BELEM, Brazil -- Leaders from South American nations that are home to the Amazon challenged developed countries on Tuesday to do more to stop massive destruction of the world’s largest rainforest, a task they said can’t fall to just a few when the crisis has been caused by so many.
Assembling in the Brazilian city of Belem, the members of the Amazon Cooperation Treaty Organization, or ACTO, also sought to chart a common course on how to combat climate change, hoping a united front will give them a major voice in global talks.
The calls from the presidents of nations including Brazil, Colombia and Bolivia came as leaders aim to fuel much-needed economic development in their regions while preventing the Amazon’s ongoing demise “from reaching a point of no return,” according to a joint declaration issued at the end of the day. 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.
“The forest unites us. 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. “In an international system that was not built by us, we were historically relegated to a subordinate place as a supplier of raw materials. A just ecological transition will allow us to change this.”
The two-day summit ending Wednesday 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 lie in Brazil, with seven other countries and one territory share 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 countries at the summit 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.
Aside from a general consensus on the need for shared global responsibility, members of ACTO — convening for only the fourth time in the organization’s existence — demonstrated Tuesday they aren’t fully aligned on key issues. This week marks the first meeting of the 45-year-old organization in 14 years.
Forest protection commitments have been uneven previously, and appeared to remain so at the summit. The “Belem Declaration,” the gathering’s official proclamation issued Tuesday, didn’t include shared commitments to zero deforestation by 2030. Brazil and Colombia have already made those commitments. Lula has said he hopes the document will be a shared call to arms at the COP 28 climate conference in November.
A key topic dividing the nations on Tuesday was oil. Notably, leftist Colombian President Gustavo Petro called for an end to oil exploration in the Amazon — an allusion to the ambivalent approach of Brazil and other oil-producing nations in the region — and said that governments must forge a path toward “decarbonized prosperity.”
“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, 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 among nations, there have been encouraging signs of increased regional cooperation amid 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, 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 borders and natural resource exploitation. And 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 eight nations, the Belem Declaration also:
— Condemns the proliferation of protectionist trade barriers, which signatories said negatively affects poor farmers in developing nations and hampers the promotion of Amazon products and sustainable development.
— Calls on industrialized nations to comply with their obligations to provide massive financial support to developing nations.
— Calls for the strengthening of law enforcement cooperation. Commits authorities to exchanging best practices and intelligence about specific illicit activities, including deforestation, human rights violations, trafficking of fauna and flora and the sale and smuggling of mercury, a highly toxic metal widely used for illegal gold mining that pollutes waterways.
Colombia's Petro also called for the formation of a military alliance akin to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, saying such a group could be tasked not only with protecting the Amazon, but tackling another major problem for the region: organized crime.
Few border areas are policed seriously and there has been scant international cooperation as rival organized crime groups compete for drug-trafficking routes. Drug seizures have increased in Colombia, Brazil, Bolivia and Peru over the past decade, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) reported in June. Lula previously announced a plan to create an international police center in Manaus.
Also attending the summit Tuesday were Guyana’s prime minister, Venezuela’s vice president and the foreign ministers of Suriname and Ecuador.
On Wednesday, the summit will welcome representatives of Norway and Germany, the largest contributors to Brazil’s Amazon Fund for sustainable development, along with counterparts from other crucial rainforest regions: Indonesia, Republic of Congo, and Democratic Republic of Congo. France’s ambassador to Brazil will also attend, representing the Amazonian territory of French Guiana.
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