroyed large parts of the oil industry and pulled the economy into deep recession. From 2014-2022 the economy shrank by over 75%, a period which also saw some 7m Venezuelans emigrate. As a survival strategy the government has turned to illicit activities such as drug trafficking and gold, diamond, coltan, and rare-earth mining. In 2016, without the required legislative approval, the government of President Nicolás Maduro introduced a decree creating the Orinoco Mining Arc (AMO), an area equivalent to 12% of national territory where mining is given free reign and regulation is minimal. According to Vollmer Burelli of lobby group SOSOrinoco, in this area “illegal armed groups allied with the government continue to run especially destructive mining operations, kicking back much of the wealth they extract to senior leaders in the military and government.”

By way of conclusion, it is worth highlighting four main points. The first is that, despite some continuing climate-change denialism and developmentalist thinking, there are reasons to suggest there is a real political appetite among Brazilian and other Latin American voters for green policies and for effective action to reverse the destructive process of deforestation. The recent Ipec survey in Brazil shows that a significant majority of respondents believe the environment should be protected even if that might mean lower growth and employment. In second place, it looks unlikely that voters will look exclusively to green parties to solve the problem of deforestation in the Amazon. Realism and fragmented political systems mean the way forward will require multi-party coalitions. At the moment the focus is on what could be called pink-green coalitions such as those currently in office in countries like Brazil, Colombia, and Chile. But it is not inconceivable that in future there may also be conservative-green alliances in office.

In third place, coalitions may be necessary to make but they are complex to manage. Governments seeking to pursue a green agenda have found themselves frustrated by congressional opposition. There is a need for dialogue and deal-making with lobby groups that currently benefit from Amazon deforestation including farmers, ranchers, loggers, and extractive miners. Finally, in fourth place, political instability is the enemy of effective climate-change mitigation, and time is running out. Between now and 2030 – the date fixed by the Brazilian government to reach zero deforestation in the Amazon - there are only seven years and one general election.

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