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Climate protection in Brazil: Can Lula save the rainforest?

January 3, 2023

German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier has taken a delegation to the Amazon rainforest to help support the new Brazilian government’s environmental agenda. Katharina Kroll traveled with them.

Aerial view of deforested area of Amazon rainforest
Latge swaths of the Amazon rainforest are already deforestedImage: MICHAEL DANTAS/AFP/Getty Images

The endless green expanses of the Amazon rainforest provided a lush backdrop for the German president as he climbed onto the platform at the top of the ATTO research tower.

Under the bright sunshine in the middle of the world's largest rainforest, equipped with harnesses and a helmet, Frank Walter-Steinmeier announced: "The air is good at the top."

Rising 325 meters into the air, the Amazon Tall Tower Observatory (ATTO) is fitted with an array of highly sensitive meteorological instruments so that scientists from Germany and Brazil can analyze the complex processes by which the Amazon rainforest influences the global climate. 

The German president has come to Brazil with a large delegation from Germany, including the Environment Minister Steffi Lemke, a deputy minister from the Foreign Ministry and a deputy minister from the Development Ministry.

Steinmeier atop the tower, listening to the explanations from a guide
German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier visited the Amazon Tall Tower ObservatoryImage: Jens Büttner/picture alliance/dpa

They all want to draw attention to the threat of climate change and show how important the protection of the Amazon rainforest is — not just for Brazil, but for the entire planet. And they want to support newly elected president Lula da Silva in the fight against its destruction.

Lula has promised to make climate protection a priority for his term in office. He wants to reduce deforestation in the Amazon to zero by 2030. To achieve this, Steinmeier says, Lula needs support from all over the world. And from Germany, of course.

"Even if the region is far away from Germany, it is an essential natural resource for many people on earth," Steinmeier said. "And this essential natural resource is in danger."

Double threat

The great danger is the climate tipping point. If it is reached, the world's largest rainforest would be irretrievably lost — with unforeseeable consequences.

"We don't yet know all the processes that would be set in motion if the system tips. But it will probably have dramatic consequences," says Christopher Pöhlker, a researcher from the Max Planck Institute for Chemistry in the western German city of Mainz.

Pöhlker has been involved in the German-Brazilian research project in the Amazon for years. The rainforest, he says, faces a double threat: climate change and deforestation. Both are leading to the drying out of the ecosystem. About 20% of the Amazon has already been destroyed, he says. "And that's really critical."

There is no time to lose —  the next 10 years will be decisive. After that, the chance to save the planet will have passed, Environment Minister Steffi Lemke said.

"We have to save the Amazon if we want to stop the climate crisis."

"We want to send the message that protecting the Amazon, protecting the climate, and fighting species extinction is a truly essential task for this government, and we're mobilizing all of our resources for it."

The German government released €35 million ($36,8 million) for the Amazon Fund when Lula took office — money that had been frozen under Lula's predecessor, the far-right Jair Bolsonaro.

Bolsonaro had openly allowed the deforestation and slash-and-burn clearing of the rainforest. Now, the first projects to prevent just that are springing into action.

"This is not just money for Brazil. But this is money for the children and children's children in our region of the world because their lives will also be affected by what happens here," Steinmeier says.

Frank-Walter Steinmeier (l) and Luis Inacio Lula da Silva holding hands and laughing into the camera
Frank-Walter Steinmeier (l) has great expectations for Lula da Silva's presidencyImage: Guido Bergmann/Bundesregierung/picture alliance/dpa

Not enough support

But there is also criticism. "The €35 million are a drop in the ocean," says Christof Schenk, managing director of the Frankfurt Zoological Society, a renowned international conservation organization.

Schenk points out that Germany has allocated €30,000 million to repair the damage caused by the floods in Germany's Ahr Valley alone.

"We have to think in completely different dimensions," Schenk said. "No one should be under the illusion that it doesn't matter what happens in Brazil. It concerns all of us."

Schenk is also part of the German president's tour group, now sitting in the shade at the rudimentary camp, listening to researchers explain the situation on the ground.

All of them emphasize how important it is to turn Brazil's climate policy around now. But it is also clear how difficult this will be for the new president.

The right-wing parties have a majority in Brazil's National Congress, and Lula needs to appeal to them if he wants to achieve anything.

The German president has taken three days to campaign in Brazil for a fresh start in relations — relations which suffered considerably during Bolsonaro's presidency.

With a population of 215 million, Brazil is one of the world's largest economies. The country is rich in raw material deposits and supplies large parts of the world's population with its agricultural exports.

And that could be useful for Germany: since Russia invaded Ukraine, the realization of how dependent Germany is on Russian oil and gas has left many politicians stressing the need to diversify its supply of resources.

Return of a familiar face

For environmental and climate policy, Lula has an internationally recognized campaigner by his side: Marina Silva, Brazil's new environment minister.

She was already a minister in Lula's first Cabinet and was largely responsible for drastically reducing deforestation in the Amazon during Lula's first term in office.

However, Silva resigned from office in 2008 over a dispute with Lula. Now it's time for a fresh start.

In Brasilia, Environment Minister Steffi Lemke agreed to work closely with her counterpart Marina Silva: "I'm sure that if the question of more money were to come up, we would also find ways as an international community to make more money available for this."

Money that is also needed for research facilities like here at the Atto project.

"Whenever I come to the research station, I have a sense of humility," says researcher Christopher Pöhlker as the delegation makes its way back. "Humility before the overwhelming nature. But also humility before the responsibility, as a scientist, to explain the complex relationships correctly."

Jeeps take the guests from Germany to the seaplanes that will take them out of the lush green rainforest and back to the concrete jungle.

Once again, there is a fantastic view across the endless green expanses of the Amazon — its area is still larger than that of all the states of the European Union combined.

This article was originally written in German.