A few days ago, in a São Paulo hotel suite, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva took a pause in a daylong slew of calls with foreign leaders to give his first interview since his narrow October 30th election triumph over Brazil’s far-right incumbent President, Jair Bolsonaro. Foremost on Lula’s mind was his upcoming trip to Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt, to attend the COP27 climate summit. It will be his first trip abroad as President-elect, and there was a lot to be done beforehand. Lula, who turned seventy-seven in October, looked his age, and also tired and preoccupied. The transition was getting underway, but Bolsonaro, in Trumpian fashion, had not formally conceded, making for a tense atmosphere. As Lula spoke, however, his famous high energy levels returned. Before long, he was sitting forward in his chair and grabbing me excitedly to make his points.

When he is sworn into office, on January 1st, Lula, who previously served two consecutive Presidential terms, from 2003 to 2010, will again become the main guardian of the Amazon rain forest—about sixty per cent of which lies within Brazil’s borders, and which, during Bolsonaro’s four years in office, has been subjected to shocking rates of illegal mining, burning, and deforestation by ranchers and fortune-seekers. Murders of Indigenous-rights defenders and conservationists have also spiralled. In June, while on a trip to the Amazon, the British journalist Dom Phillips and the Brazilian Indigenous-rights expert Bruno Pereira were murdered by local settlers who reportedly feared Pereira’s attempts to investigate illegal fishing inside a protected Indigenous reserve. To many observers, such attacks were made possible by a sense, since Bolsonaro took office, that crimes against the Amazon and its defenders will go unpunished. “What makes people commit crimes is the expectation of impunity,” Marina Silva, a renowned Brazilian conservationist who previously served as Lula’s environment minister and is expected to join his new government, said. “In democracies, with their problems of legal implementation and follow-through, there is an expectation of impunity, but with Bolsonaro they were sure of it.”

Lula has promised to reverse the destruction, and to make good on the country’s pledge, signed at last year’s COP26 summit, to achieve “zero deforestation” by 2030. (During his previous time in office, Lula had brought down the annual rate of Amazonian deforestation by thirty-four per cent in his first term, and fifty-one per cent in his second. Under Bolsonaro, who set about systematically removing Brazil’s environmental controls, deforestation has soared by seventy-three per cent.) That goal is an ambitious one, but, as an aide explained before the interview, “At least now Brazil will have a President who will not be actively trying to destroy the Amazon, but, instead, trying to save it.”

I asked Lula about the path to zero deforestation, and suggested that his “moral responsibility” was huge. “People around the world are expecting you not only to save the Amazon but to save the world,” I said. He nodded, then raised his voice and said, “Yes, I know, and that scares me, because people are very optimistic about our government. I spoke to President Biden, and I just spoke to Josep Borrell,” the European Union’s High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy. “People are expecting that something will change, and it will change. As for the question of the Amazon, I intend, in Egypt, to make a speech to show what the Amazon will be from now on. We don’t want to transform the Amazon into a sanctuary for humanity. What we want is to study, to research the Amazon. Nor should it be a place where you cut down a tree for no reason. If you want to make a lumber factory, you should have a policy of afforestation, to plant new trees, so that later you can cut them down. There has to be a replacement plan.”

Lula went on, speaking ardently. He was, I realized, organizing his thoughts for Sharm el-Sheikh. “I want to discuss this very seriously, first because we have to respect the millions of Brazilians who live” in the Amazon region. “Second, we will have to talk with Bolivia, with Peru, with Venezuela, with Ecuador, with Colombia,” which are also Amazonian countries. “And we also have to talk to Congo and Indonesia,” which are the other great remaining repositories of tropical rain forest.

He was warming up to a theme that he has been returning to in recent speeches, when addressing global issues such as climate change and security policy. “The problem is that we don’t have global governance—global governance is weak,” he said. “In 1948, the U.N. had the strength to build the state of Israel; in 2022, the U.N. does not have the strength to build the Palestinian territory. It must have global governance.” To achieve that, he said, “it is necessary to have new countries added to the Security Council, it is necessary to end the right of veto”—because one country cannot have supremacy over another—“and it has to be representative in a correct political way.” We no longer have the geopolitics that prevailed at the end of the Second World War, he said: “The geopolitics of today is something else.”

On the question of the environment, he said, “There has to be an international decision. Let’s take an example: we signed the Kyoto Protocol, and the United States did not comply. So, it’s no use approving decisions in a multilateral meeting, if each country is going to take it back inside its territory, and to decide [again] there.” (The Clinton Administration signed the Kyoto Protocol, but the Senate declined to ratify it.) He added, “For a change in the U.N.—and the U.N. has to change—you can’t just have those five in the Security Council.” In the end, I felt, what Lula was saying was that he is back, and so is Brazil, and he wants to make Brazil’s presence felt and its voice heard once more on the world stage. ♦

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