News | Social Movements / Organizing - Brazil / Paraguay Lula Can’t Do It Alone

The Brazilian president’s agenda can only succeed with support from the country’s powerful social movements


Lula greets supporters at a campaign rally in Belo Horizonte, Brazil, 9 October 2022. Photo: IMAGO / ZUMA Wire

When Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, a former union leader and co-founder of the Workers’ Party (PT), took office as president of Brazil for the third time, he pledged to make a 180-degree turn away from the policies of Jair Bolsonaro’s administration. In his victory speech, which he delivered in São Paulo on 30 October 2022, he stated: “It is an enormous challenge. This country must be rebuilt in all its dimensions.”

Elisangela S. Paim is a journalist with a doctoral degree from the University of Buenos Aires and the Latin American Coordinator of the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation’s Climate Programme.

Many challenges must be faced, including not only hunger, which now affects 33.1 million Brazilians, but also the dismantling of Bolsonaro’s reactionary social, environmental, and human rights policies. Several social and political organizations that supported Lula are now putting forward proposals on how to eliminate some of these hurdles. One such proposal is “Revogaço”, a report on the attacks on Brazilian democracy imposed during the four years of Bolsonaro. This study, conducted by the Lauro Campos and Marielle Franco Foundation, the research wing of the Socialism and Freedom Party (PSOL), and the São Paulo office of the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation, highlights more than 200 rules that could be revoked at once by the new president.

Socio-environmental setbacks from Bolsonaro’s time in office include the dismantling of environmental policy, the decentralization of environmental permits, the largest number of pesticides approved in the country’s history, the increasing rates of deforestation in the Amazon (13,000 square kilometres in 2021) and the Cerrado (8,500 square kilometres in 2021), subsidies for electricity production from coal sources, climate change denial, the expansion of illegal mining in Indigenous territories, the aggravation of processes of financialization of nature (carbon market, payments for environmental services), and more.

While, on the one hand, the report has a specific chapter on the environment, on the other, several civil society organizations — especially Indigenous associations such as Brazil’s Association of Indigenous Peoples (APIB), the Coordination of Indigenous Organizations of the Brazilian Amazon (COIAB), the Union of Indigenous Women of the Brazilian Amazon (UMIAB), and others — have never stopped conducting diagnostic studies regarding the situation faced in their territories while also making denunciations at a national and international level as they faced the violation of rights set forth in the country’s 1988 Constitution.

An emblematic example is their denunciations of Bill 191/2020, which is going through the Brazilian Congress and aims to establish specific conditions for conducting research and granting concessions for exploring mineral resources, hydrocarbons, and water resources on Indigenous lands for electricity generation. Large environmental NGOs, the Movement of People Affected by Dams (MAB), and academics and researchers opposed to the construction of new hydropower plants in the Amazon have come together to struggle against Bill 191/2020. In this context, Electrobras — a previously state-owned electric utility privatized by the Bolsonaro administration in June 2022 — has devised several plans that now depend on Congress to pass the bill to start implementing them.

Social-environmental conflicts have escalated due to the Bolsonaro administration’s anti-environmental, racist, and colonialist policies, as they implemented big infrastructure projects such as power generation. This has resulted in processes of expropriation and negative changes in the ways of living of Quilombola, traditional, peasant, and Indigenous communities. The distinctive consequences of these processes for women and young people, especially Black and Indigenous women, are also being exposed.

Social movements must resume their struggles more than ever after four years of retreat.

We should mention here that, along with “traditional” power generation projects such as hydropower plants, there has been an alarming increase in the number of projects implemented for the sake of energy transition and/or fighting climate change, such as big solar farms and wind parks. These undertakings are being challenged by social movements and organizations, such as the Terramar Institute and the Fishers’ Pastoral Council, for their size, the restriction of riverside communities’ access to the sea, speculation around future green hydrogen exports, and for not being clean, as they require several non-renewable mineral resources in their production process as well as fossil fuels for the transportation of equipment.

Meanwhile, while extractivist capitalism expands in the country, affected women are joining efforts around projects in defence of human life and nature. In this sense, rural and urban movements are strengthening their joint efforts to further the production of healthy, diverse, agroecological food, bringing back grassroots and ancestral knowledge. They are also fostering the implementation of social technologies and different kinds of knowledge that are adapted to local social-biodiversity.

It is important to mention that grassroots education is being rejuvenated by Black youth from the outskirts and impoverished communities in organized spaces including Periferia Viva (The Periphery Lives), Movimento das Mulheres Camponesas (Movement of Peasant Women—MMC), Rede Agroecológica de Mulheres Agricultoras (Agroecological Network of Women Farmers—RAMA), Coordenação Nacional de Articulação das Comunidades Negras Rurais Quilombolas (National Coordination for Organization of Black Rural Quilombola Communities—CONAQ), and the Homeless Workers’ Movement (MTST).

By struggling against the destruction of Brazilian biomes and challenging the corporate food system (underpinned by commodities and linked to rising hunger rates) and the energy system (including the negative impacts related to the expansion of renewables), many long-standing social and political organizations in Brazil are seeking to reclaim their territorial rights. This is the case of the Landless Workers’ Movement (MST), the Pastoral Land Commission (CPT), the Missionary Council for Indigenous Peoples (CIMI), the Terramar Institute, and the Rede de Justiça Ambiental (Environmental Brazilian Justice Network).

Given this situation, Lula made some commitments during his electoral campaign and also in his first international trip (as recently-elected president) to Egypt in November 2022 for the twenty-seventh UN Climate Change Conference (COP27). At the event, Lula announced that he will create a Ministry of Indigenous Peoples for them to present their proposed policies to the government. He also stated that “Brazil is back” in the global climate discussion, addressed the challenge of global warming, and affirmed he will spare no effort to end deforestation and degradation of Brazilian biomes by 2030. It is important to mention that the new government appointed an MAB leader as a member of its mining and energy transition team.

Several youth collectives are taking a serious approach precisely to the climate issue. Some groups are connected to international institutions such as the United Nations (UN), but most of them are emerging and flourishing from their own communities and through their resistance against big projects. This is the case of the Martha Trindade Collective, in Santa Cruz, Rio de Janeiro. According to Aline Marins, a Black woman, a climate activist with the collective, a resident of Santa Cruz (west side of Rio), and a Biology student at the State University of Northern Rio de Janeiro, the collective was established in 2016 and works to resist against the steel plant Ternium Brasil, formerly Thyssenkrupp Companhia Siderúrgica do Atlântico (TKCSA). “Our origin is part of a process of grassroots health watch, in which we monitored air quality as it is directly connected to contamination from the company. Now we are taking part in discussions about the right to the city, health care, and environment”, she adds.

Finally, considering these promises as well as the enormous challenges we face moving forward, social movements must resume their struggles more than ever after four years of retreat, both because of the regressive policies imposed by the far Right and the tragic context of the health crisis we still face, precisely due to science denialism and negligence toward the most vulnerable social sectors. Resuming these struggles will also be fundamental to ensure that the measures promised by Lula da Silva’s government will be implemented to continue the fight against hunger, reduce structural inequalities in our society, and curb environmental destruction and the climate crisis.