Emphasizing the pivotal role of the Amazon in climate negotiations is key to conservation efforts and sustainable development in the region. However, achieving this goal requires a shared vision among the Amazon countries and a focused approach to overcome implementation challenges in the face of growing illicit economies.
At the Amazon Summit in Belém do Pará and in various international climate meetings, including Climate Week in New York, the agenda on the future of the Amazon has regained prominence. This is largely thanks to the leadership of Brazil’s president, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, and Colombia’s president Gustavo Petro, despite their different approaches to oil and gas exploitation in the Amazon basin.
The widespread growth of illicit activities in all Amazon countries is limiting their ability to implement joint measures for conservation and sustainable development. Including the Amazon as an essential part of climate negotiations could help reach these objectives. To that end, a common vision is required through a systematic approach that combines political, economic, and social considerations.
Facing a point of no return
The Amazon basin is home to the planet’s most extensive tropical forests, serving as a crucial carbon sink to mitigate the effects of climate change. But alarming estimates by scientists from 2021 warn that the Amazon would turn the carbon sink into a carbon emissions source, with estimates that deforestation is nearing 20 percent, a point at which the region would lose its regenerative capacity.
This would lead to a point of no return with permanent change to the water cycle in the Amazon basin, resulting in extensive forest loss, drought, flooding, and a conversion to savanna ecosystems. This scenario would accelerate climate change at local and global levels, creating a catastrophic loss of biological diversity with devastating planetary impacts, especially for local populations.
Since Lula da Silva took office as President of Brazil, his progressive climate positions, as a global leader on the issue, have led to a reduction of deforestation levels in the Brazilian Amazon to the lowest level in six years, with a 33 percent drop in the first six months of his administration. This is a notable decrease despite the policies put in place by his predecessor, Jair Bolsonaro. Similarly, Colombia reported a positive decline in deforestation, which experts estimate has fallen by 26 percent in the Amazon in 2022 and by 29 percent for the country overall.
However, not all countries have demonstrated strong signs of a clear public policy commitment to fight deforestation and to conserve these vital ecosystems, let alone an energy transition policy. For instance, Peru, despite having ratified treaties and international agreements to fight deforestation, has not managed to reduce its deforestation rates, nor curb the encroachment of illicit economies. In 2022 alone, the Amazonas department experienced deforestation of over 6,000 hectares, which is a new upturn after the historic spike of 2020. These figures reflect weakened environmental institutions in the country, undermined by legislative proposals that run counter to the goals of environmental prevention and protection of Indigenous Peoples. Peru kept a low profile at the Amazon Summit, with no concrete proposals put forward.
The Belém Declaration: a step forward
During the Amazon summit, members of the Amazon Cooperation Treaty Organization (ACTO) signed the Belém Declaration, which includes 113 objectives and cross-cutting principles for implementation across 18 thematic areas. These objectives include strengthening cooperation against illicit activities, the creation of the Intergovernmental Scientific and Technical Panel for the Amazon to reduce deforestation, and establishing a working group to evaluate a financial mechanism for Amazon cooperation within the ACTO framework. This mechanism aims to facilitate cooperation and the allocation of non-reimbursable financial resources. The declaration sends a message to developed countries, urging them to finance tropical forest conservation and deliver the funds already pledged under the Paris Agreement commitments.
The Belém Declaration lacks specific targets to curb deforestation and growing illicit economies. In addition, the request by Indigenous Peoples representatives and civil society organizations to protect 80 percent of the Amazon by 2025 was not approved. There was also no consensus on the reduction of dependence on fossil fuels, nor on specific targets for the eight countries of the Amazon biome to begin a progressive change in their energy systems.
The Amazon basin countries have different approaches in this regard. Gustavo Petro was explicit in his position to prohibit fossil fuel exploration and exploitation throughout the Amazon, while Brazil continues to promote the development of hydrocarbon activities. Ecuador is a different case, as the country held a national referendum to keep the crude oil in the ground indefinitely in Block 43, which overlaps with the Yasuni National Park. Nonetheless, the Guillermo Lasso administration has repeatedly highlighted the economic losses that this decision will entail for the State and for local communities. The Peruvian government has also diverged from the objective of eliminating fossil fuel development, continuing instead to promote hydrocarbon exploitation and the development of new oil fields.
Seizing the opportunity of climate negotiations
“The global warming era has ended, and the era of global boiling has begun.” These alarming remarks by United Nations Secretary General António Gutérres amplified the call for renewed climate action and underscored the need to accelerate a just and equitable transition from fossil fuels to renewable energies, stopping the expansion of oil and gas and gradually eliminating carbon by 2040.
Gutérres’ declaration was a preamble for Climate Week, held in New York, leading up to the annual negotiations to be held at the next Conference of the Parties (COP), in less than two months in the United Arab Emirates, a country that has come under fire for being one of the largest fossil fuel producers in the world.
During Climate Week, President Petro shared his country’s approach, with Brazil and other ACTO member countries, to “revitalize the amazon rainforest,” emphasizing the need to allocate sufficient financial resources to “replace the productive and predatory activities that have taken place there.” Petro has also proposed swapping foreign debt for investment in Amazon conservation, a consideration included in the Belém Declaration.
Similarly, President Lula urged developed countries to meet their climate finance commitments, arguing that a USD100 billion funding plan was already insufficient to address the alarming rate of Amazon deforestation.
The remarks made by Colombia’s and Brazil’s leaders were geared toward attracting financial resources in the context of the upcoming COPs, especially COP30 in Belém do Pará in 2025. This may partly explain the reactivation of and efforts to shore up the institutional structures of the ACTO, and the need to develop a shared vision for governance in this biome, as well as joint initiatives with other tropical countries such as the Democratic Republic of Congo, and Indonesia.
The upcoming climate negotiations offer a unique opportunity for the Amazon basin countries to prevent the region from reaching the dreaded “point of no return” while securing the international financing needed. The Belém Declaration provides a good starting point. But its successful implementation hinges on the ability of ACTO countries to align objectives and set concrete joint minimum targets to curb deforestation and illicit activities, and to formulate security and energy transition policies. Coordinating these efforts presents a key challenge for the region, given the varying priorities and specific political, economic, and social contexts in each country.
From Declaration to implementation
While the Belém Declaration addresses crucial aspects of Amazon basin governance, successful implementation will require more than rhetoric and urgency alone. ACTO countries need to agree on a shared action plan that is applicable in each territory. There are still no region-wide strategies of this nature, meaning that the risk of reaching a point of no return is still afoot. Critical issues remain, such as rising deforestation in several countries, the encroachment of illicit economies in the Amazon basin, or rising violence in the triple border between Brazil, Colombia, and Peru, an area currently under dispute among various armed groups. In addition, governance problems erode states’ ability to implement effective strategies.
In part, ACTO’s historic passiveness and the limitations of the Belém Declaration in failing to enshrine concrete and ambitions commitments to reduce deforestation or gradually eliminate fossil fuels can be explained by each member country’s differing visions and capacity.
To build a common vision for the Amazon, the approach cannot be solely environmental; a system-wide view is needed, encompassing political, economic, and social factors. The level of consensus and engagement that the countries in the Amazon biome can reach and translate into an action plan for the Belém Declaration will be key for successful outcomes from the next COP, and to position the Amazon at the center of the global climate debate. To secure meaningful climate funds for the Amazon, the governments of the region must demonstrate firm and strategic commitments. They need to undertake coordinated strategies to guarantee the conservation and sustainable development of this essential biome for the global climate.