Felipe Guimaraes teaches tourists how to stand on a surfboard. On Ipanema beach Rio de Janeirothe Amazon —and their problems— are far away.
Outside Brazilthe situation of the largest tropical forest in the world, considered a key factor in curbing climate change, is seen as a crucial issue in the presidential election.
However, fires and deforestation have been almost absent from the polarized campaign between the far-right Jair Bolsonaro and the leftist Luis Inacio Lula da Silvaand many voters have other concerns beyond what is happening in that vast region of Brazil, thousands of miles away.
“I don’t know, brother, it’s so far… but obviously it’s important and worth taking care of,” says Guimaraes, a 27-year-old surf instructor. There are “many more visible problems” than the rainforest, he adds.
Many Brazilian voters cite the economy, insecurity, education and corruption among their top concerns.
“The country has a very large social inequality and we are recovering from a pandemic. Today, there are Brazilians worried about surviving, having a job, food on their table, access to a doctor,” Daniel Costa Matos, a 38-year-old computer analyst in the capital Brasilia, tells AFP.
Although he thinks that the Amazon “is extremely important,” his biggest concern is corruption.
“The climate crisis, the logging in the Amazon, are still far from the reality of many Brazilians,” says environmental activist Giovanna Nader, who uses her podcast and her Instagram profile to alert about the emergency.
“It is necessary to educate, educate, educate,” he defends.
Absence in the Amazon
For the indigenous peoples of Brazil, the struggle can sometimes be lonely, even after four years denouncing President Bolsonaro’s policies as “violent” and harmful to the environment.
Most Brazilians have never visited the Amazon. Manaus, capital of the state of Amazonas, is 2,800 kilometers from Rio de Janeiro.
It is almost the same distance between Rio and Santiago de Chile.
“What worries us a lot is that the Brazilians’ vision of environmental preservation (…) is very superficial,” says Dinamam Tuxá, executive coordinator of the Association of Indigenous Peoples of Brazil (APIB).
“Sometimes we feel alone, that we are fighting against a very powerful force, the large corporations that exploit our territories, and that the Brazilian population does not get involved.”
Personal attacks and misinformation
The average annual deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon during the Bolsonaro government increased 75% compared to the previous decade, according to official figures.
The leftist Lula da Silva, his rival in the presidential elections and who also dealt with this problem during his two governments (2003-2010), referred on a few occasions to the situation in the jungle during the campaign, especially on visits to the region and in interviews with the international press.
But in general the issue has been largely absent from a campaign marked by disinformation and extreme polarization, with episodes of political violence.
“It turned into a political campaign of very personal attacks between the two candidates. I have the impression that people talk much more about ‘fake news’ than about the Amazon”, says Karla Koehler, while she sunbathes in Ipanema.
For the 35-year-old artist, this election is basically about “maintaining basic democratic rights.”
Bolsonaro’s critics see him as a threat to democracy, after a government marked by more than 680,000 deaths during the pandemic, attacks on the judicial system and the media, and suggestions that he would not accept defeat at the polls.
On the other hand, Lula continues with his image tarnished by the corruption scandal that landed him in prison for 18 months, before the sentence was annulled by the Supreme Court for procedural irregularities.
In the largest country in Latin America, more than 33 million people go hungry, 73% more than in 2020, according to the Brazilian Network for Research on Food Sovereignty and Security. Some 11 million are illiterate, according to official figures.
Brazil also has one of the highest crime rates in the world, with 47,503 murders in 2021, although the figure was the lowest in a decade, according to the NGO Brazilian Forum of Public Security.
“The challenge is for people and governments to understand that the environmental agenda is directly linked to factors such as hunger, lack of housing, crime or the economic crisis,” said Marcio Astrini, from the Climate Observatory, a coalition of groups environmentalists.