The leaders of eight Amazon rainforest nations are meeting this week in Brazil to tackle pressing challenges facing the critical ecosystem.
Representatives from Bolivia, Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador, Guyana, Peru, Suriname and Venezuela will join the two-day meeting of the Amazon Cooperation Treaty Organization (ACTO), which kicks off on Tuesday in the northern Brazilian city of Belem.
The summit come just months after Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva took office, promising to get Amazon deforestation down to zero by 2030 after years of destruction and largely unchecked development under his predecessor Jair Bolsonaro.
Lula said last week that the meeting will seek to draw up a common policy for the first time to protect the rainforest.
“I have high expectations for this summit,” he said. “For the first time, we are going to have a common policy for the Amazon for preservation, security, borders.”
Here’s all you need to know:
Why is the Amazon so important?
The Amazon – a massive rainforest twice the size of India that sprawls across eight countries and one territory – is a crucial carbon sink, absorbing carbon dioxide emissions, which are driving the climate crisis.
Atmospheric chemist Luciana Gatti, a researcher for Brazil’s National Institute of Space Research, said deforestation leads to more greenhouse gases in the atmosphere and generally means reduced rainfall and higher temperatures.
“By deforesting the Amazon, we are accelerating climate change,” Gatti told The Associated Press.
She co-authored a study published in the journal Nature that found that the heavily deforested eastern Amazon has ceased to function as a carbon absorber and is now a carbon source. Gatti said half of the deforestation in the eastern Amazon needs to be reversed to maintain the rainforest as a buffer against climate change.
What are the main threats to the rainforest?
Deforestation has been the main threat to the Amazon, particularly in Brazil, which is home to about two-thirds of the rainforest.
Bolsonaro, who was in office from the beginning of 2019 to the end of 2022, had pushed for greater economic development in the region and curtailed the powers of the environmental and Indigenous affairs departments. He faced widespread criticism from rights groups that said his policies resulted in a surge in deforestation and violence against Indigenous communities.
The Amazon biome has lost more than 85,000sq km (328,000sq miles), or about 13 percent of its original area, according to the Monitoring of the Andean Amazon Pact. And carbon emissions from the Amazon increased by 117 percent in 2020 compared with the annual average for 2010 to 2018, the latest figures from researchers at Brazil’s national space agency showed.
Cattle ranching and soybean farming have expanded dramatically thanks to new technology, highways, and global demand for grain and beef.
Nowhere is the devastation more sweeping than in the Brazilian state of Para, where Belem is the capital. Forty-one percent of deforestation in Brazil’s Amazon has come in Para, where so much land has been converted to run about 27 million head of cattle that it is the leading emitter of greenhouse gases among Brazilian states, according to the Climate Observatory, a network of environmental nonprofit groups.
Other environmental threats are large hydroelectric dams, especially in Brazil; illegal logging; mining; and oil drilling, which also cause water contamination and disruption of Indigenous ways of life. Underinvestment in infrastructure also means much of the sewage from homes in the rainforest flows directly into waterways.
What will be discussed at the summit?
The leaders at this week’s talks – the first summit of the Amazon Cooperation Treaty Organization since 2009 – are due to discuss strategies to fight deforestation and organised crime.
They will also seek sustainable development for the region, which is home to 50 million people, including hundreds of Indigenous groups seen as crucial to protecting the rainforest.
The summit will conclude with a joint declaration, expected to be “ambitious” and set out “an agenda to guide countries in the coming years”, said Brazilian foreign ministry official Gisela Padovan.
Brazil’s Environment Minister Marina Silva also told the Reuters news agency last week that the summit participants are aiming to set up a scientific body like the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change to share research on the Amazon.
The panel would help produce sustainable development policies for the countries of the region while remaining independent of governments and will monitor the impact of climate change on the Amazon rainforest and ecosystem, Silva said. It would also seek to determine the limits of what scientists call the “point of no return” when the rainforest is damaged beyond repair.
What challenges do the countries face?
A debate over drilling for oil near the mouth of the Amazon River, where Brazil is weighing whether to develop a potentially huge offshore oil find, has sparked fierce infighting in Lula’s government, pitting advocates for regional development against environmentalists.
Asked whether oil would factor into an accord at the summit, Brazilian diplomats told reporters last week that a joint statement was still being negotiated and economic development more broadly was under discussion.
At a pre-summit meeting last month, Colombian President Gustavo Petro pushed his Brazilian counterpart to block all new oil development in the Amazon. “Are we going to let hydrocarbons be explored in the Amazon rainforest? To deliver them as exploration blocks? Is there wealth there, or is there the death of humanity?” Petro asked in a speech alongside Lula.
For his part, Lula pushed at the meeting in Leticia, Colombia, for all countries in the region to pledge an end to deforestation by 2030. Only Bolivia and Venezuela have not yet made such a commitment.
Other differences that could surface at the summit are more subtle disagreements about priorities. Top of the agenda at the pre-summit meeting was cross-border collaboration to address the rising threat of drug traffickers perpetrating environmental crimes in the Amazon.
What have rights groups said?
Ahead of the summit, more than 50 environmental groups called on the region’s governments to adopt a plan “to stop the Amazon from reaching a point of no return”.
The petition, published by the Climate Observatory, called on countries to join Brazil’s pledge for zero illegal deforestation by 2030, strengthen Indigenous rights and adopt “effective measures to fight environmental crimes”.
The environmental group WWF-Brazil also urged summit participants to come up with “a firm and ambitious declaration” for an action plan to end deforestation and illegal gold mining and “conserve 80 percent of the Amazon”.
“The recognition that stopping the Amazon tipping point is critical regionally and globally as it endangers the livelihoods of millions of people and the ecosystem services that sustain the environmental health of the entire South American continent,” the group said.