An attempt to empower forest-rich countries in the tropics as well as indigenous and local peoples was represented by the Amazon Summit, which brought together the leaders of the Amazon basin on Tuesday and Wednesday, and civil society in the days before, in Belém do Pará, in northern Brazil.
“United for our forests” is the title of the joint communiqué that ended the Summit of the eight Amazonian countries plus Congo-Brazzaville, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Indonesia – as countries with large tropical forests – and St. Vincent and the Grenadines, as current president of the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (Celac).
Half of its ten points reproach the industrialised countries of the North. First, for failing to meet their commitments to provide 100 billion dollars a year for developing countries in the South to address the climate crisis, 0.7 percent of their gross national income in official development assistance, and 200 billion dollars a year by 2030 for biodiversity conservation.
The communiqué also condemns environmental measures as “a disguised restriction on international trade”, calls for “preferential access for forest products” and for rich countries to accelerate the decarbonisation of their economies.
The climate emergency is already affecting tropical forests around the world, it adds in an apparent response to developed country pressures for an end to deforestation in tropical countries.
Instead, a recognition of the “invaluable contribution of indigenous peoples and local communities” to the conservation of tropical forests tops the document, which calls on countries possessing great biodiversity and forest wealth to dialogue for greater influence in international fora and resource management for conservation.
Four presidents of Amazonian countries, Bolivia, Brazil, Colombia and Peru, and the two Congolese, participated in the summit of the Amazon Basin Treaty Organisation (Otca). The other members of the group – Ecuador, Guyana, Suriname and Venezuela – were represented by other senior government delegates.
Photo by Cícero Pedrosa Neto / Amazônia Real / IPS
Frustrated indigenous and environmentalists
Nearly 30,000 people participated in the parallel summit of peoples, in the ambit of the “Amazon Dialogues”, from 4 to 6 August.
The indigenous assembly, with more than 800 representatives from Bolivia, Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador, Guyana, French Guyana – part of the basin but not a full member of Otca because it is European territory – and Suriname, approved a letter to the heads of state in which they demanded their rights, especially the demarcation and protection of their territories.
The leaders of the indigenous organisations, as well as environmentalists, lamented the absence of goals and deadlines for the great Amazonian challenges, such as deforestation, the demarcation of indigenous territories and conservation areas.
“Ensuring the rights of indigenous peoples, local and traditional communities” is one of the 113 “decisions” that make up the “Declaration of Belém”, signed only by the leaders and delegates of the eight members of Otca, formed in 1995 to operate the Treaty, signed in 1978.
The Amazon basin is a tropical rainforest biome with 7.5 million square kilometres and more than 40 million inhabitants – according to Brazilian government figures – two million of them belonging to 500 indigenous peoples. The Belém Summit was the group’s first since 2009.
“I was encouraged by the government’s recognition that solutions for the Amazon will only be effective with the participation of traditional populations, that they cannot come from outside or from the top down, that sustainable development is only done with and for the local population,” said Manuel Cunha, a community leader and current manager of the Medio Juruá Extractivist Reserve.
The Juruá is one of the major tributaries of the Amazon River in whose basin the 287,000 hectares reserve has become an example of bioeconomy, with its 300 families harvesting rubber and other forest products, such as fruit oils, as well as fishing with managed Amazonian fish, such as the pirarucu (Arapaima gigas).
Photo by Ricardo Stuckert / PR / IPS
“Three new developments encouraged me at that summit,” said Cunha, a 55-year-old rubber tapper who considers himself “on loan to the government” as an official of the Chico Mendes Institute for Biodiversity Conservation, an organ of the Ministry of Environment, to administer the reserve.
In addition to social participation, the eight governments promised a joint effort to combat “garimpo”, as informal and almost always illegal mining that is polluting the rivers with mercury, a heavy metal harmful to the nervous system, is called locally, and incorporated local society into the bioeconomy.
“We have to talk about socio-bioeconomy, because only bioeconomy allows us to include soy monoculture, with the use of agricultural poisons, and extensive cattle ranching,” Cunha told IPS by telephone from Coari, on his return flight from Belém to Carauarí, where he lives on the banks of the Juruá River.
Everyone’s collaborator in the fight against mining is indispensable because its activity in the upper reaches of a river basin “poisons the water of the entire river, and therefore the fish and then the people, in a domino effect,” he explained.
In the Amazon biome there are 4114 illegal garimpeira farms, which dump more than 150 tonnes of mercury into their rivers every year, Otca registered. In the last four years, the activity has intensified in Brazil, under the government of former president Jair Bolsonaro (2019-2022), an incentiviser of mining even on indigenous lands.
In addition to actions to “eradicate illicit mineral exploration”, the Amazon Summit recognised the expansion of organised crime in the region and the need for regional cooperation to tackle a variety of crimes, not only environmental.
An Amazon International Police Cooperation Centre is to be based in Manaus, capital of the Brazilian state of Amazonas.
Fear of the inflection point
But it is deforestation that poses the greatest threat to the biome. The governmental declaration recognised the risk of the “point of no return” or inflection point, warned long ago by researchers for the Amazon, if the deforested part of the Amazon exceeds 20 % of its forests.
After that point, forest deterioration is irreversible and the trend, according to climatologists, is towards the replacement of tropical forests by savannahs.
Estimates of current deforestation vary between 17% and 18%, but there is a factor of uncertainty, which is the degraded areas of partial suppression of the original vegetation, which reach a greater extent.
In much of the heavily deforested southern and eastern Brazilian Amazon, the inflection point has been passed, where research has shown that the emission of greenhouse gases exceeds the capture that is natural to forests.
But forest regeneration capacity can be restored with extensive and urgent reforestation, according to Carlos Nobre, co-chair of the Scientific Panel for the Amazon.
The Brazilian government set a goal of “zero deforestation” in the Amazon by 2030. But it failed to get the Summit to approve it as an overall goal.
The Belém declaration announces an Amazon Alliance to Combat Deforestation, “to avoid the point of no return”.
President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva’s statements calling for financial support from rich nations and the Summit resolutions make tropical forests an instrument of power in international negotiations.
“If you want to preserve what there is of forests, you have to put money not only to take care of the canopy of the trees, but also the people who live underneath,” Lula said to cash in on the promised contribution of the “rich world” to climate change mitigation.
Lula, as host of the summit and president of the country that contains 62 per cent of the Amazon biome, embraced environmental and climate activism as a factor in his international prominence.
But he may lose his new image as a champion of environmentalism if he gets approval from the environmental authorities for exploratory oil wells in the Amazon River mouth basin.
The authorisation, requested by the state-owned Petrobras, was denied in May, but Lula has already declared that he has hopes of a new favourable decision. At the Amazon Summit he was opposed by Colombian President Gustavo Petro, who proposed abolishing oil activity in the entire Amazon, but also failed to reach consensus.