Itu, State of Sao Paulo, Brazil
The drive through Brazil’s Sao Paulo state is decidedly unremarkable, blocks and blocks of tall buildings giving way to commuter highways and finally gently rolling hills. It is hardly the scene where one would expect to find climate salvation.
And yet, as Luis Guedes Pinto climbed his towering perch above a reclaimed swath of Brazil’s Atlantic Forest, he explained that you don’t have to go to the Arctic or even the Amazon to learn how to restore the health of Earth’s forests .
“This project does not change a major landscape, but it shows that it is possible to bring life, water and biodiversity back to the center of the state of Sao Paulo,” said Pinto, CEO of SOS Mata. Atlântica, pointing out two square miles of forest restoration.
Pinto’s organization is a non-profit organization dedicated to restoring the forest area on Brazil’s Atlantic coast. The forest itself is home to more than 145 million Brazilians, and – just as the Amazon rainforest has been ravaged by deforestation in recent years – about three-quarters of it has already been wiped out by urban and infrastructure development and aggressive agricultural practices.
“We have to plant and replant, but we can’t lose another acre,” Pinto said as he guided CNN through a nursery with more than 50 species of carefully cultivated trees and plants in what were once degraded, drought-prone pastures. “A forest that we replant will not be the same as a forest that we cut down. Some of the forests we are losing have trees that are hundreds of years old.”
These are the seedlings of a forest revival. In just 15 years it has grown into a thriving ecolab with healthy groundwater levels, trees, plants and animals. It’s a very different landscape from the pastures on the frontier, where drought-stricken grass is overtaking acres of what used to be forest.
With President-elect Lula Da Silva coming to power, projects like this now find themselves at the crossroads of climate and political history in Brazil, a country that is home to one of the most important sources of biodiversity on Earth.
For nearly four years, President Jair Bolsonaro’s government has been accused of undoing the environmental progress made by Lula, who was president from 2003 to 2010. 70% from 2018 to 2021.
The Amazon rainforest is already emitting more carbon dioxide than it absorbs in some locations — a shift that could have a huge negative effect on global warming trends. And scientists warn that the precious rainforest is approaching a point of irreversible decline and is less able to recover from disruptions such as drought, logging and wildfires.
Lula’s track record as a former president shows that his administration was able to dramatically reduce deforestation rates by the end of his term in 2010. And his new pledge goes even further: to reduce deforestation to zero in Brazil . This would be significantly more ambitious than his previous administration’s goal of eliminating illegal deforestation, not all types of deforestation.
At the UN’s COP27 climate summit in Egypt’s Sharm el-Sheikh on Wednesday, Lula told a packed conference room that “Brazil is back to resume its ties with the world,” and that there is “no climate security for the world without a protected Amazon, and we will do everything we can to have a different view of the degradation.”
He also pledged to punish those responsible for deforestation in the Amazon, announcing a new ministry for the indigenous people “so that the indigenous people themselves can make proposals to the government and propose policies that will support their survival with dignity and security, peace and sustainability.”
His remarks were met with huge applause that seeped from the conference room into the corridor, where people unable to make it into the crowded room, but eager to hear Lula talk about the climate crisis, watched from their phones.
But Bolsonaro’s allies, who continue to control Congress, could make climate action much more difficult over the next four years. One of those allies is Ricardo Salles, Bolsonaro’s former environment minister and now a newly elected legislator in Brazil’s conservative-minded Congress.
In an interview with CNN, Salles said he and others are willing to work with Lula’s incoming government on climate goals, but warned that this should not come at the expense of economic development.
“I was the only man as environment minister in the entire history of the ministry to bring these economic issues to the table,” Salles said. During his time as environment minister, the Bolsonaro administration often described development and economic activity in the Amazon as essential to long-term sustainability – an approach disapproved of by many environmentalists in the country.
Salles says Brazil will now need to work closely with international allies to tap the billions of dollars in climate funds and carbon credits now being offered by governments and businesses around the world.
But climate advocates argue that neither Brazil nor the planet can afford the kind of compromises now advocated by Bolsonaro allies.
“We don’t need to destroy in order to develop. We can do that in harmony with nature. And it is the indigenous peoples who teach that,” Brazil’s indigenous leader Txai Suruí told CNN.
Suruí said she is optimistic that Lula’s government will deliver on its promises to act quickly despite economic pressure from not only Bolsonaro allies, but millions of people in the Amazon who depend on commercial development for their livelihoods.
“Because that agenda — of the Amazon, of climate change, of the environment — is a global agenda,” she said. “If Lula doesn’t deal with it, not only we Indigenous peoples will knock on his door, but the whole world.”
The urgency to commit to those goals is not lost on Pinto, who says that not only Brazil’s future is at stake.
“We need to understand that as a nation we are critical to the planet and that the decisions we will make are important to us, but also to others,” he says.
This story has been updated with Lula’s comments at the UN Climate Summit.