The great enthusiasm that greeted the re-election of Ignacio Lula da Silva as President of Brazil last autumn also reverberated among the pavilions of COP27 in Sharm el-Sheikh when the newly elected President visited the Brazilian pavilion together with Environment Minister Marina Silva. Welcomed with choruses in the activists’ embrace, Lula had even gone so far as to nominate Brazil as host country for COP30, scheduled for 2025, in the Amazon, symbolically stitching up the wound produced by Bolsonaro’s sudden ‘no’ in 2019, to COP25 already organised and then migrated first to Chile, then to Spain, now bringing it to a highly symbolic location.

But how have the first two months of Lula’s government gone from the point of view of the environment and climate? It is difficult, due to the complex international scenario, to draw a complete line, but the stories of a ship and of the Amazon Forest they are going to be mentioned, help us in the clearing up our minds.

It is early February and the aircraft carrier ship San Paolo, formerly Admiral Foch, is sailing aimlessly off the Brazilian coast. Being 261 metres long, the São Paulo was designed to carry up to 22 warplanes and 17 helicopters, as well as numerous armaments and over a thousand crew members. Launched in 1960 in France under the name Foch and then sold to the Brazilian Navy in 2000, despite a major restyling it had never fully resumed operational life in the new millennium, so much so that its work as a flagship under the golden-green flag had already come to an end with her being decommissioned and sold in 2018. Almost sixty years of activity on her shoulders and excessive maintenance costs, for a ship designed for military strategies dating back to the 1950s, after the sale, being bought by a Turkish decommissioning and recycling company, the ship sailed to the Mediterranean only to turn back to Brazil after an unexpected Turkish refusal to handle its disposal.

Here, then, the ship returns to Brazil just as the new government, declaredly pro-environment, is taking its first steps. Yet a solution cannot be found, no one – least of all the government – wants to bear the costs of scrapping and disposal. So, they opt, incredibly, for a planned sinking.

On February 3rd, the Brazilian navy units undermine and sink the Sao Paulo, formerly the Foch, 350 kilometres off the coast. With the Sao Paulo, bearing precisely 9.6 tonnes of asbestos, 644 tonnes of inks and other hazardous materials which ended up scattered in the sea, for a total of 30,000 tonnes of military, chemical and toxic waste. A pure international environmental disaster, without appeal, planned by the government in order not to spend too much on decommissioning. A stain that Lula will find hard to remove, at least before public opinion with environmentalist sensitivity.

In the same days as the sinking of the São Paulo, however, the first data on the pace of deforestation in the Amazon began to arrive, from which a first important slowdown was beginning to be glimpsed. In particular, the national agency INPE – reported by Reuters – indicated a decrease of -61% of the deforested territories in January 2023 compared to January 2022, when a peak in negative over eight years of measurements had been recorded. Also in January, local sources reported, the first raids by the government’s forestry agents against some illegal organisations engaged in the illegal logging of parts of the forest had begun, thus following up on the new president’s election promise to do the utmost, at the federal government level, against a phenomenon that had become out of control during the Jair Bolsonaro years.

The first two months of Lula’s government have thus been marked by a great commitment, also in the international and multilateral field, in distancing itself from Bolsonaro’s anti-environmentalist policies with respect to the problems of deforestation, the rights of indigenous peoples and the climate, with the first important results on forests, provided that the data reported by the agencies are not vitiated by other local dynamics that are difficult to observe. At the same time, however, the dastardly decision to sink the São Paulo, thus planning an environmental disaster of international dimensions, offers the sign of a government that is certainly sensitive and attentive to green issues, but also extremely pragmatic in ignoring them in the absence of resources or, apparently, solutions.

These first ambiguous two months seem to have started a process of re-entanglement between the government and the environment and climate-conscious electorate, given the important mobilisations of the environmentalist world on the São Paulo case. The environmentalist world and civil society will have the task, in the coming months, of closely observing the Brazilian government’s policies towards the next international appointments.

Article by the Climate and Advocacy section

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