Showered with applause and chants of “Lula!”, Brazilian president-elect Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva made a splash at a UN climate conference in Egypt Wednesday, his first foreign trip since his election.
Despite a mixed record on the environment and jail time in his resume, the 77-year-old leftist politician drew crowds curious to hear his promises to protect the Amazon rainforest.
“Brazil is back,” Lula said repeatedly, words his supporters sang during his speech at the COP27 conference in the Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheikh.
Hundreds of people packed rooms at two separate events he attended, asking him for selfies and shouting his name.
UN security shut the doors when the room filled for his speech, leaving a disappointed crowd outside.
Expectations are high for Lula to protect the Amazon after rampant deforestation seen under far-right President Jair Bolsonaro.
At COP27, Lula vowed to fight deforestation, offered to host UN climate talks in the Amazon region in 2025, and pledged to make Brazil a leader in the global battle against climate change again.
“Lula represents a political change for Latin America,” said Adrian Martinez Blanco, who is attending the climate conference for Costa Rican NGO La Ruta del Clima.
“It is a shift towards the protection of the planet, the Amazon, human rights, the rights of Indigenous people,” he said.
‘Back into the fold’
Lula, who was president from 2003 to 2010, pulled off a huge political comeback to defeat Bolsonaro.
He left office as a blue-collar hero who presided over a commodity-fuelled economic boom that helped lift 30 million people out of poverty.
But he then became mired in a massive corruption scandal and served more than 18 months in prison from 2018. His conviction was later overturned.
“It’s very interesting to listen to him first hand and understand how he captures so much love from his people — while also not necessarily being the best for the country,” said Sofya Levitina, a student at the University of Connecticut, referring to the corruption scandal.
Melissa Yokoe Ashbaugh, who is studying at the same US university, said her “impression of the excitement is that he represents coming back around from a populous right-wing wave (that is) anti-environment”.
“It’s sort of the hope of people who are engaged in this sort of climate action space that globally, administrations like his will represent those interests,” she said.
Brazilian climate campaigner Mariana Paoli, who leads global advocacy at Christian Aid, said Brazil had become a “pariah state” under Bolsonaro when it came to climate policy.
“It’s so good to see Lula bringing Brazil back into the fold,” she said in a statement.