Lula Enlists Neighbors in Brazil’s Battle to Save the Amazon

The leaders of South America’s Amazon nations gathered in Brazil on Tuesday as President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva pushes for a united strategy to save the world’s largest rainforest — and pressures the planet’s richest countries to help.

(Bloomberg) — The leaders of South America’s Amazon nations gathered in Brazil on Tuesday as President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva pushes for a united strategy to save the world’s largest rainforest — and pressures the planet’s richest countries to help.

The Amazon Summit, a series of conferences and closed-door meetings, is taking place in Belem, the rainforest city that is slated to host the United Nations’ COP30 climate meetings in 2025. 

Presidents from Bolivia, Colombia and Peru, the prime minister of Guyana, and top officials from Ecuador, Suriname and Venezuela joined Lula for the first meeting of the eight-member Amazon Cooperation Treaty Organization since 2009. Leaders from other tropical forest countries, including Indonesia, Congo and the Republic of Congo, also planned to take part in the two-day event.

For Lula, the summit is part of a push to reclaim a leadership role for Brazil in global climate negotiations, a seat it largely abandoned under former President Jair Bolsonaro, who rolled back environmental protections and drew international scorn as rates of deforestation rose. Preliminary government data released last week showed that deforestation in the Amazon fell 66% in July from a year ago. 

Brazil has “managed to turn the sad page of its history,” Lula declared Tuesday morning, while also stressing that the need for regional and global cooperation on climate change has “never been so urgent.”

Read More: Rich Nations Must Meet $100 Billion Climate Goal: COP28 Director

After a day of presidential-level meetings, the nations inked a joint statement based on a proposal Brazil drafted in an effort to put the countries on the same page ahead of November’s COP28 climate talks in Dubai. Lula has indicated that he plans to use that event to convince wealthy countries to follow through on a stalled pledge to deliver $100 billion in annual climate aid to the developing world.

“Rich countries that have already destroyed their forests need to take responsibility for financing our efforts to protect our peoples,” Lula said earlier in the day.

Financial Aid  

In the 113-point text, the countries recognized the necessity of avoiding “a point of no return” in the Amazon, but did not make any binding commitments on hot-button issues like mineral extraction or an end to illegal deforestation, which Lula has pledged to do in Brazil by 2030.

They agreed to beef up safeguards and increase law enforcement cooperation in order to combat drug trafficking and environmental crimes. They also called for the creation of a financial mechanism to attract funding, particularly from regional and global development banks.

On the eve of the summit, a coalition of major financial institutions, including Brazil’s national development bank and the Inter-American Development Bank, pledged to support sustainable growth in the Amazon. The exact amount hasn’t been defined, but initial estimates suggest it could be as high as $25 billion, local newspapers reported.

That may also help generate the sort of private-sector financing environmental groups say is necessary to bolster foreign government aid Lula has secured, including hundreds of millions of dollars in pledged contributions from the US, UK and other nations to the Amazon Fund, a Brazil-led initiative that finances forest protection. 

Read More: Biden Seeks $500 Million for Brazil’s Amazon Rainforest in Gesture to Lula

The importance Lula is now placing on regional cooperation reflects Brazil’s belief that a united front can help attract additional funding and avoid future sanctions, said Matias Spektor, an international relations professor at the Getulio Vargas Foundation in Sao Paulo. 

“Coalition politics are back,” he said. “The rationale in Brasilia is that Brazil should not act alone.” 

Hard-to-Reach Consensus 

Consensus has long eluded the commodity-dependent region where about a third of the population lives in poverty and economic development remains the primary concern. And differences between the member nations made wide-ranging agreements — including a potential pledge to join Brazil’s goal of ending illegal deforestation by the end of the decade — unlikely as the summit began.

Colombia President Gustavo Petro highlighted “disagreements” between their policies in his opening remarks, while reiterating his call for bans on new oil exploration. Lula’s government has taken a more measured approach, seeking to balance future development with its environmental aims — and is currently mired in a dispute over state-controlled oil company Petrobras’s drilling plans near the mouth of the Amazon River.

Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro, meanwhile, oversees an oil-dependent economy and has shown little interest in curbing deforestation in the Amazon. He has also faced condemnation from the UN over human rights abuses related to the participation of state forces in gold mining.

Outside the event, dozens of Indigenous activists protested against resource extraction in the region. 

Inside, Peru President Dina Boluarte urged her counterparts to remember the “human face” of the Amazon, and called on the international community to make the well-being of the forest’s estimated 30 million inhabitants — and especially its Indigenous populations — its top priority.

Brazil Foreign Minister Mauro Vieira downplayed the differences, saying the statement showed that the region could work together to protect the environment.

“I’m confident that moving forward we in the region will be able to continue calling the world’s attention to the Amazon and the need for join actions,” Vieira said.

The agreements may allow for some progress to combat an uptick in violence and criminal activity that has plagued the Amazon. A UN report released in June indicated that significant parts of the forest are “wracked by a complex ecosystem of drug crime,” with proceeds from sophisticated trafficking operations funneling into illegal logging, ranching and gold mining.

Read more: Narco Laundering Threatens Amazon Amid Cocaine Boom, UN Warns

Lula has unveiled series of new environmental safeguards and deployed the military to target networks of wildcat miners on Indigenous lands. The agreement includes a plan to create a central police office in the Brazilian city of Manaus to foster law enforcement cooperation among the eight countries. 

Populations that face similar challenges throughout the region could benefit from a coordinated approach, said Beto Verissimo, the co-founder of Imazon, an environmental think tank in Belem.

With the joint agreement in hand, Lula is likely to continue pushing to convince Brazil’s neighbors that they are stronger as a bloc, especially amid debates over how much donor countries and major development banks should help fund green transitions in low- and middle-income nations.

The urgency of climate change means that “all the rules are being contested,” said Ilona Szabo, president of the Igarape Institute, a think tank in Rio de Janeiro. “Brazil is keen to negotiate the importance of the region.”

–With assistance from Guilherme Bento.

(Updates with details of joint declaration, Brazil foreign minister comments.)

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