Itu, São Paulo, Brazil (CNN) Driving through Brazil’s São Paulo state is unremarkable: Blocks and blocks of tall buildings give way to highways and eventually gently rolling hills. It is not the scenario in which one would expect to find climate salvation.
And yet, as Luis Guedes Pinto perches high above a recovered strip of the Brazilian Atlantic Forest, he explains that you don’t have to go to the Arctic or the Amazon to learn how to take care of the Earth’s forests.
A deforested and burned area of the Amazon rainforest in September. Credit: Michael Dantas/AFP/Getty Images
“This project does not change a great landscape, but it shows that it is possible to return life, water and biodiversity to the center of the state of São Paulo,” said Pinto, CEO of SOS Mata Atlântica, pointing to five square kilometers of forest restoration.
Pinto’s organization is a non-profit organization dedicated to rehabilitating the strip of forest on the Atlantic coast of Brazil. The jungle is home to more than 145 million Brazilians and, just as the Amazon rainforest has been devastated by deforestation in recent years, around three-quarters of it has already been cleared by urban and infrastructure development and by aggressive agro-industrial practices.
“We have to plant and replant, but we can’t lose another acre,” Pinto said as he led CNN through a greenhouse with more than 50 species of trees and plants carefully grown on what was once degraded, drought-prone pasture. “A forest that we replant is not going to be the same as a forest that we have cut down. Some of the forests we are losing have trees that are hundreds of years old.”
Brazil records record deforestation in the Amazon in the first half of 2022
These are the seeds of a forest’s rebirth. In just 15 years, it has become a thriving ecological laboratory with a healthy water table, trees, plants and animals. It’s a completely different landscape from the grasslands on its fringes, where drought-stricken grass takes over acres of what was once forest.
SOS Mata Atlántica was able to recover this patch of grass and turn it into a wildlife habitat. Credit: Vasco Cotovio/CNN
A volunteer plants a tree in the SOS Mata Atlántica compound. Different plant species grow at different rates, so volunteers have to keep coming to reforested areas for years before the habitat is fully restored. Credit: Vasco Cotovio/CNN
With the rise to power of President-elect Lula Da Silva, projects like this are at the crossroads of the climate and political history of Brazil, a country that is home to one of the most important biodiversity reserves on the planet.
For nearly four years, the government of President Jair Bolsonaro has been accused of undoing the environmental gains of Lula, who was president from 2003 to 2010. Data from Brazil’s National Institute for Space Research shows that the rate of deforestation under Bolsonaro’s presidency increased by more than 70% from 2018 to 2021.
Lula da Silva promises to fight deforestation and exploitation in the Amazon
The Amazon rainforest is already emitting more carbon dioxide than it absorbs in some places, a change that could have a huge negative impact on global warming trends. And scientists warn that the precious rainforest is nearing a point of irreversible decline and is less able to recover from shocks like drought, logging and wildfires.
Lula’s record as a former president shows that his government was able to drastically reduce deforestation rates by the end of his term in 2010. And his new promise goes even further: achieving zero deforestation in Brazil. This would be substantially more ambitious than his previous government’s goal of eliminating illegal deforestation, not all kinds.
But Bolsonaro’s allies, who continue to control Congress, could make climate action much more difficult in the next four years. One of those allies is Ricardo Salles, Bolsonaro’s former environment minister and now a newly elected lawmaker in Brazil’s conservative-leaning congress.
In an interview with CNN, Salles said he and others are willing to work with the incoming Lula administration on climate goals, but cautioned that it must not come at the expense of economic development.
Former environment minister and Brazilian legislator Ricardo Salles argues that the best way to protect the Amazon is to make it economically viable for the people who live in and around it. Credit: Vasco Cotovio/CNN
“I was the only one as Minister of the Environment in the entire history of the Ministry who put these economic issues on the table,” said Salles. During his tenure as environment minister, the Bolsonaro government often described development and economic activity in the Amazon as vital to long-term sustainability, an approach that was criticized by many environmental activists in the country.
Salles says Brazil will now have to work closely with international allies to take advantage of the billions of dollars in climate funds and carbon credits now being offered by both governments and companies around the world.
But climate advocates argue that neither Brazil nor the planet can afford the kind of commitments Bolsonaro’s allies now advocate.
Indigenous activist Txai Surui supported Lula da Silva during his last presidential campaign, but vows to oppose him if his policies go against the environment. Credit: Vasco Cotovio/CNN
“We do not need to destroy to develop. We can do it in harmony with nature. And it is the indigenous peoples who teach that,” Brazilian indigenous leader Txai Suruí told CNN.
Suruí said he is optimistic that Lula’s government will follow through on promises to act quickly, despite economic pressure not only from Bolsonaro’s allies, but from millions of people in the Amazon whose livelihoods depend on his commercial development.
“Because that agenda, of the Amazon, of climate change, of the environment, is a global agenda,” he said. “If Lula does not address her, it will not be just us, the indigenous people, who will knock on her door, it will be the whole world.”
The urgency of committing to these objectives is not lost on Pinto, who affirms that not only the future of Brazil is at stake.
“We have to understand as a nation that it is key for the planet and that the decisions we make will be important for us but also for others,” he says.
The SOS Mata Atlântica nursery, where hundreds of plants are grown before being replanted in the wild. Credit: Vasco Cotovio/CNN
™ & © 2022 Cable News Network, Inc., a Warner Bros. Discovery Company. All rights reserved.