Explainer: What Brazil's election means for the Amazon rainforest

SAO PAULO, Oct 26 (Reuters) - Brazil's presidential election on Sunday may determine the fate of the Amazon jungle, the world's largest rainforest, after deforestation soared in the past four years under President Jair Bolsonaro.

He faces off against former President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, who has pledged to stop all Amazon destruction and act aggressively on climate change.

Protecting the Amazon is vital to stopping catastrophic climate change because of the vast amount of climate-warming greenhouse gas it absorbs.

What happens on Sunday?

Brazilians will choose between the top two presidential candidates from the Oct. 2 first-round vote: leftist Lula and right-wing Bolsonaro.

Lula bested Bolsonaro in the first round but fell short of the 50% needed to win outright. Bolsonaro performed far better than most surveys had indicated.

The latest opinion polls show Lula ahead, on 52.0% to Bolsonaro's 46.2%.

Why has deforestation soared under Bolsonaro?

Bolsonaro, who took office at the start of 2019, has pushed for more mining and commercial farming in the Amazon, saying it would develop the region economically and help to fight poverty.

He has weakened environmental enforcement agencies, cutting their budgets and staff while making it more difficult to punish environmental criminals.

His public criticism of conservation efforts has also emboldened illegal loggers, ranchers and land grabbers to clear the forest with less fear the government will punish them, scientists and environmentalists say.

How much has deforestation risen?

Destruction in the Amazon rainforest last year hit the highest level since 2006, according to the government's space research agency INPE.

An area of forest larger than the U.S. state of Maryland was destroyed during the first three years of Bolsonaro's presidency.

Preliminary government data indicates that deforestation rose a further 23% in the first nine months of 2022.

What is Lula's track record on deforestation?

Lula took office in 2003 with levels of Amazon deforestation near all-time highs. His administration strengthened federal environmental enforcer Ibama and created the parks service agency ICMBio.

By 2010, his last year in office, deforestation had fallen by 72% to near record lows.

But Lula also backed the massive Belo Monte hydroelectric dam in the Amazon, which destroyed river habitats and displaced indigenous people. Deforestation began to creep up again under his hand-picked successor, ex-President Dilma Rousseff, who weakened some policies to favor development.

What is Bolsonaro promising on the environment?

Bolsonaro has said little about his environmental proposals should he win a second term. A representative for his Liberal Party told Reuters that the campaign did not have a spokesperson or any way to answer media questions on the subject.

Bolsonaro's policy platform emphasizes that Brazilians have the right to develop natural resources in the Amazon. The campaign documents tout efforts by the military, police and other agencies to combat deforestation and forest fires. However, data shows that under Bolsonaro they have failed to reduce the destruction.

What is Lula promising on the environment?

Lula has vowed to bring deforestation to zero by rebuilding the government's environmental agencies. His campaign has likened his sweeping proposals to a post-war reconstruction after the rising environmental destruction under the current government.

He has committed broadly to the principles of "climate justice," saying that the environment can only be protected by increasing economic opportunities to reduce hunger and poverty.

But with Brazil's government facing a budget crunch, it remains unclear how he will pay for his policies.

What are indigenous groups saying?

Indigenous groups have broadly endorsed Lula, who promises to empower them to protect their lands from environmental destruction.

Illegal miners, loggers and landgrabbers have increasingly invaded indigenous land and killed tribe members under Bolsonaro, who has halted the process of demarcating tribal lands.

Reporting by Jake Spring; Additional reporting by Lisandra Paraguassu; Editing by Brad Haynes and Rosalba O'Brien

Our Standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

Thomson Reuters

Global Climate & Environment Correspondent, based in Brazil. Interests include science, forests, geoengineering, cryosphere, climate policy/diplomacy, accountability and investigative reporting. His work on environmental destruction under Brazil’s President Jair Bolsonaro received awards from Covering Climate Now and the Society of Environmental Journalists. Previously based in China, he is fluent in Portuguese and Mandarin Chinese.