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Brazil's President-elect Lula will address protection of the Amazon rainforest at COP27

AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:

There's one world leader who is bound to receive a near rock star welcome when he arrives at the U.N. climate change summit in Egypt this week. Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva was invited shortly after he won Brazil's presidential election last month. Lula helped roll back destruction of the Amazon rainforest during his previous stint as Brazil's president. So his return to the world stage is being hailed by environmentalists. Lula will have his work cut out for him when he takes office in January. Deforestation in Brazil reached a 15-year high under outgoing President Jair Bolsonaro. John Otis is in the Brazilian city of Manaus on the banks of the Amazon River. Good morning, John.

JOHN OTIS, BYLINE: Good morning, Ayesha.

RASCOE: John, so how does Lula plan to protect the Amazon rainforest?

OTIS: Well, in his first speech as president-elect last month, Lula promised to aim for zero deforestation over the next four years. And one of the ways that he wants to do that is to beef up law enforcement and government agencies that protect the environment. And this is key because these agencies were just totally gutted under Bolsonaro, the outgoing president. Bolsonaro also allowed for a kind of free-for-all of mining, ranching and farming in the jungle. And all of this led to this huge spike in deforestation. So to turn things around, Lula is likely to announce several other measures at the climate summit this week. For example, he's expected to name an environmental czar for Brazil. And that's sort of like the post John Kerry holds in the Biden administration. And Lula may also announce a strategic alliance with Indonesia and the Democratic Republic of Congo. And the idea there is that by negotiating together, these three countries may be able to secure larger donations and carbon credits from the Global North in exchange for preserving their jungles.

RASCOE: So Lula's environmental record is undeniably better than Bolsonaro's, but he's not beyond criticism, right?

OTIS: That's correct. Lula - he first served as president of Brazil between 2003 and 2010, and during that period, the rate of deforestation did drop dramatically. However, the Amazon is home to more than 30 million Brazilians, and they have to be able to make a living. And so Lula - when he was president, he was making a lot of concessions to farmers and ranchers and promoting commercial activities in the Amazon. His administration also approved the Belo Monte Dam. Now, that's one of the largest hydroelectric dams in the world, and it's wreaked havoc on some parts of the jungle. He's rejected calls to transition away from fossil fuels. So Lula's a leftist, but he's by no stretch of the imagination an environmental radical.

RASCOE: Expectations on this one leader are certainly high. Like, can Lula deliver?

OTIS: Yeah, he's got a lot of challenges here. I mean, I was just recently out on a jungle highway here in the Amazon. And in some places it was really hard to breathe because there was so much smoke from farmers and ranchers who were burning down the forest. So it really is going to be tough. And the other problem here is that even as the climate crisis gets worse, Brazil politically is growing a lot more conservative. Lots of people in the Amazon voted for Bolsonaro. And so there's going to be a lot of resistance to any kind of Brazilian Green New Deal. On the other hand, the international community - as we mentioned, they're going to be pulling for Lula. Norway has already said it's going to resume making payments to Brazil in exchange for protecting the jungle. That's a deal that was suspended under the Bolsonaro government. And to further bolster this kind of cooperation, Lula has also suggested that the next U.N. climate conference could be held in Brazil.

RASCOE: That was John Otis speaking to us from the Amazon city of Manaus. Thank you so much, John.

OTIS: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ayesha Rascoe is a White House correspondent for NPR. She is currently covering her third presidential administration. Rascoe's White House coverage has included a number of high profile foreign trips, including President Trump's 2019 summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Hanoi, Vietnam, and President Obama's final NATO summit in Warsaw, Poland in 2016. As a part of the White House team, she's also a regular on the NPR Politics Podcast.