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Analysis | Not even a Lula win can restore Brazil’s forests

To hear many people talk, the fate of the planet is at stake, depending on the outcome of Brazil’s second round of elections. On one side is Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, the leftist who virtually halted the logging of the Amazon during his term as president from 2003 to 2010. On the other side is Jair Bolsonaro, the Trumpy right-wing who razed the rainforest and drove deforestation to nearly double his level last year in his first year in office.

A sharp left-right dichotomy is a common way to think about the second-round bet on October 30. Yet, as with the candidates’ economic platforms, their forest policies have much more in common than you might expect.

While Bolsonaro’s management of Brazil’s ecosystems has been appalling, Lula’s forest protection policy has already been relaxed under the chairmanship of his successor and party colleague Dilma Rousseff. Dependent, like Rousseff, on the votes of an agricultural-dominated bloc in Congress now more dominant than in his first term in office, this time he has made efforts to pursue agricultural interests that strongly identify with Bolsonaro.

At the heart of Lula’s forest policy has always been something of a devil’s bargain: in exchange for protecting the Amazon rainforest, soy and beef farming would face few restrictions in the cerrado savannas, a lesser-known biodiversity hotspot of open forests and grasslands that extending to the south and east. About half of the cerrado has already been converted to farmland and expansion is still underway. In the Matopiba region on the border of the states of Maranhao, Tocantins, Piaui and Bahia east of the rainforest, a land storm has been underway for the past decade to exploit the country’s last agricultural frontier.

Barely more than 5% of Brazilian soy is grown in the northern region, which is more or less synonymous with the rainforest. Most deforested land in the Amazon is given to livestock, rather than crops. Major grain processors have refused to buy soy from the Amazon since a 2006 moratorium, and landowners there have been required by law for decades to leave 80% of their holdings undisturbed, compared to levels of 20% or 35% in the cerrado.

That sacrifice is probably a worthwhile compromise. The Amazon has unparalleled potential to store carbon in its trees, roots and soils, and government data indicates that the relatively small amount of deforestation in the rainforest still leads to more land-use emissions than the much larger amounts of industrial agriculture taking place elsewhere. .

It’s a compromise after all. In the cerrado, where soy is predominant, there has been a push for intensification in recent years – converting degraded pastures into soy fields and using the animal feed that results in fattening herds on smaller plots and in shorter time periods than on a typical Brazilian ranch.

This conversion generates its own emissions. The soil of the cerrado contains about 24 billion tons of carbon, compared to 36 billion tons in the Amazon – most of it in the top meter of the soil. Switching that soil from trampled pasture to row crops that are tilled every year results in significant releases into the atmosphere. A study last year from Uruguay showed that conversion from grassland to soybeans resulted in a sevenfold increase in land emissions.

Every Brazilian president will have to deal with the fact that the development of a country that has suffered for years from economic stagnation depends on increasing volumes of its largest agricultural exports: soybeans and beef. And there is a possible route to make this work in tandem with environmental safeguards. More rainforest protection is likely to speed up ratification of the stalled free trade agreement between the European Union and the Mercosur trading bloc, of which Brazil is the largest member. Injecting more rigor into the confused and often devious world of emissions compensation could even generate sustainable land conservation revenue streams and turn the country’s nascent carbon market into something worthy of the name.

Yet the path is narrow. Lula’s victory would allow him to use his executive power to veto a series of harmful agricultural laws currently stuck in Brazil’s Congress and to staff the neutered agency responsible for preventing illegal deforestation. , but the results may not be visible for some time. A study in June argued that sheer policy inertia will likely push Lula’s goal of net-zero deforestation well past 2025.

His first administration proved that deforestation in the Amazon can be prevented, but only at the cost of opening up the season elsewhere in the country. Should he win a third term in office later this month, he’ll have to repeat the same trick in the less iconic savannas of the cerrado. Current plans alone would suffice to reverse the damage of recent years. To make Brazil truly a climate leader, Lula must go further.

More from Bloomberg Opinion:

• With Bolsonaro down and not out, buckle up: Clara Ferreira Marques

• Latin America’s ‘Pink Tide’ Cannot Relive the Past: Eduardo Porter

• Brazilian democracy needs more friends in high places: Editorial

This column does not necessarily reflect the views of the editors or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

David Fickling is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist on energy and commodities. He previously worked for Bloomberg News, the Wall Street Journal and the Financial Times.

More stories like this are available at bloomberg.com/opinion

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