Science

This Fall’s Most Important Election Isn’t the U.S. Midterms

The planet is counting on what happens in Brazil.

Firefighters looking at a mass of smoke in the Amazon rainforest
Firefighters and volunteers combat an Amazon forest fire in the Brazilian state of Amazonas on Sept. 21. Michael Dantas/AFP via Getty Images

Update, Oct. 30, 2022, at 7:06 p.m.: Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva has been officially declared victor of Brazil’s presidential election.

The first thing you should realize about Sunday’s runoff election in Brazil is that in normal times, all signs would point to a victory for former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva against his opponent, incumbent Jair Bolsonaro. Lula, who last year was cleared of trumped-up criminal charges that landed him in jail, still carries ample goodwill from his two terms as president in the 2000s. His anti-poverty programs, broad-base coalition, and environmental stewardship helped make him the country’s most popular politician, with a sterling reputation that persisted even as his Workers’ Party confronted widespread hostility throughout the 2010s. One of the key reasons the far-right Bolsonaro had a fighting chance at the presidency in the first place was 2018’s corruption probe into Lula, which helped sideline him from that year’s elections.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

Yet in Brazil, as with everywhere else, these are not normal times. The pressures are too high on all ends. Poor, Indigenous, minority, and otherwise-democracy-inclined Brazilians realize an unimpeded Lula victory is their last chance to save Brazil from reverting to ’60s-style military-managed autocracy, an explicit goal of Bolsonaro’s. Yet ultraconservative nostalgists for that very regime crave the former general’s reelection—and are unafraid to resort to disinformation about election integrity, plus shocking violence, to support their sickly fave even as he sags in the polls. And it’s not just Brazilians who have so much at stake this election. In a very concrete way, the health of the entire planet rests on Sunday’s results. Not just for the durability of liberal democracy in the Western Hemisphere, but also for the hope of a habitable, livable Earth.

Advertisement
Advertisement

Obviously, we tend to get forecasts every cycle that this election, really, is the most important of our lifetimes. But you can really say that when it comes to Brazil, and to understand why, you have to realize what’s happening with the Amazon rainforest.

More than just about any other natural habitat, the Amazon may hold singular claim as the climate’s most important savior. Covering a landmass of 2.1 million square miles—60 percent of which lies under Brazilian jurisdiction—the rainforest’s ecosystem provides more than one-fifth of the world’s freshwater supply, about one-tenth of its trees, about one-tenth of its known biodiversity, and the largest number of its freshwater fish. The Earth’s total tree cover sucks up about 2.4 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide a year, according to Science magazine, with the Amazon’s forestry making for a quarter of that total absorption. The Amazon River is the world’s second-longest river (after the Nile), its most voluminous waterway (carrying 12 times the water supply of the Mississippi), and its largest provider of discharged freshwater to oceans, in this case the Atlantic.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

Those stats are only the iceberg tip when it comes to the Amazon’s environmental importance, but nevertheless, they help make clear the necessity of preserving this natural behemoth—to everyone who’s not Jair Bolsonaro and his supporters, that is. Almost immediately upon taking office in 2019, Bolsonaro pursued an anti-environmental and pro-industrial program that hinged in large part on ransacking the Amazon for all its worth. After all, everything that makes the Amazon so important for the Earth whets the appetites of corporations: timber and paper companies, furniture manufacturers, agribusiness interests dependent on beef and soybeans and palm oil, biofuel manufacturers, mineral miners, wildlife traders, and water suppliers. Big business was a core supporter of Bolsonaro’s rise to power, as longtime Brazil-based journalist Michael Fox told me in an interview, and the beneficiaries of Amazon development are key to the president’s voting base. “The more the Amazon develops, the more votes Bolsonaro gets from that region—from landowners and loggers,” Fox said.

Advertisement
Advertisement

As a result, Bolsonaro and his friends can giggle while the Amazon literally burns. “He’s gutted state environmental institutions, and he’s placed environment attackers in government positions,” Fox told me. Thanks to this, deforestation rates in the Amazon have skyrocketed, a sharp reversal from the Amazon-protection agenda of the 2000s. “Lula was the president who battled deforestation most in the country,” Fox said. “He came in when deforestation rates were higher than they are now, and he was able to cut them by half, through measures to restrict development and track business interests, like those for beef, within the forest.” The former president’s party was also home to key environmental activists and officials, as Brazilian historian Andre Pagliarini wrote in the New Republic. Given the fact that Lula’s current campaign has emphasized “green” governance, while Bolsonaro encourages heightened forest-razing blitzes that ended Amazon’s status as a “carbon sink,” the voting choice for the Amazon’s sake couldn’t be more stark. (Though it should be noted that Lula’s presidential record on the Amazon, and the climate at large, wasn’t exactly stellar. Politics is about imperfect choices!)

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

Bolsonaro’s hand in the Amazon’s fate is not just a pro-business or anti-climate calling—it’s a racial issue, also. Isadora Moura Mota, an academic and scholar of Brazilian history, wrote to me that Bolsonaro’s Amazonian preferences go hand in hand with contempt for Indigenous Brazilians and their rights. “Despite having rights to land enshrined in the 1988 Constitution, indigenous peoples face multiple threats to their survival: climate change, expropriation, and the unregulated exploration of natural and mineral resources,” she said. “The Bolsonaro government has repeatedly questioned whether indigenous-demarcated territories should continue to exist,” thus encouraging “miners, loggers, land-grabbers, and poachers to encroach on their territories with impunity.”

Bolsonaro and his backers want to shrink Indigenous land share even further. The Catholic Church found that in 2020, the second year of the president’s term, there was a 61 percent increase in murders of Indigenous Brazilians over the previous year, and encroachments upon native lands surged by 137 percent that year. Bolsonaro doesn’t seem to care. “The 1988 constitution turned the tide on the dictatorship’s narrative that the Indigenous need to be pushed out for development,” Fox said. “Most governments since then have respected that with some caveats, though nothing like we’ve seen under Bolsonaro.”

Advertisement
Advertisement

These issues are very much at the forefront of the election—to the point where Indigenous leaders are warning the world of impending ecosystem collapse, and campaigns are reaching hundreds of miles into the forests in order to turn out its inhabitants to vote. But there’s even more at issue, mainly related to Brazil’s management of its rich commodity resources and the core conflict between public ownership and privatization. The country’s state-owned oil enterprise, Petrobras, provided ample revenue for health and welfare investment under Lula’s rule; Bolsonaro, on the other hand, has been happy to auction off oil-rich land and waters to private energy interests, surrendering a revenue stream as well as control over how the region’s fossil assets are explored and utilized. Lula, who wants to rein in state control of Brazilian resources, would likely handle fossil fuels more in a manner conducive to his green pledges.

Advertisement
Advertisement

Despite all this, forecasts are shaky going into Sunday. In the first round of elections earlier this month, Lula beat Bolsonaro by about 5 points. He did not make the threshold to avoid a runoff (although, notably, no election in the country has not seen a runoff since the transition to democracy), and Bolsonaro’s vote tabulations beat projections. Still, Lula’s showing was unprecedented—he’s the only presidential candidate to have ever outperformed an incumbent in the general. And now, even the third-party candidates from the first round have since campaigned for Lula and rallied their few million voters to come out on his behalf.

Advertisement
Advertisement

But there are heavy-pocketed, widespread interests working on Bolsonaro’s behalf. Figureheads of the international far-right, like Tucker Carlson and Steve Bannon, have explicitly embraced the Brazilian president as they have the authoritarian-leaning government of Hungary, and are peddling disinformation on his behalf. In August, the Associated Press reported that businesses across Brazil are bribing their employees to vote for Bolsonaro. Since the final result will probably be close, there are fears that Bolsonaro could follow the example of a recent American president and try to cast doubt on results—and perhaps whip up violence among his supporters, as he’s done in the past, to ensure he stays in power. Not for nothing has one Brazilian political scientist, Carlos Gustavo Poggio Teixeira, worried that Brazil could be in for its own version of Jan. 6, 2021.

For Lula, however, taking office from an opponent who has contempt for the electoral process might not even be the hard part. Because then he’ll have to go save the Amazon.

Advertisement