Expectations had been high as leaders of Amazon nations gathered this week in the Brazilian city of Belém for a summit intended to boost ambition on the protection of their shared rainforest.
As the two-day summit closed on Wednesday, however, observers were ultimately left frustrated by the absence of some heads of state, a lack of commitments to end oil exploration in the region, and no concrete targets to stop and reverse deforestation in the biome, in which 17% of native tree cover is estimated to have been lost.
The Amazon Summit’s host, Brazilian president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, had kicked off the event on Tuesday with enthusiasm. “We have not met for fourteen years,” he said during his opening speech. “It has never been more urgent to resume and expand this cooperation.”
The event was promoted by the member countries of the Amazon Cooperation Treaty Organisation (ACTO), a grouping of eight Amazonian nations founded in 1978. It was only the fourth meeting of the bloc in 45 years, and the first dedicated to socio-environmental issues.
However, President Lula’s initial air of optimism gradually gave way to disagreements and discomfort.
ACTO member states
The Amazon Cooperation Treaty Organisation is comprised of Bolivia, Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador, Guyana, Peru, Suriname and Venezuela
First was the decision of three of the eight ACTO heads of state to skip the summit. Nicolás Maduro of Venezuela called off his trip at short notice due to a reported health problem, with his vice-president, Delcy Rodríguez, attending instead. Meanwhile, Ecuador’s Guillermo Lasso and Chan Santokhi of Suriname sent their foreign ministers. The Ecuadorian leader justified his absence for “internal political reasons”, while Santokhi pointed to the summit coinciding with Javanese Immigration Day, “a very relevant date for Suriname”, he said.
Later, in an address to fellow heads of state on Tuesday, Colombian president Gustavo Petro called for an end to oil exploration in the Amazon – but found few supporters. “We are on the verge of the extinction of life. It is in this decade that we politicians must make decisions. What are we doing beyond speeches like these?” he asked. “We need to decarbonise, but what we are doing is exploring for gas and oil in the forest. It is total nonsense.”
Petro’s speech may have been targeted most directly at the Brazilian government, which is currently weighing up the oil exploration at the mouth of the Amazon River, in a sensitive area off the coast of Amapá and Pará states that is home to 15% of Brazil’s mangroves. The project could impact the entire Amazon coast, along which 80% of the country’s mangroves are located across three states, containing essential species for the reproduction of fish, molluscs and crustaceans. The region is also home to Indigenous peoples and traditional communities.
Studies to explore the region have so far been blocked by IBAMA, the Brazilian government’s environmental agency that is responsible for risk assessments. The project is also opposed by state oil company Petrobras and even by the Brazilian Congress. Lula said that the decision ultimately rests with IBAMA.
Beyond Brazil, the people of Ecuador are set to vote on whether to support or ban oil projects in Yasuní National Park, a mega-biodiverse pocket of the Amazon rainforest, in a referendum alongside the country’s presidential elections on 20 August. The country is under a state of emergency following the assassination of one of its presidential candidates on Wednesday, though authorities have indicated that the ballots will still proceed as planned.
Belém Declaration fails
On Tuesday, Brazil’s Lula announced the summit’s eagerly awaited key document: the Belém Declaration, signed by all eight countries and detailing 113 intentions to ensure the protection of the Amazon, its biodiversity and its Indigenous and traditional peoples.
The text mentions, for example, the need to urge developed countries to honour their commitments to mobilise resources for these causes, including the long-overdue target of providing US$100 billion a year in climate finance. Another highlight is the goal of strengthening cooperation in the fight against environmental crimes, in an effort to curb deforestation and regional pollution.
However, observers have described the language of the document as vague, and decried that common goals among Amazon countries to halt deforestation and stop oil exploration in the region – which had been one of the most anticipated elements – were left out.
One of the few concrete actions from the declaration will be the creation of a police cooperation centre in the Brazilian city of Manaus, in Amazonas state. According to President Lula, this unit will have 34 river and land bases, which will be supported by the armed forces to fight organised crime, and an integrated air-traffic system for the same purpose.
Márcio Astrini, secretary-general of the Climate Observatory, Brazil’s largest coalition of sustainability organisations, was left disappointed by the declaration: “The document is far from giving any concrete answer to the problems we have.
“The world is on fire, it’s not possible that you have a meeting with eight countries, and they can’t put into a document that deforestation has to end.”
For Astrini, the document “is only good compared to the fact that it didn’t exist before”. He did, however, praise the Amazon Dialogues, a parallel meeting held 4–6 August in Belém, attended by 30,000 Amazonians, including civil society organisations, Indigenous peoples and members of traditional communities. “The discourse [at the event] was clear: deforestation must be stopped and there is no more room for oil in the Amazon,” he said.
Fany Kuiru Castro, a leader from the Witoto people in southern Colombia and head of the Coordination of Indigenous Organisations of the Amazon Basin (COICA), said she was concerned by the absence of concrete targets: “Hydrocarbons and oil seriously affect the health of Indigenous peoples, especially in Ecuador, Colombia, Peru, and Brazil. The commitments are not clear and Indigenous peoples are being treated in an indirect way.”
Despite her criticisms of the leaders’ summit, Fany Kuiru Castro also saw the event as a positive opening of dialogue: “For our part, we will continue to press. In my culture, the best way out is dialogue to find solutions that lead to real action.”
In an interview with Brazilian state television, the country’s Minister of Environment and Climate Change, Marina Silva, said that the Amazonian nations were unable to set goals for zero deforestation due to a lack of consensus, but pointed out that Brazil and Colombia have already made individual commitments.
“The negotiation process is always a mediated process, no one can impose their will on anyone. So, it is about gradual consensuses: as we have some consensuses, we put them in the document,” said Silva.
Deforestation and the tipping point
Luciana Gatti, a researcher at Brazil’s National Institute for Space Research (INPE), explained that deforestation of native tree cover has already reached 17% in the entire Amazon; in Brazil, the figure is 20%.
“Our studies indicate that the tipping point may start in forest sub-regions. The south-eastern Amazon, for example, is getting closer to this collapse”, Gatti said.
“The Amazon is not for soy, corn, cattle and wood. The Amazon is our rain factory, our guarantee of climatic conditions – of survival,” she added.
Leaders from other countries beyond ACTO also attended the summit. Among them were figures from other key global rainforest nations: the presidents of the Republic of Congo and the Democratic Republic of Congo, a representative of the president of Indonesia, the ambassador of France to Brazil – representing the Amazon territory of French Guiana – and a delegate from Norway, the largest contributor to Brazil’s Amazon Fund for the sustainable development of the biome.
They were signatories to a similar but much more succinct declaration. Similarly, the document contains no concrete goals and reinforces the call for developed nations to ensure resources for climate finance.
During the summit, the Brazilian mining and energy minister, Alexandre Silveira, also met with a delegation from the United Arab Emirates, which included president of the upcoming UN COP28 climate summit, Ahmed al-Jaber, to discuss investments in natural gas and Brazil’s energy transition.
“Now the Amazon countries need to put these ideas into practice, creating a plan with specific actions, public policies and time frames,” said Adriana Lobo, managing director of global presence and national action at the World Resource Institute. She added that they must also develop “a strategy for attracting the investments needed to make this a reality”.
Amazon nations will be looking to consolidate the groundwork of the Belém summit at COP28 in the UAE in late November, where deforestation targets and the phasing out of fossil fuels will likely be among the most contested topics of debate.