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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Amazon countries, led by Brazil, sign a rainforest pact

Itaquai River, a river of the Amazon River basin, in Atalaia Do Norte, Brazil, on June 17, 2022.

By Manuela Andreoni and Max Bearak

On Tuesday, the leaders of eight countries that are home to the Amazon River basin agreed to work together to conserve the world’s largest rainforest at a groundbreaking meeting convened by President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva of Brazil.

The agreement, called the Belém Declaration, for the Brazilian city where the meeting was held, provides a road map to stave off the rampant deforestation, caused in large part by industrial agriculture and land-grabbing, that has severely damaged the rainforest and has major implications for Earth’s climate.

The meeting was also expected to yield a separate agreement Wednesday among other nations with major rainforests — including Congo, the Republic of Congo and Indonesia — to more closely coordinate protecting the ecosystems globally.

The Amazon rainforest is not only a haven of biodiversity but also plays an important role in the fight against climate change because it pulls huge amounts of planet-warming carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere and stores it away. Over the past half-century, around 17% of the forest has been razed and an even bigger share is severely degraded.

Numerous studies have indicated that further deforestation would be disastrous to tens of thousands of species and transform the Amazon into a net emitter, rather than absorber, of greenhouse gases. Parts of it have already reached that point.

The summit meeting was part of Lula’s efforts to galvanize a climate-conscious coalition of countries seven months after he unseated Jair Bolsonaro, whose four-year term as president was marked by strident support for Brazil’s right to clear vast tracts of land for its economic benefit.

Lula made Amazon protection a cornerstone of his election campaign. Deforestation rates have dropped by 42% during his tenure, according to preliminary satellite imaging data.

“The Amazon is our passport to a new relationship with the world, a more symmetrical relationship in which our resources will not be exploited for the benefit of a few, but valued and placed at the service of all,” Lula said in a speech at the meeting.

The agreement sets the groundwork for coordination between the Amazon basin’s eight countries on law enforcement to combat widespread illegal mining and logging, as well as between banks assigned to pool development funds for conservation and sustainable employment for the region’s inhabitants. It also creates an Amazon-specific climate-focused scientific panel.

While the agreement projected symbolic unity, it fell short of the biggest ambitions Lula had hoped to realize.

For months before the summit, Lula pushed the leaders of Bolivia and Venezuela to commit to ending deforestation in their countries by 2030, a pledge the six other Amazon basin countries had already made at the global climate summit in Glasgow in 2021. Colombia’s president, Gustavo Petro, who has adopted the region’s most progressive policies on conservation, had in turn pushed Lula to match his commitment to ban all oil drilling the forest, but Brazil still has plans for a huge offshore project at the mouth of the Amazon River.

Neither push succeeded.

Eduardo Viola, who studies environmental international affairs at the Fundação Getúlio Vargas in Brazil, said there was no doubt the summit marked the most significant step Amazon countries have made to protect the forest, but it may not be enough. “The commitments vary a lot, and the implementation capacity outside Brazil is low, or very low,” he said.

The expected announcement Wednesday of further cooperation among other countries that are home to the most of the rest of the world’s rainforests could include efforts to increase access to financing from wealthier nations that would promote sustainable forest use.

The foundation for that agreement was laid last year at COP27, the United Nations-sponsored global climate summit, which was held in Egypt. Belém, the city where this week’s Amazon negotiations have taken place, is set to host COP30 in 2025.

The meeting in Belém provided Lula and others a venue to harshly criticize wealthy countries, particularly Western ones, for not delivering on a promise made in at the U.N. climate summit in 2009 to provide $100 billion in climate finance annually to poorer nations.

Historically, leftists in the region have pushed for more environmental protections. Lula and Petro, whose countries are home to nearly three-quarters of the remaining Amazon rainforest, went beyond that and have made conservation a cornerstone of their presidencies.

Under Petro, Colombia has sought to position itself as a leader on climate issues, with a push to phase out oil drilling, which would be a first for any of the world’s oil-drilling nations.

Despite the projection of unity, analysts said political crises wracking numerous Amazon basin countries contributed to the limited scope of the Belém Declaration. Under the authoritarian leadership of Nicolás Maduro, Venezuela is enduring a crushing economic meltdown. Peru has had five presidents in the past four years. And Ecuador is holding early elections this month after its president dissolved Congress.

Neither the Venezuelan nor the Ecuadorian president was present at the summit.

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