The Amazon Summit: Two Slow, Uncertain Steps Forward

Perhaps the most important thing about the Amazon Summit of 8-9 August 2023, the meeting of the eight member states of the Amazon Cooperation Treaty Organization (ACTO or OTCA in Portuguese), is that it took place. The idea of thousands of environmentalists, indigenous activists and state officials meeting in Belém to discuss protecting the world’s largest tropical rainforest and finding ways to achieve sustainable development in the region would have been unthinkable under the previous government in Brazil. The Summit is part of the Lula administration’s efforts to improve Brazil’s standing in the world and to engage in climate change diplomacy, leveraging the country’s importance in this area to enhance its global influence.

The Summit involved two distinct and related initiatives. First, the eight countries of the Amazon Cooperation Treaty Organization (Bolivia, Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador, Guyana, Peru, Suriname, and Venezuela), meeting for the first time in fourteen years, made a series of ambitious promises for joint action. These include greater cooperation in reducing deforestation, respect for indigenous rights to territory and autonomy, coordination in policing cross-border crimes, collaborative action with regard to water management, the development of common negotiating positions at climate summits and the establishment of a multilateral technical-scientific agency, similar to the UN’s IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change), to report annually to ACTO member states on science related issues affecting the Amazon rainforest.

Second, the Summit produced a declaration calling for wealthy nations to fund climate change mitigation and sustainable livelihoods in the Amazon through debt relief and new financial transfers. This is part of the effort to get rich countries to honour their commitment, first made in 2009 but never fulfilled, to provide $100 billion a year to developing countries to adapt to climate change and curb emissions of CO2. (Roughly half of the promised funding was delivered in 2013-2020.) The declaration urged that this financing be increased to $200 billion per year by 2030. To complement this effort, the Summit involved the participation of representatives of other countries with large rainforests, such as Indonesia, the Republic of the Congo and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). (Brazil, Indonesia and the DRC together represent 52% of the world’s rainforests.) This rainforest bloc is likely to seek funding for sustainable development in future climate summits. This is important, because as Simon Sharpe, a senior fellow at the World Resources Institute points out, the value of trade in agricultural commodities whose production threatens tropical rainforests is currently estimated to be about 100 times the value of finance dedicated to the conservation of those forests. [1]

Not everyone hailed these declarations as significant achievements. In the streets of Belém during the summit, indigenous people protested against the mining, oil drilling, dam building, logging, and other extractivist projects that continue to take place, legally and illegally, in the Amazon. Some critics lamented the failure of the summit to produce a joint statement in favour of the goal of achieving zero deforestation in the Amazon by 2030. This ignored the fact that six of the ACTO member states (not including Bolivia and Venezuela) already made this commitment at the COP26 Summit in Glasgow in 2021. Perhaps more significant was the difference between Colombia’s President Gustavo Petro, who wants no new drilling for oil in the Amazon, and Brazil’s interest in exploiting new reserves of offshore oil in northern Brazil, including waters near the mouth of the Amazon River.

Delivering on the commitments of the Belém Summit will not be easy. The Amazon forest is a vast and complex region that is difficult for states to monitor, let alone control. Transnational organized crime has flourished in the region for decades. In Brazil, where 60% of the rainforest lies, the rate of deforestation has fallen this year, enhancing the Lula administration’s claim to environmental leadership. But the government will be intent on doing much more in the future, at home and abroad. It will try to move the current rate of deforestation of about 9,000 square kilometres per year down, approaching the recent record low of 5,000 square kilometres achieved in 2012. Internationally, the Lula administration will continue its climate change diplomacy. President Lula will address the UN General Assembly in September, attend the COP28 in the United Arab Emirates at the end of this year, and host the COP30 Summit in Belém in 2025.  

The Amazon Summit’s small steps were halting and tentative. Given the urgency of the climate crisis, the sense that more could have been done will linger. Nevertheless, the Summit sends an extremely encouraging and important signal to the world.

[1] Simon Sharpe, Five Times Faster: Rethinking the Science, Economics, and Diplomacy of Climate Change (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2023), p. 262.

Anthony W. Pereira

Anthony is the Director of the Kimberly Green Latin American and Caribbean Centre at Florida International University and a Visiting Professor in the School of Global Affairs at King’s College London.

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