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Brazil’s Amazon Summit ends with a plan to protect the world’s rainforests, but no measurable goals

Leaders and ministers from eight Amazon nations signed a declaration Tuesday that laid out plans to drive economic development in their countries while preventing the Amazon’s ongoing demise ‘from reaching a point of no return’

Elecciones América Latina 2024
Leaders from the Amazon countries pose for a family photo at the summit of the Amazon Cooperation Treaty Organization (ACTO), in Belém, Brazil on August 8, 2023.COLOMBIA PRESIDENCY (via REUTERS)

Brazil’s Amazon Summit closed Wednesday with a roadmap to protect tropical rainforests that was welcomed as an important step in countering climate change, but without the concrete commitments sought by some environmentalists to end deforestation. Leaders and ministers from eight Amazon nations signed a declaration Tuesday in Belém, Brazil, that laid out plans to drive economic development in their countries while preventing the Amazon’s ongoing demise “from reaching a point of no return.”

Several environmental groups described the declaration as a compilation of good intentions with little in the way of measurable goals and timeframes. However, it was lauded by others, and the Amazon’s umbrella organization of Indigenous groups celebrated the inclusion of two of its main demands.

“It is significant that the leaders of the countries of the region have listened to the science and understood the call of society: the Amazon is in danger, and we do not have much time to act,” the international group WWF said in a statement. “However, WWF regrets that the eight Amazonian countries, as one front, have not reached a common point to end deforestation in the region.”

Joining the summit Wednesday were the presidents of the Republic of Congo and the Democratic Republic of Congo, an emissary from Indonesia’s president, and France’s ambassador to Brazil, representing the Amazonian territory of French Guiana. An emissary of Norway, the largest contributor to Brazil’s Amazon Fund for sustainable development, also attended.

The national representatives on Wednesday signed a similar, but much slimmer, agreement to that of their counterparts the prior day; it likewise contained no concrete goals and mostly reinforced criticism of developed nations for failure to provide promised vast climate financing. The presidents of Bolivia, Colombia and Peru did not attend Wednesday’s meeting.

The eight nations attending on Tuesday — Bolivia, Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador, Guyana, Peru, Suriname and Venezuela — are members of the newly revived Amazon Cooperation Treaty Organization, or ACTO, who hope that a united front will give them a major voice in global environment talks ahead of the COP 28 climate conference in November.

The summit reinforces Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva’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.

Speaking to reporters after Wednesday’s meeting, Lula railed against “protectionist measures poorly disguised as environmental concern” that restrict imports from developing nations, and said developed nations must make good on their pledges to provide monetary support for forest protection.

“Nature, which industrial development polluted for 200 years, needs them to pay their part so we can revive part of what was ruined. Nature is in need of money,” Lula said.

The Amazon stretches across an area twice the size of India. Two-thirds of it lies in Brazil, with seven other countries and the territory of French Guiana sharing the remaining third. Governments have historically viewed it as an area to be colonized and exploited, with little regard for sustainability or the rights of its Indigenous peoples.

All the Amazon countries have ratified the Paris climate accord, which requires signatories to set targets for reducing greenhouse gas emissions. But cross-border cooperation has historically been scant, undermined by low trust, ideological differences and the lack of government presence.

The members of ACTO — convening for only the fourth time in the organization’s 45-year existence — demonstrated Tuesday they aren’t fully aligned on key issues.

Forest protection commitments have been uneven. And their joint declaration didn’t include a shared commitment to zero deforestation by 2030, as some had hoped. Brazil and Colombia have already made that commitment.

Some scientists say that when 20% to 25% of the forest is destroyed, rainfall will dramatically decline, transforming more than half of the rainforest to tropical savanna, with immense biodiversity loss.

The Climate Observatory, a network of dozens of environmental and social groups, as well as Greenpeace and The Nature Conservancy lamented the lack of detailed pledges in the declaration.

“The 113 operating paragraphs of the declaration have the merit of reviving the forgotten ACTO and recognize that the biome is reaching a point of no return, but doesn’t offer practical solutions or a calendar of actions to avoid it,” the Climate Observatory said in a statement.

Colombian Indigenous leader Fany Kuiru, from the Coordinating Body of Indigenous Organizations of the Amazon Basin, praised the declaration for fulfilling two of their primary requests — an acknowledgment of their rights to traditional territories and the establishment of a mechanism for the formal participation of Indigenous peoples within ACTO.

Bruna Santos, director of the Brazil Institute at the Woodrow Wilson Center, said the summit demonstrated “an effort to treat the Amazon as a regional agenda,” but that it also highlighted ambiguities in the priorities of Brazil’s government, including with respect to oil exploration.

Colombia’s president spoke forcefully about the hypocrisy of pushing for Amazon preservation while pursuing oil, equating it to betting “on death and destroying life.”

Lula has refrained from taking a definitive stance on oil, citing the decision as a technical matter. Meanwhile, Brazil’s state-run Petrobras company has been seeking to explore for oil near the mouth of the Amazon River.

Despite disagreements, there were signs of increased regional cooperation and growing global recognition of the Amazon’s importance in arresting climate change. A collective voice — along with funneling more money into ACTO — could help it serve as the region’s representative on the global stage ahead of the COP climate conference, leaders said.

Anders Haug Larsen, the head of international advocacy at Rainforest Foundation Norway, said that the Amazonian nations are correct to demand more money from developed nations, and that their political will to protect the rainforest represents a historic opportunity.

“With the plan from this summit and continuous reduced deforestation, this is where the international community should put its climate money,” he said.

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