Lula promises not to deforest, but there are imminent challenges

XHPDURI, Brazil (HPD) — When Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva is sworn in as president of the second most populous country in the Western Hemisphere on Jan. 1, few challenges will be greater for him than making good on his promise to end all deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon. by 2030.

To understand why, consider the vastly different visions of three daughters from a family of rubber tappers—latex collectors—who live on a large reservation in the western state of Acre. The reserve is a protected forest named after legendary rubber tapper leader and environmentalist Chico Mendes.

Luzineide da Silva is a third generation rubber tapper. One of her daughters wants to follow in her footsteps and make a living from the family’s fields, rubber trees and Brazil nuts. The other two want to cut down the forest, plant grass, and raise cattle.

“My eldest daughter was amazed when she took part in a livestock training course. She learned how to produce beef and cheese and even how to drive a tractor. That changed her view of her world,” Da Silva said at the end of a day of tending her crops of corn, squash, watermelon, plantain and pickle under a blazing sun. “She said, ‘Mom, everyone who raises cattle has a car, a good life, and goes to private colleges, while I can’t afford vet school.’”

It is the same with other families. Over the past two decades, many rubber tappers have gradually abandoned the vision of Mendes, who strongly opposed deforestation at the hands of large ranchers.

The forest defender was shot dead in his small house in the town of Xapuri, here in Acre, in December 1998. A local farmer had had him killed. International outrage after the event led to the creation of “extraction reserves” in the Amazon, a kind of federal conservation unit where forest communities could live their traditional lives protected from land dispossession.

Classical latex extraction is done by making grooves in the bark of rubber trees and collecting the latex that runs off. But that artisanal rubber has been in decline for decades, a victim of synthetic rubber produced in chemical factories or plantation-grown rubber trees.

Because there are few opportunities elsewhere, many locals felled the trees and turned to raising cattle as a more reliable income than seasonal forest products like Brazil nuts. Livestock became the most important economic activity in Acre.

In the past four years, this trend of converting forests to grasslands has reached unprecedented levels under right-wing President Jair Bolsonaro.

His government tried to reduce protected areas and legalize large-scale cattle herding within extractive reserves. Land thieves from the neighboring state of Rondonia illegally bought plots, including on public land. One of them deforested 257 acres (104 hectares), the largest swath of destruction this year, according to environmental officials who spoke anonymously because they were not authorized to speak to the press.

Residents also felled trees to lease the land to nearby ranchers, who finance the destruction. There are even cases where traditional rubber tappers have used the money obtained from the sale of rubber to expand their grazing lands. Others post ads on Facebook offering their traditional rubber orchards for sale.

“What strikes me is that when we had nothing, we were able to gather people and fight like we did,” said Raimundo Mendes de Barros from a chair on the terrace of his wooden house, whose walls display images of him together Chico Mendes, who was his cousin, and Lula. They all belong to the same party, the Workers’ Party. Thanks to the movement of the rubber tappers, he said, people now have roads and electricity, and walk on an equal footing with those who live in the cities.

But “these improvements ended up benefiting the bad guys,” added Raimundo Mendes. Many think that the products of the forest and family farming are worthless and that they need money to buy a motorcycle and a mobile phone. They will sell a piece of their own rubber orchard and deforest to raise cattle.

“We fought so hard and built a lot of good things, but the people don’t care,” said the 77-year-old rubber tapper leader.

The result is that an area roughly the size of Manhattan was destroyed during Bolsonaro’s presidency between 2019 and 2022. That’s triple what it was in the previous four years, according to an analysis by the Socio-Environmental Institute, a Brazilian nonprofit organization, based on official figures.

“In the past, the residents of the Chico Mendes reservation used the profits from rubber and Brazil nuts to buy cattle, as a kind of savings account,” Antonio Oviedo, a researcher with the institute, told The Associated Press in a telephone interview. He indicated that this is now happening on a much larger scale.

However, most of the locals do not see this loss of the forest as a problem, quite the contrary. In the recent elections, Bolsonaro defeated Lula by a wide margin here in Xapuri and in the six municipalities of the Chico Mendes reserve.

Other parts of Acre state have also hit an all-time high for deforestation in the past four years, according to official monitoring. However, Bolsonaro beat Lula by 70% to 30%. His ally, pro-agribusiness governor Gladson Cameli, was also re-elected in a landslide. It brought to light the years-long fading efforts of the Workers’ Party to implement a sustainable economy in Acre. And it is also an indicator of the strength of agribusiness and cultural changes in recent years in rural Brazil.

Acre is also home to Marina Silva, a former environmental minister who is being considered again for the same position in the new government. Silva is also a former rubber tapper who fought against deforestation alongside Mendes. A globally recognized defender of forests, she has become very unpopular in her home state. Her political party, the Sustainability Network, is almost nonexistent here; it doesn’t even have an elected councilor.

Angela Mendes, the daughter of Chico Mendes, says that to really stop deforestation, Lula’s incoming government will have to listen to the needs of small farmers who live on forest products like rubber, Brazil nuts and açaí, and reform the federal agency in charge of managing protected areas: the Chico Mendes Institute for the Conservation of Biodiversity.

“We still have a lot of standing forest,” he said during an interview in Xapuri. To ensure it stays that way, she added, it is essential to find a way for those who live off the land. “That’s the only way forward.”

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The Associated Press’s climate and environmental coverage receives funding from several private foundations. The HPD is solely responsible for all content.

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