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Brazil's president-elect says the country is back in the preservation game

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Brazil is back - that is, back in the environmental protection game. That was the message from Brazil's president-elect today at the U.N. Climate Conference in Egypt. Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva talked about his plans to protect the Amazon rainforest after years of record-breaking deforestation. And he even said that he wants to bring a future climate conference to the Amazon. But the newly-elected leftist leader faces a lot of challenges to his zero-tolerance promise. And to talk more about that, we're joined now by NPR's South America correspondent Carrie Kahn, who is in Rio de Janeiro. Hey, Carrie.

CARRIE KAHN, BYLINE: Hi.

CHANG: Hi. OK, so Lula da Silva just won the election - like, he hasn't even taken office yet. How come he went to the climate change conference instead of the current president of Brazil, Jair Bolsonaro?

KAHN: The president, Jair Bolsonaro, is a far-right politician who questions climate change, and he has been quite hostile to multilateral approaches to it. Deforestation under his administration in the Amazon has hit record highs also. Lula was received there like a rock star today at the conference. He played right into it, too.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

LUIZ INACIO LULA DA SILVA: (Speaking Portuguese).

(APPLAUSE)

KAHN: He said, to great applause, "Brazil is back" - back in being a leader in environmental protection. And he went on listing a lot of ways that Brazil will take on climate change and that preserving the Amazon will be a top priority of his new government. The majority of the Amazon rainforest sits in Brazil's territory. Lula has just won a very contentious election against Bolsonaro here. Bolsonaro was in power for the last four years and dismantled a lot of enforcement and protections in the Amazon. Illegal logging, illegal fishing, illegal farming rose to 15-year highs here, and Lula has vowed to reverse that. And he promised in this speech - and he did in this campaign - zero deforestation by 2030.

CHANG: Zero deforestation - that's a really bright line. I mean, what other promises did he make today?

KAHN: He talked about creating a ministry for Native people so that Indigenous people govern for themselves. He talked about sustainable agriculture and new technologies to continue providing jobs for people in the Amazon. But remember, Lula is a leftist. He's 77 years old. He came up politically through his Unionist Workers' Party, and he talks a lot about the poor and inequality. And here's a bit from when he was talking about the return of Brazil to the international stage.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

LULA DA SILVA: (Speaking Portuguese).

KAHN: He says, "we're back to help build a peaceful world order to end poverty and inequality. There will be no future as long as we continue," he says, "digging a bottomless pit of inequalities between rich and poor." While he gets a big applause at the U.N. conference for such a speech, he's had troubles back home emphasizing his support for the poor.

CHANG: Yeah. How is he doing in Brazil? Like, do you think he'll be able to keep all these promises that he's making?

KAHN: So last week, he talked about wanting to raise the Federal spending cap to continue cash transfers to Brazil's poorest, and the markets just slapped him hard. The real, Brazil's currency, dropped nearly 4% that day. Lula may have a very short honeymoon here when he takes office January 1. This country is divided. Bolsonaro lost by a very slim margin, and his party is now the largest in Congress. He made a lot of gains in the election, and Brazil's economy is sluggish and still struggling post-pandemic and with high inflation.

CHANG: That is NPR's Carrie Kahn in Rio de Janeiro. Thank you, Carrie.

KAHN: You're welcome.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Carrie Kahn is NPR's International Correspondent based in Mexico City, Mexico. She covers Mexico, the Caribbean, and Central America. Kahn's reports can be heard on NPR's award-winning news programs including All Things Considered, Morning Edition and Weekend Edition, and on NPR.org.