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Amazon nations seek a common voice on climate change and urge action from the industrialized world

Published: August 9, 2023, 8:29am

BELEM, Brazil (AP) — Eight Amazon nations urged industrialized countries on Tuesday to do more to help preserve the world’s largest rainforest as their leaders met at a major summit in Brazil to chart a common course on how to combat climate change.

They said the task of stopping the destruction of the rainforest can’t fall to just a few countries when climate change has been caused by many.

The members of the newly revived Amazon Cooperation Treaty Organization, or ACTO, hope a united front will give them a major voice in global environment talks.

“It is time to look at the heart of our continent and consolidate, once and for all, our Amazon identity,” said Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva.

The leaders aim to fuel much-needed economic development in their countries while preventing the Amazon’s ongoing demise “from reaching a point of no return,” according to a joint declaration issued Tuesday, the first day of the two-day summit. 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 savannah, with immense biodiversity loss.

Some environmental groups expressed frustration with the joint declaration, saying it is largely a compilation of good intentions with little in the way of commitments, while the region’s largest Indigenous organization praised the inclusion of two of their main demands.

The summit 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 Amazon stretches across an area twice the size of India. Two-thirds of it lies in Brazil, with seven other countries and one territory 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.

Leaders of Colombia, Bolivia, Peru and Brazil are attending the summit along with the vice president of Venezuela, the prime minister of Guyana and ministers from Ecuador and Suriname.

All the 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 the “Belem Declaration,” the gathering’s official proclamation issued Tuesday, didn’t include a shared commitment to zero deforestation by 2030, as some had hoped. Brazil and Colombia have already made that commitment.

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

A key topic dividing the nations on Tuesday was oil. Leftist Colombian President Gustavo Petro called for an end to oil exploration in the Amazon — a reference to the ambivalent approach of Brazil and other oil-producing nations in the region — and said governments must forge a path toward “decarbonized prosperity.”

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“A jungle that extracts oil — is it possible to maintain a political line at that level? Bet on death and destroying life?” Petro said. He also spoke about finding ways to reforest pastures and plantations, which cover much of Brazil’s heartland for cattle ranching and growing soy.

Lula, who has presented himself as an environmental leader on the international stage, has refrained from taking a definitive stance on oil, calling the decision 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 the disagreements, there were signs of increased regional cooperation and growing global recognition of the Amazon’s importance in arresting climate change. Sharing a united 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 in November, leaders said.

“The Amazon is our passport to a new relationship with the world, a more symmetric relationship, in which our resources are not exploited to benefit few, but rather valued and put in the service of everyone,” Lula said.

Bolivian President Luis Arce said the Amazon has been the victim of capitalism, reflected by runaway expansion of agricultural and natural resource exploitation. He noted that industrialized nations are responsible for most historic greenhouse gas emissions.

“The fact that the Amazon is such an important territory doesn’t imply that all of the responsibilities, consequences and effects of the climate crisis should fall to us, to our towns and to our economies,” Arce said.

Petro argued that affluent nations should swap foreign debt owed by Amazon countries for climate action, saying that would create enough investment to power the Amazon region’s economy.

Signed by officials from the eight nations, the Belem Declaration also:

  • Condemns protectionist trade barriers, saying they hurt poor farmers and hamper sustainable development
  • Calls on industrialized nations to provide massive financial support to developing nations
  • Calls for the strengthening of law enforcement cooperation to control deforestation, human rights violations and the trafficking of fauna and flora.

“The Belem Declaration is an important first step,” said Adriana Lobo, managing director of global presence at the World Resources Institute. “Now the Amazon countries need to put these ideas into practice — creating a plan with specific actions, public policies and timeframes. And a strategy to attract investments to make that reality.”