The leaders of eight South American nations that are home to the Amazon have met at a two-day summit ending on Wednesday in the Brazilian city of Belem, with the task of agreeing to a list of unified environmental policies and measures to bolster regional cooperation and stop the destruction of the rainforest.
The summit of the Amazon Cooperation Treaty Organization (ACTO) adopted what host country Brazil called a “new and ambitious shared agenda” to save the rainforest, a crucial buffer against climate change that experts warn is being pushed to the brink of collapse.
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Some scientists say that when 20 to 25 percent of the forest is destroyed, rainfall will dramatically decline, transforming more than half of the rainforest to tropical savannah, with immense biodiversity loss.
Here is what you need to know:
Which countries are members of ACTO?
Bolivia, Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador, Guyana, Peru, Suriname and Venezuela are members of the organisation.
What was agreed to at the summit?
The final joint declaration, called the Belem Declaration, created an alliance for combatting forest destruction, with countries left to pursue their individual deforestation goals.
The nearly 10,000-word road map asserted Indigenous rights and protections, while also agreeing to cooperate on water management, health, common negotiating positions at climate summits, and sustainable development.
The declaration additionally established a science body to meet annually and produce authoritative reports on science related to the Amazon rainforest, akin to the United Nations’ International Panel on Climate Change.
But the summit stopped short of environmentalists’ and Indigenous groups’ boldest demands, including for all member countries to adopt Brazil’s pledge to end illegal deforestation by 2030 and Colombia’s pledge to halt new oil exploration.
It also did not fix a deadline on ending illegal gold mining, although leaders agreed to cooperate on the issue, and did not include shared commitments to zero deforestation by 2030.
What are the points of contention?
Tensions emerged in the lead-up to the summit around diverging positions on deforestation and oil development.
Governments have historically viewed the Amazon as an area to be colonised and exploited, with little regard for sustainability or the rights of its Indigenous peoples.
Fellow Amazon countries rebuffed Colombia’s left-wing President Gustavo Petro‘s continuing campaign to end new oil development in the Amazon.
“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 said the idea of making a gradual “energy transition” away from fossil fuels was a way to delay the work needed to stop climate change and likened the left’s desire to keep drilling for oil to the right-wing denial of climate science.
He also spoke about finding ways to reforest pastures and plantations, which cover much of Brazil’s heartland for cattle ranching and growing soy.
Brazil’s President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, 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.
Brazil is weighing whether to develop a potentially huge offshore oil find near the mouth of the Amazon River and the country’s northern coast, which is dominated by rainforest.
“What we are discussing in Brazil today is research of an extensive and large area – in my vision perhaps the last frontier of oil and gas before … the energy transition,” Brazil’s Energy Minister Alexandre Silveira told reporters after Petro’s speech.
What criticism has been voiced about the summit?
Critics say the failure of the eight Amazon countries to agree on a more comprehensive pact to protect their own forests points to the larger, global difficulties of forging an agreement to combat climate change. Many scientists say policymakers are acting too slowly to head off catastrophic global warming.
Cross-border cooperation has historically been scant, undermined by low trust, ideological differences and the lack of government presence.
Members of ACTO – convening for only the fourth time in the group’s existence – demonstrated on Tuesday they aren’t fully aligned on key issues. This week marks the first meeting of the 45-year-old organisation in 14 years.
Forest protection commitments have been uneven previously, and appeared to remain so at the summit.
All the countries at the summit have ratified the Paris climate accord, which requires signatories to set targets for reducing greenhouse gas emissions.
Lula has said he hopes the document will be a shared call to arms at the COP 28 climate conference in November.
Sharing a united voice could help Amazon countries assert their position on the global stage ahead of the COP conference.
“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.
The summit is something of a dress rehearsal for the 2025 UN climate talks, which Belem will host.
The leaders have called wealthy nations to help fund efforts to protect the Amazon, given that the forest is a vital carbon sink, home to an estimated 10 percent of Earth’s biodiversity.
Colombia’s 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.
Bolivian President Luis Arce said the Amazon has been the victim of capitalism, reflected by the runaway expansion of agricultural borders and natural resource exploitation. He noted that industrialised 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.