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How can Brazil be a world leader today?

The Latin American country could be at the forefront of the fight to protect the environment, a struggle that affects the entire planet

Lula Da Silva
A protest in defense of the environment, in Brasília, on April 8, 2022.Andressa Anholete (Getty Images)
Juan Arias

It’s understandable that Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva has come to power wanting to rebuild Brazil, a country that has been devastated by the far-right government of Jair Bolsonaro. In the past four years of Bolsonaro’s mandate, Brazil has been injured both nationally and internationally, with the country losing the prestige it once had.

That is why Lula, 100 days into his term, has retaken the reins of foreign policy to reconnect Brazil with the world’s powerhouses: he visited the United States and also recently traveled to China — the two poles of economic power that are competing for global hegemony today.

It is indisputable that Lula’s visit to China and the positive reception it received will bring great rewards to Brazil, especially in the economic sphere. Lula has political savvy: in his previous two terms as president, his strong foreign policy put Brazil in the international spotlight.

This time, however, Lula has found himself with a country that has been wrecked by Bolsonaro’s policies, with several areas in simultaneous decline: the economy, education, public health, foreign relations, culture and democratic institutions. The country is also struggling to combat inflation, which is hitting the most disadvantaged hardest.

Lula has always been focused on situating Brazil among the great world powers — not just as the leader of the South American trade bloc Mercosur. And it is true that Brazil is the fifth-largest country in the world and has vast natural resources.

Lula, however, is being criticized in the national press for some of his proposals, with critics arguing that Brazil — while important — should not attempt to compete with world powers. How, for example, could Brazil — as Lula proposes — help end the war between Russia and Ukraine? How could it try to intervene in issues as complex as international trade with plans to replace the dollar in foreign trade? And how could Brazil intervene in the war for world economic hegemony between the United States and China?

There is no doubt that Lula is a natural statesman — he proved this in his previous terms as president. He now wants to end his political career as the person who put Brazil back on the world stage, and perhaps even the one who helped end the high-stakes war in Ukraine — a feat he hopes may win him the Nobel Peace Prize he is longing for.

These are noble intentions. But political analysts worry whether Brazil has the strength to take on global problems. Some suggest that for now, it may be better for Lula to use his political experience to address the serious internal problems affecting Brazil, which was on the brink of a coup and possibly even a civil war.

Brazilians who voted for Lula no doubt did so in the belief that he would be able to use his political experience to address a country where both democratic institutions and the economy have been torn apart.

If Lula wants Brazil to be a world leader, he has the perfect opportunity to do so, and it doesn’t involve solving problems that the country has little power over.

Lula da Silva en Brasil
Lula da Silva with indigenous leaders in a demonstration about protecting the environment.Andressa Anholete (Getty Images)

Brazil could be a world leader — not in the Ukraine war — but in the ongoing fight against climate change, a struggle that affects the entire planet. This fight has higher stakes than a possible nuclear war, as it impacts every country in the world, and no one nation — regardless of how powerful it may be — can solve the problem alone.

It is in the fight against climate change that Brazil can show it is a global power, since the planet depends on the preservation of the Amazon Rainforest. Some 22% of the world’s drinking water comes from the Amazon, and if it is lost, there will be havoc across the globe. Not a single country will be able to escape the effects.

The far-right government of Bolsonaro waged war against the Amazon, attacking the laws that protected the rainforest and its native peoples. But while there is great hope that Lula will reverse this damage, the news has been surprisingly disappointing. And this is despite the fact that Lula appointed environmental activist Marina Silva as minister of the environment. Silva, who comes from a humble family like Lula and only learned to read as an adult, has been lauded for her efforts to defend the Amazon.

But this did not counter a rise in deforestation. According to data from the INPE Deter system, in these first three months of Lula’s government, 1,375 square kilometers of forest have been destroyed. As highlighted in an editorial in the Brazilian newspaper O Globo, “the Amazon has registered, so far in this government’s term, its second-worst figure in a historical series with the loss of 884 square kilometers of vegetation.”

Today, Brazil is aware that preserving the Amazon is not only vital for the country, but also for the entire planet. That’s why as soon as Lula came to power, countries that had been providing economic aid to protect the rainforest — which stopped during the Bolsonaro government — expressed interest in resuming their efforts.

Lula must be aware that he has the opportunity to make Brazil a world leader in the fight to protect the environment. This struggle is possibly more important than ending the war between Russia and Ukraine, in which Brazil has little role to play. Brazil can be the leader in the great war to stop the destruction of the planet. It is a goal worth aspiring to. And the world knows it. If Lula succeeds, he will deserve not one but two Nobel Peace Prizes.

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