Brazil’s new head of indigenous affairs was shaking a traditional rattle and walking every corner of the agency’s headquarters – even the coffee room – recently when she called for ancestral help during a ritual purification.
The ritual held additional meaning for Joenia Wapichana, Brazil’s first indigenous woman to command the agency tasked with protecting the Amazon rainforest and its people. Once sworn in next month under newly inaugurated President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, Wapichana promises to clean up the house of an agency critics say has allowed the Amazon’s resources to be exploited at the expense of the environment.
As Wapichana performed the ritual, indigenous people and government officials enthusiastically chanted, “Yoohoo! Funai is ours!” – a reference to the agency that will lead them.
Environmentalists, indigenous peoples and voters sympathetic to their causes were important in Lula’s narrow victory over former President Jair Bolsonaro. Now Lula is trying to fulfill campaign promises he made to them on a variety of issues, from expanding indigenous lands to curbing a surge in illegal deforestation.
To achieve those goals, Lula is appointing prominent environmentalists and tribal peoples to key positions at FUNAI and other agencies that Bolsonaro had filled with agribusiness allies and military figures.
In Lula’s last two terms as president, he had a mixed record on environmental and indigenous issues. And he’s sure to face obstacles from pro-Bolsonaro state governors who still control parts of the Amazon. But experts say Lula is making the right first steps.
The federal officials that Lula has already appointed to key positions “have the national and international prestige to reverse all of the environmental destruction that we have suffered in these four years of the Bolsonaro administration,” said George Porto Ferreira, an analyst at Ibama. Brazil’s Environmental Law Law Enforcement Agency.
Meanwhile, Bolsonaro’s supporters fear that Lula’s promise of greater environmental protection will hurt the economy by reducing the amount of land available for development and penalizing people for activities that were previously allowed. Some supporters with links to agribusiness have been accused of providing financial and logistical support to rioters who stormed Brazil’s presidential palace, Congress and Supreme Court earlier this month.
When Bolsonaro was president, he desecrated the Funai and other agencies responsible for environmental oversight. This has allowed deforestation to rise to its highest level since 2006, as developers and miners who took land from tribal peoples faced few consequences.
Between 2019 and 2022, the number of fines imposed for illegal activities in the Amazon fell by 38% compared to the previous four years, according to an analysis of Brazilian government data by the Climate Observatory, a network of environmental nonprofit groups.
One of the strongest indications of Lula’s intentions to reverse these trends was his decision to return Marina Silva to head the country’s environment ministry. Silva previously held the job between 2003 and 2008, a time when deforestation fell by 53%. Silva, a former rubber tapper from Acre State, resigned after falling out with government and agribusiness leaders over environmental policies she felt were too lenient.
Silva stands in stark contrast to Bolsonaro’s first environment minister, Ricardo Salles, who had never set foot in the Amazon when he took office in 2019 and resigned two years later after claiming he had facilitated the export of illegally logged timber.
Other actions Lula has taken to support the Amazon and its people include:
— Signing of a decree that would revitalize the most significant international rainforest conservation effort – the Amazon Fund. The fund that Bolsonaro gutted has received more than $1.2 billion, mostly from Norway, to help fund the sustainable development of the Amazon.
— Repeal of a Bolsonaro decree that allowed mining in indigenous and conservation areas.
— Creation of a ministry for tribal peoples that will oversee everything from land borders to education. This ministry is headed by Sônia Guajajara, the country’s first indigenous woman to hold such a high government post.
“It will not be easy to overcome 504 years in just four years. But we stand ready to seize this moment to encourage a takeback of Brazil’s spiritual power,” Guajajara said during her induction ceremony, which was delayed by the damage pro-Bolsonaro rioters inflicted on the presidential palace.
The Amazon rainforest, which covers an area twice the size of India, acts as a climate change buffer by absorbing large amounts of carbon dioxide. But Bolsonaro viewed the management of the Amazon as an internal matter, damaging Brazil’s global reputation. Lula tries to undo this damage.
Supporters of former Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro stormed the capital on Sunday in an attack condemned by President Joe Biden and other world leaders.
During the UN climate summit in Egypt in November, Lula pledged to end deforestation by 2030 and announced his country’s intention to host the COP30 climate conference in 2025. Brazil was supposed to host the event in 2019, but Bolsonaro properly canceled it in 2018 after being elected.
While Lula has ambitious environmental goals, the fight to protect the Amazon faces complex hurdles. For example, achieving cooperation with local officials will not be easy.
Bolsonaro allies rule six out of nine Amazon states. These include Rondonia, where settlers of European descent control local power and have dismantled environmental legislation through the State Assembly; and Acre, where a lack of economic opportunity is driving rubber tappers, who have long fought to save the rainforest, to take up cattle grazing instead.
The Amazon has also been plagued by illegal gold mining for decades, employing tens of thousands of people in Brazil and other countries like Peru and Venezuela. Illegal mining causes mercury contamination in rivers that indigenous peoples rely on for fishing and drinking.
“The main reason is the absence of the state,” says Gustavo Geiser, forensic technician with the Federal Police and who has been working in the Amazon for over 15 years.
One area where Lula has more control is in the designation of indigenous lands, which are the best preserved regions in the Amazon.
Lula is under pressure to create 13 new tribal lands – a process that stalled under Bolsonaro, who kept his promise not to give tribal people “one more inch” of land.
An important step will be the expansion of Uneiuxi, part of one of the most remote and culturally diverse regions in the world, home to 23 peoples. The process of expanding Uneiuxi’s borders began four decades ago, and the only remaining step is a presidential signature that will increase its size by 37% to 551,000 hectares (2,100 square miles).
“Lula has already indicated that he would have no problem with that,” said Kleber Karipuna, a close associate of Guajajara.