BELEM, Brazil — For the first time in 14 years, presidents of the South American nations home to the Amazon rainforest are converging to chart a common course for protection of the bioregion and address organized crime. The summit Tuesday and Wednesday in the Brazilian city of Belem is a meeting of the Amazon Cooperation Treaty Organization, a toothless, 45-year-old alliance that has met only three times before.
The Amazon stretches across an area twice the size of India, and two-thirds of it lies in Brazil. Seven other countries and one territory share the remaining third — Colombia, Peru, Venezuela, Bolivia, Guyana, Suriname, Ecuador and French Guiana. Presidents from all but Ecuador, Suriname and Venezuela are attending.
Massive destruction of the Amazon forest is a climate disaster and all the countries at the summit have ratified the Paris climate accord which requires signatories to set targets for reducing greenhouse gas emissions. But that’s about as far as their shared policy goes.
Brazil’s President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva has said he hopes the Belem summit will awaken the long-dormant organization.
“I have great expectation that, for the first time, we will have a common policy for action in the Amazon,” Lula told foreign correspondents in the capital Brasilia Aug. 2.
It’s Lula’s second attempt to form an Amazon bloc. He tried back when the last Amazon summit was held in 2009, during his first presidency, but was joined by only one other president from the region, Bharrat Jagdeo of Guyana. Then French President Nicolas Sarkozy also attended. Then as now, the goal was to present a united Amazon during annual climate talks known as COP in Copenhagen. It failed.
“The context is totally different today,” Brazilian Environment and Climate Change Minister Marina Silva told The Associated Press. “President Lula is very determined that this summit will not be just another event with no real outcomes for the decisions that will be announced here.”
Silva said the event goes beyond the climate talks and will also address how countries will prevent the Amazon from reaching a tipping point, in which the former forest releases carbon dioxide out of control. According to some scientists, this will happen when 20% to 25% of the forest is destroyed. The resulting decline in rainfall would transform more than half of the Amazon to tropical savannah, with immense biodiversity loss.
Forest protection commitments so far have been uneven. Brazil and Colombia have pledged to stop deforestation completely by 2030, but other countries are reluctant to follow.
Notable goals include:
Brazil: Lula has said he will create 14 new Indigenous territories and has already created six. He also said he will restore Brazil’s official climate commitment, 37% lower emissions by 2025 than in 2005, which was weakened under his predecessor. But it’s just a promise and has not been formalized.
Colombia: Gustavo Petro’s government has laid out a 30-year strategy for reaching carbon neutrality by 2050 and reducing its greenhouse gases by 51%.
Ecuador: President Guillermo Lasso has said that he will lead his country through an ecological transition to zero carbon emissions by 2050. By 2025, the nation aims to reduce deforestation to avoid 15 million metric tons (16.5 million tons) of emissions. Ecuador also hopes to create a bio-corridor that allows animals to roam over distances, foreign minister Gustavo Manrique said earlier this year.
Colombian President Gustavo Petro has sought to position himself as a leader in global climate efforts and protection of the Amazon. At a recent meeting in the Colombian town of Leticia, environment ministers from the eight countries agreed to come up with a joint strategy to prevent the Amazon from reaching a “point of no return.” Petro has also spoken of the need to shift away from hydrocarbons, one of the main causes of climate change, yet oil is one of his nation’s chief exports.
Addressing organized crime
Peru is seeking not just a declaration aimed at slowing the collapse of the Amazon, but agreements to fight drug trafficking and other illegal activities.
To face the threat the countries share from organized crime, Lula has already announced that Brazil will create a center for international police cooperation in Manaus, the largest city in the Amazon. The announcement underscored governments’ realization that isolated raids and crackdowns have been ineffective.
“You’re seeing a creeping recognition ... of the importance of addressing crime in the Amazon,” said Rob Muggah, co-founder of the Igarape Institute, a security-focused think tank. But the effort hasn’t been serious yet, he added. “We’re still tackling it with band-aids.”
Cross-border cooperation in the Amazon has historically been scant, undermined by low trust, ideological differences and the lack of government presence. But budding environmental consciousness and widespread recognition of the Amazon’s importance in arresting climate change has invigorated the drive for a paradigm shift.
There have already been encouraging signs. In 2018, Latin American nations signed the Escazu Agreement which established the public’s right to environmental information and participation in decision-making, and protected environmentalists. However, several countries, including Brazil, have not yet ratified it. The following year, they signed the Leticia Pact to better coordinate environmental protection.
Lula said he hopes a “Belem Declaration” — already drafted — will become the nations’ shared call to arms as they move toward the global climate conference in November in Dubai.
This summit also reinforces Lula’s strategy to leverage global concern for the Amazon’s preservation. Emboldened by a 42% drop in deforestation during his first seven months in office, he has sought international financial support for forest protection. The leaders of Norway and Germany, large contributors to Brazil’s Amazon Fund for sustainable development, were invited, as were counterparts from other crucial rainforest regions: Indonesia, Republic of Congo, and Democratic Republic of Congo.
Outside the official summit, some 20,000 Indigenous people and others from different Amazon countries have scheduled 400 parallel events. In hours-long sessions, they presented demands to ministers mostly from Brazil, but also Colombia, Peru and other countries. A summary of these discussions will be presented to the assembled presidents, including a proposal to ban new oil production in the region.
“I had never seen a meeting so big to discuss the preparation for a COP,” rubber-tapper leader Manoel Cunha, 55, told the AP, noting that even at major events ministers are usually thin on the ground. “A meeting of this magnitude, with Indigenous peoples, family farmers, riverine communities, fishermen, and Afro-Brazilians, with such a presence of national and international authorities, is unprecedented,” he said.
Ahead of the summit, Gisela Padovan, Brazil foreign secretary for Latin America and the Caribbean, noted the Amazon Cooperation Treaty Organization has only 17 employees, but presidents in Belem aim to build it out. She said there was a commitment to coordinate future action through the group.
Asked whether he was optimistic about concrete decisions and action coming from the summit, renowned Indigenous leader Raoni Metuktire told the AP he intends to speak with presidents and make clear they effectively have no choice.
“They have to make this deforestation stop. What I am going to say is that if the presidents do not take any measure, they are going to have serious environmental problems,” he said Monday through an interpreter, speaking his native Kayapo language at an Indigenous encampment. “Natural disasters will be a problem for all us human beings.”